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
less than a bandage for your
Wheel-horse, O unforgetting
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.”
Take that famous first sentence, one of high plangency and enormous claim: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The first part of the sentence takes our attention, and rightly so. It cannot logically be until the second reading (and it may not be until the third or fourth) that we note the falsity of the final word. Because it’s not a story the narrator has “heard.” It’s one in which he has participated, has been right up to his neck, heart, and guts in: he’s the one telling it, we’re the ones hearing it. He says “heard” instead of “told” because he’s affecting distance from his “tale of passion,” declining to admit complicity. And if the second verb of the first sentence of the book is unreliable—if it gives a creak under the foot as we put our weight on it—then we must be prepared to treat every line as warily: we must prowl soft-footed through the text, alive for every board’s moan and plaint.
This is a novel about the human heart. It says so on the first page. Yet the word is set differently in its first two appearances, once plainly, once between quotes. When is a heart not a heart? When it’s a medical condition, a “heart.” Ford plays for a while with this separation of meaning. We might expect that having a “heart” means that affairs of the heart are off-limits. But this is a false façade: it seems that the two characters who are at Nauheim for medical purposes—Florence Dowell and Edward Ashburnham himself—are the very two who are indulging their un-quote-marked hearts; while the two healthy onlookers, Dowell and Leonora Ashburnham, are the two with a different sort of heart trouble—hearts which are cold or killed. However, this paradox turns out to be a second false façade: Florence’s “heart” is a fake, a got-up condition to keep her husband out of her bedroom; while later on we learn (or seem to learn—there is a lot of seeming to learn in this novel) that Ashburnham doesn’t have a “heart” either: the Ashburnhams are in Nauheim because of Maisie Maidan, whom they have brought to the spa from India for treatment. She—Maisie—is (or seems to be) the only character in the novel who has a heart in both the amatory and the medical senses of the word. Not surprisingly, she is soon to die.
So the novel’s ordinary language reveals its strategy. It plays with the reader as it reveals and conceals truth. And part of Ford’s great achievement is to find the perfect voice for paradoxical narrative. He gives us a bluff, know-nothing narrator, one who forgets to tell us his name until the book is nearly over, who seems in his bumbling way to have spoiled his story on the second page by revealing that two of the four main characters are dead. He uses an armchair bore to tell a story of great subtlety; also one of deep emotional cruelty and pain. He deploys the natural narrative tropes and forgettings of a bad narrator to enrich the narrative, delay our understanding, and finally deliver to us the whole (or whole-ish) picture: in other words, he makes good narrative out of bad. Could Ishiguro write as he does without the example of The Good Soldier?
Ford also plays relentlessly on the reader’s desire to trust the narrator. We want—or want to want—to believe what we are told, and dummy-like we fall into every pit dug for us. Even when we know we can’t trust Dowell, we carry on doing so, to our cost. This trustingness before narrative recidivism has its counterpart within the novel, in Leonora’s trustingness before Ashburnham’s sexual recidivism. Of course, it is our own “fault” as readers: the hazard warnings are plain enough. “My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them.” “Was that last remark of hers the remark of a harlot, or is it what every decent woman…thinks at the bottom of her heart?” “Is all this digression or isn’t it digression?” Such items from the opening pages are more than indicators of Dowell’s candid indecisiveness. They establish the switchback rhythm of the whole book: they set up the pulse, the paradox, and the dualism of the story. Time and again a seemingly ordinary sentence will have contradicted itself by its end; there are sentences beginning “And” which offer no continuation from the previous sentence, but rather a denial; there are false abuttings and leaky grammatical joints. Ford also uses the “impossible” verb tense: “Supposing that you should come upon us sitting together,” Dowell says, when such a coming-upon could only have happened in the past.
So the prose’s dividedness points us directly to the towering either/ors of the story: Ashburnham as good soldier or plundering shit; Leonora as marital martyr or vengeful destroyer; the narrator as honest misprisioner or complicit evader, timid domestic dormouse or repressed homosexual swooner over Edward Ashburnham; and so on. There is the wider dividedness between social face and inner urging; between emotional expectation and emotional reality; between Protestant and Catholic (this part of the story seems artificial or underworked: it’s as if the Catholic element is mainly introduced to produce women of exceptional innocence and marital adhesiveness—and thus up the ante when they face the complexities and wiles of sex). Beyond this, the dividedness of the personality between the conscious and unconscious mind. And beyond all this, the realization that the answer to either/or may not be one or the other—is Ashburnham a deep sentimentalist, as Dowell constantly, indeed infuriatingly, insists, or a ruthless sexual predator?—but both. At the end of the novel, Nancy Rufford briefly emerges from deep madness to utter the word “Shuttlecocks,” which is understood as a brief lucid memory of how she felt she had been treated by the Ashburnhams. It is also the way the reader has been treated, soaring high between violent opposing bashes.
