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O Unforgetting Elephant’

Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life

by Max Saunders
Oxford University Press, Volume II: 696 pp., $49.95

The back cover of the old Fifties Vintage paperback of Ford’s The Good Soldier has always made poignant reading. “Fifteen distinguished critics,” it begins, “have subscribed to a single statement concerning this remarkable novel.” Next comes the statement: “Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our century.” And then the names, from Leon Edel to Graham Greene, Jean Stafford to William Carlos Williams.

There is something both heroic and hopeless about this, as there was much that was heroic and hopeless about Ford himself. Fifteen critics ought to be better than five, but somehow the number overpleads. Then there is the statement itself. “One of the fifteen or twenty” simply can’t make up its mind—again, a very Fordian vacillation, but one which weakens rather than strengthens the claim: ah, so Joseph Henry Jackson thinks it’s in the top fifteen, but Willard Thorp only ranks it in the top twenty? “Produced in English” could have been suppressed; while “in our century” must have looked less than granitically certain when that century still had more than four decades to run.

Yet the statement remains poignant because you can hear the literary virtue behind it: look, we know this guy is good, so will you please, please read him? Ford has never lacked supporters, but has always lacked readers. In 1929 Hugh Walpole wrote that “there is no greater literary neglect of our time in England than the novels and poems of Ford,” to which Ford replied, “It is just that the public will not read me.” There are various overlapping reasons for this. He presents no usefully crisp literary profile: he wrote too much, and in too many literary genres; he fails to fit easily into university courses. He seems to fall down a hole between late Victorianism and modernism, between a childhood of being dandled by Liszt and seeing Swinburne gambol, to a later career as avuncular facilitator of Pound, Hemingway, and Lawrence. He also presented himself as an elderly party fading out before this new generation, which was probably a bad tactical move. In his 1927 preface to The Good Soldier, he writes of himself as an “extinct volcano,” someone “prepared to stand aside” in favor of the “clamorous young writers,” an old bird who had laid a Great Auk’s egg in the form of The Good Soldier and was happy to leave it at that. Yet 1927 was the year between the publication of the third and fourth volumes of his other masterpiece, Parade’s End. His bufferish pose was too convincing: Graham Greene wrote that “The death of Ford Madox Ford was like the obscure death of a veteran—an impossibly Napoleonic veteran, say, whose immense memory spanned the period from Jena to Sedan.” Today, Greene seems the more old-fashioned writer of the two. If ambitious novelists should all study The Good Soldier as an example of the possibilities of narrative (how dull that makes it sound), they would also do well to look at Ford’s life as a prime example of negative career management.

He had the sort of large, soft, bonhomous presence which provoked attack, and also a suffering gentlemanliness which declined to reply (this naturally provoked renewed attack). He quarreled endlessly with publishers: he regarded them as tradesmen and thought them impertinent for wanting to read his manuscripts before buying them. Even those who admired Ford were often irritated by him. Paul Nash called him “Silenus in tweeds.” Rebecca West said that being embraced by Ford was “like being the toast under a poached egg” (a simile which seems to imply a horizontality unclarified by Ford’s biographers). Both Lowell’s tributes to the “master, mammoth mumbler” are lapped with fondish mockery:

tell me why
the bales of your left-over novels
   buy
less than a bandage for your
   gouty foot.
Wheel-horse, O unforgetting
   elephant…

Those who weren’t fond of Ford were more than irritated. Hemingway—whom Ford had made the mistake of promoting—denounced him to Stein and Toklas as “an absolute liar and crook always motivated by the finest synthetic English gentility.” Once, when he was near Philadelphia, Ford applied to see the Barnes Collection. Admittedly (if characteristically) he made his approach through the wrong person; but tactical maladroitness alone cannot account for the ferocity of Dr. Barnes’s telegram from Geneva: “Would rather burn my collection than let Ford Madox Ford see it.”

He changed his name, from Hueffer to Ford; he changed his country of domicile more than once; he was sometimes more ambitious for literature than for himself. Even so, it is strange how completely he fails to blip on certain radar screens. Edmund Wilson scarcely mentions him in his journals and criticism: did he simply miss (or miss the point of) Parade’s End, despite sharing the war with Ford? Virginia Woolf and Orwell are silent. Waugh never mentions him in letters, journals, or criticism: this is even more peculiar than in Wilson’s case. Like Ford, Waugh wrote a book about Rossetti; while his Second World War trilogy, Sword of Honor, seems manifestly related to Ford’s First World War quartet, in its setting of marital warfare against the wider landscape of the real thing, and in its pitting of a vindictive, pursuing wife against an out-of-his-time gentlemanly husband. This Ford-forgettingness continues: a few months ago I had a conversation with an American writer friend about The Good Soldier which broke down when he said he’d always found the book’s humor deeply irritating. Having never found more than grim and sarcastic ironies in the novel, I was perplexed by this objection. Finally, it emerged that my friend thought we were talking about Schweik (and no, he hadn’t read The Good Soldier either).

