Ford Madox Ford was a man full of contradictions. His name sounded thoroughly English and he considered himself to be the last Tory; during World War I he said that he never felt so calm as when he wore the King’s uniform. In fact, however, his father was a German émigré, Francis Hueffer, and Ford himself was known as Ford Madox Hueffer until he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford by deed poll on June 4, 1919, as a way of downplaying his German origins. He was obsessed with ideas of what gentlemen do and do not do and he sometimes claimed that he was descended from German barons, but in fact his Münster family members were (and still are) publishers and printers.
He was an inveterate liar—or rather what the French call a mythomane, which suggests someone who exaggerates for the love of the legend and not for any direct personal gain. Or perhaps he “lied” only because he wrote so fast that he couldn’t recall what he’d already said about someone or an event. His politics were confusing. He wrote of “the true Toryism which is Socialism,” he opposed liberal democracy because it promoted plutocracy, and he had a sentimental, literary attachment to feudalism.
In many ways he can be seen artistically as the last and greatest heir to Henry James, who was a friend. Like James he often dictated all or part of his novels. He loved to play with point of view and the underlying motives of his narrator. His plots, like those of James, can sound melodramatic when summarized but in the actual telling they become so gauzy with subtlety that at moments the reader isn’t sure what exactly is going on. His characters, like James’s, are obsessed with jousting for position and often use sexual allure to gain the advantage, but they are just as likely to throw over everything out of excessive idealism.
The international theme, which fascinated James for the first half of his career, was also of great interest to Ford. After all, the narrator of Ford’s best novel, The Good Soldier, is an American who uses his American origins as an explanation of his not-quite-believable naiveté as he interacts with the wily English. There is a lot of dialogue in the fiction of both James and Ford and sometimes there are tense dramatic exchanges, full of sudden reversals, that sound scripted for the theater. One of Ford’s deepest regrets was that neither Conrad nor James, the two writers he most admired, had much respect for his work.
But if Ford is at the end of one tradition, the Jamesian, he is also at the beginning of another. As a poet he was an “imagist,” which meant that he often relied on free verse and direct sensory impressions presented in brief bursts, haiku-like, without interpretation. In prose he said he …
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‘The Finest Novel About World War I’ May 12, 2011