Ford’s masterpiece is a novel which constantly asks how to tell a story, which pretends to fail at narrative while richly succeeding. It also openly doubts what we easily think of as character. “For who in this world can give anyone a character,” Dowell asks at one point of Ashburnham (typically, there is a creak of the floorboard here as well: “give someone a character” offers the sense of “describe,” but also that of “give the social thumbs-up to”). Dowell’s answer to his own question is: “I don’t mean to say that one cannot form an average estimate of the way a person will behave. But one cannot be certain of the way any man will behave in every case—and until one can do that a ‘character’ is of no use to anyone.” Ford later refined and improved this line in The New Humpty-Dumpty, where it comes from the Duke of Kintyre’s mouth: “‘Any man,’ he said slowly, ‘is any sort of man, some time or another, you know.”‘ Ford’s approach is to get at character—and, more widely, truth—not just indirectly or contradictingly, but often by way of ignorance. As V.S. Pritchett put it: “Confusion was the mainspring of his art as a novelist. He confused to make clear.”
All this should give the critic pause: as you seek to clarify his art, do you not risk a reverse process which ends in further confusion? While for the biographer there are whole separate levels of potential confusedness. Ford was one of the least reliable witnesses to his own life: “the most superb liar of our time,” Herbert Read called him admiringly. He was a role-player, a bluffer, a tease. He would tell you things, believing them and not believing them himself, and expect you also to believe them and not believe them. He would tell you that he had helped Marconi flash the first wireless message across the Atlantic; that Henry James had come to him, “tears in his eyes,” asking for help with a novel; that Escoffier had admitted, “I could learn cooking from you, Ford.” Meeting Sherwood Anderson in Paris, he conjured up for his indigent colleague a well-appointed, fully staffed house in the hills of Pennsylvania, whose free use he offered. Anderson’s gratitude spurred Ford to produce, over the course of the evening, further completely imaginary houses in Florida and California. Read claimed that Ford never lied maliciously; though there is no obvious benignity in falsely housing the homeless. He certainly lied self-inflatingly: in his elaborate fantasies he was always the transport officer who “really” led his battalion over the top, never the battalion commander who was “really” a humble transport officer. (In this he resembled those who claim to remember their previous incarnations: somehow they have always been glamorous cup-bearers at Cleopatra’s court—if not Cleopatra herself—rather than street-sweepers or torture victims.)
Ford was also surrounded in his life by witnesses who are either silent, or self-interested, or just as unreliable as he was. It would, for example, be a juror’s nightmare to be charged with locating a simple truth among the conflicting accounts of their life together given by Ford and Violet Hunt. The reader of Ford’s biography is always deeply relieved when Hunt gives way to Stella Bowen; not just sentimentally, since for the next stretch of his life old Fordie will be happier and less persecuted, but also in terms of narrative reliability. Bowen’s voice is clear and convincing: there is probably nothing more moving in the whole of Max Saunders’s two volumes than her truthful, honorable, heart-wrenched farewell to Ford.
Ford kept no diaries and few letters; he rarely discussed intimacies. Yet he was also a voluminous autobiographer. This fact in itself would give any subsequent biographer trouble; how can you hope to match the brio and the vivid talky presence, let alone the irrefutable fact that the guy was present at his own life and you weren’t? Worse, Ford was a genre-crosser whose autobiographies were a sort of fiction (just as his biography of Conrad was a “novel”), a palimpsester who told the same story again and again but never in quite the same way. He believed in what he called the “true truth” of the matter, the veritable heart of things rather than the dull factual cladding. As a biographer, you are in danger of being profoundly irritated: Arthur Mizener in The Saddest Story was led into a relentless pursuit of Ford’s reprehensible “inaccuracies.” If your sympathy is marathon, as it is with Ford’s current biographer Max Saunders, you will prefer to speak of the “imagination’s restlessly transformative power.” You will say that this means “asking less whether what Ford said is true, and more what it means.”
