In Print

Just remember

By Tony Omer - September 28, 2006

"Forgetfulness" by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin. 2006. 277 pages. $25.

Our little Island is flush with writers, not only writers of letters to the editor and journal keepers, not only bloggers and closeted novelists, but successful, nationally and internationally respected journalists, historians, academicians, and novelists. Among the very best of the novelists is Ward Just. His books include the National Book Award finalist "Echo House" and last year's "An Unfinished Season," winner of the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His latest is "Forgetfulness."

Ward Just fell in love with the Vineyard or more specifically Lambert's Cove while visiting friends in 1968. He was then working as a reporter for the Washington Post. In 1979, Ward and his wife Sarah Catchpole rented a house in Longview for a month. In 1980, they rented a house on Lambert's Cove Road. The house went up for sale the following year, and they bought it. After a six-year sojourn in Paris, they returned to the Vineyard in 1992 and have lived here since, except for a couple of months they spend in Paris every year. "Echo House" and "An Unfinished Season" both are set in The United States. "Forgetfulness" is set in Just's getaway, France.

Forgetfullness by Ward Just
Forgetfullness by Ward Just

Ward Just's 14 previous books have been primarily about specific ideas. They are stories artfully woven around concepts, both personal and political. "Forgetfulness" continues in this tradition, but the concepts here are often a bit obscure, open to interpretation. The story line is developed often through remembrances of simple events that, by their recitation, define the characters, the ambiance, emotion, motivation and the story itself. It is all written in Just's hauntingly descriptive style that make his stories seem as if they could be coming from your own dreams.

The story begins with an accident in snow covered Andalusia and an apparent act of gratuitous violence by outsiders. The main character is American ex-patriot and artist Thomas Railles, and the opening scenes of the novel are presented through the eyes of his wife Florette, who falls, injuring her leg. Four men, "strangers, dubious men who did not belong here" discover Florette and appear to help her but ultimately murder her in the woods. The French government labels her murder "a terrorist act."

Author Ward Just. Photo by Nina Bramhall
Author Ward Just. Photo by Nina Bramhall
Florette's death occurs while Railles is meeting with two friends from his youth, Bernhard and Russ. The men are more than just friends; they are longtime CIA operatives who have used Thomas on occasion as a spy. Thomas initially fears that Florette's death is an act of retribution for some previous act of espionage. Bernhard and Russ promise Thomas that they will keep him inside the loop on the investigation into his wife's murder. The story raises contemporary issues of faith, nationality, allegiance, revenge, and forgiveness.

The great Argentine literary critic and man of letters Jorge Luis Borges was primarily a man of ideas. His once popular book, "Labyrinths - Selected Stories & Other Writings," is a simple exposition of a number of very specific ideas, some in short story form. One of my favorites is his story entitled, "Funes the Memorious," a tale of a man who remembered every aspect of every second of every day he lived. Borges wrote in that story, "I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence."

If thought requires forgetfulness, then what we remember becomes of utmost importance. "Forgetfulness" is a story that will be remembered as the questions it raises swirl around the cavernous recesses left by what we have forgotten.

Author Ward Just will be signing his book on Saturday, Oct. 7, at Edgartown Books on Main Street. For more information, call 508-627-8463.