At times Ford-neglect can drive the Fordophile to rage. I suspect that part of my prejudice against E.M. Forster derives from years of seeking Ford in bookshops and finding the shelf which ought to be devoted to him bending its belly instead with the works of his milksop contemporary. (I now have a further reason for prejudice: Forster called Ford “a fly blown man of letters.”) And even Ford’s supporters have done him disservices. Cyril Connolly allowed Ford into his club of The Modern Movement while patronizing him thoroughly in the process. (Perhaps Connolly was in some ways a shadow successor to Ford—critic, cosmopolite, literary eminent, facilitator, gourmet, fat man—except for one missing ingredient: talent for fiction.) Connolly airily dismissed what he called the “war trilogy.” This numerical error probably derives from Graham Greene, who despite honorable and consistent support for Ford still perpetrated one of this century’s major acts of literary vandalism (oh, all right, one of its fifteen or twenty major acts of literary vandalism) when he lopped off the quartet’s final volume in his 1963 Bodley Head edition. Greene claimed to be endorsing Ford’s wishes, yet Ford’s attitude to Last Post was characteristically ambivalent. In suppressing the final part Greene thought he was purging Parade’s End of sentimentality; in fact, he was just making it more Greenian.

And if supporters may unwittingly harm, so praise may work against you. In his 1927 preface to The Good Soldier, Ford recounts the story of an admirer telling him it was “the finest novel in the English language,” to which Ford’s friend John Rodker rejoined, “Ah, yes. It is, but you have left a word out. It is the finest French novel in the English language.” In a tauter, less authentic form—“the best French novel in the language”—this is regularly cited, in Lowell’s Life Studies, for instance. If readers can be put off by titles (I resisted The Catcher in the Rye for many years, imagining it to be a prairie baseball novel), so they can by hyping tags. What’s the point of writing a French novel in English, you might roughly ask. That’s a pretty fey thing to do, isn’t it? And not exactly entering a competitive field, either: What’s the second-best French novel in the language? What are the top “fifteen or twenty”?

France certainly provided The Good Soldier‘s point of emulative origin: “I had in those days an ambition,” wrote Ford subsequently, “that was to do for the English novel what in Fort comme la Mort, Maupassant had done for the French.” France also supplied some Troubadour traces and a great one-liner (“I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne”). But how “French” is it really? It’s clear that Ford took from Maupassant the theme of transgressive, emotionally incestuous passion (in Fort comme la Mort, that of a society painter for the daughter of his long-term mistress), a love that dares not speak its existence and chooses death instead. There is also a tonal parallel in the novels’ conclusions, which both shift into a heightened, operatic mode. Unlike Ford, however, Maupassant allows terror into his novel comparatively late; for three quarters of its length Fort comme la Mort is a sort of tranced, Degasian treatment of the society woman in late-nineteenth-century Paris, delighting in the “douces petites gourmandises” of feminine existence, and in the quadrille movements of what Maupassant calls “la fine fleur du high-life.”

Maupassant’s novel turns on the flaying difference between the easy love of youth and the desperate—the more desperate if unrequited and unwanted—love of age. “It’s the fault of our hearts for not growing old,” his hero-victim laments. This second element survives in Ford, even though his characters are younger. But what Maupassant “did for” the French novel in Fort comme la Mort was to introduce a compelling theme; his fictional handling of it is largely conventional. The Good Soldier is much less a social novel. The rapacious sexual progress (or hopeless sentimental blundering) of Edward Ashburnham, good soldier and model Englishman, takes place in festering privacy: initially among a tight Racinian quartet of expatriates at the German spa of Nauheim; ultimately, with Ashburnham’s ward Nancy Rufford. She is, perhaps, more than his ward: Max Saunders makes a strong case for the proposed transgression being incestuous. Ford also raises the stakes (compared to Maupassant) in madness and terror (and body count): one of his many audacities is to start at the highest emotional pitch and then keep raising it. Finally, the novel is profoundly English in its characters (even the American Dowells are such Anglophiles that their Americanness barely registers—indeed, this is a general fault in Ford, whose ear often failed him in America); and in its narrative technique, whose tortured evasiveness mirrors that English character.

Connolly praised The Good Soldier with idle words about its “energy and intelligence.” Looked at now, the novel barges its way into the modernist club for very different reasons: its immaculate use of a ditheringly unreliable narrator, the sophisticated disguise of true narrative behind a false façade of apparent narrative, its self-reflectingness, its deep duality about human motive, intention, and experience, and its sheer boldness as a project. Greene wrote in 1962: “I don’t know how many times in nearly forty years I have come back to this novel of Ford’s, every time to discover a new aspect to admire.”

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