This is laudable, and more biographically useful, though it is also a slight false façade, hiding the subsidiary question: but is what Ford means true? So: we chuckle at the nerve of Ford, pig-raiser, vegetable-grower, and talented saucepan-wielder that he was, boasting of Escoffier’s envy. It wasn’t true; but what does it mean? Presumably, we allow for exaggeration, and deduce that Ford was pretty proud of his culinary skills at a time when comparatively few men were domestic cooks. But this merely makes us want to know how true his self-judgment was. In August 1937, in Boulder, Colorado, he cooked chevreuil des prés salés. Robert Lowell, who was there, said nearly a quarter of a century later that it was the best dinner he had ever had. (He also noted a proper Fordian ambivalence: “You never realized that the venison was mutton.”) Which poses further questions: How reliable a scoff-witness was Lowell; and is the disguise of mutton as venison a sign of art, or inauthenticity, in a cook? Even if we allow sympathetically for Ford’s devotion to the “true truth,” the basic biographical questions do not go away.
For instance, in Ford’s dedicatory letter to “Stella Ford” (a fictional name, since she was never “Stella Ford” in legal, as opposed to true, truth) in the 1927 edition of The Good Soldier, he wrote: “The story is a true story and…I had it from Edward Ashburnham himself,” although “I could not write it till all the others were dead.” Even if such a statement invites suspicion—and is reminiscent of Conrad as an authenticating trope—the question of who Ashburnham “was” (if he was anyone) is a matter of prime interest. The trail leads first to Ford’s The Spirit of the People, published eight years before The Good Soldier, which contains a story about a couple of “good people,” Mr. and Mrs. P—-, with whom Ford says he once stayed. Also in the house was Miss W—-, the husband’s ward; Mr. P—- fell in love with her, never spoke of his love, and packed her off (to India?), only for her to die at Brindisi on the way out. There are various key consonances with The Good Soldier (the emotional situation, the farewell scene at the station, Brindisi). However, we are dealing with Ford, and therefore this supposed germ of the later work is perhaps no more reliable than the idea of Escoffier bending the knee to the amateur cuisinier. The fact that Ford published the story earlier should not lull us into treating it as corroboration: he could have made it up even then; or made it up then and truly believed it later.
The search for the “real” Ashburnham also provides a moment of exquisite biographical frustration. Saunders asked Janice Biala, Ford’s last companion, if she had any clue to the identity of the original participants. She replied “that Ford once told her the names of the people, but she could no longer remember them.” Saunders puts on his bravest face at this point: “Ford argued that not knowing biographical details enhances our appreciation of art, and this is a case in point. For if we knew the name of a real person who had really fallen in love with his ward, our attention would be deflected from The Good Soldier.” This is noble rather than convincing: Saunders would have hardly have suppressed the true name of Mr. P—- had he discovered it; and the rest of the book is presumably written in disagreement with Ford’s precept, since Saunders, who plainly loves Ford, would hardly want to deflect our attention from an appreciation of the novelist’s art.
Ford’s was an intensely literary life, in its origins, deeds, companionships, and fine detail. It seems entirely appropriate that his commanding officer was called Alexander Pope; that one of his daughters lived with a certain Charles Lamb; that when he shot rats it was with a rifle called a Flobert; and that the toad which burglarized his marrow frame looked just like Henry James. More centrally—and more problematically for the biographer—it was intensely literary in its complete lack of a demarcation line between the lived life and the written word. This is never a clear area, but most writers erect a token customs post, even if they themselves rarely bother to show their passport. In Ford’s head, life and literature were part of the same Zollverein. Nor was this a matter of the subsequent confusion of what he had first lived with what he had later written. In 1899, after his quasi-elopement with Elsie Martindale, he went to see Olive and Edward Garnett; Olive wrote in her diary that Ford had described the adventure “as if it were in someone else’s novel.”
And if life can immediately become text, then text can slowly become life. Great Trade Route of 1937 contains what Saunders calls “the extreme form of Ford’s claim for literature.” Here he recalls lying on a piece of downland above Lewes “twenty-five years ago,” staring at the sky and watching drift above him “frail, innumerable, translucent, to an immense height, one shining above the other, like an innumerable company of soap bubbles—the globelike seeds of dandelions, moving hardly perceptibly at all in the still sunlight. It was an unforgettable experience…. And yet it wasn’t my experience at all.” He had never lain on that downland—“And yet,” he adds pleadingly and perhaps necessarily, “I am not lying!” What he means is that there is just such a description in W.H. Hudson’s Nature in Downland. So a memory in 1937 of a memory of circa 1912 of having read Hudson’s book in the 1890s produces the same effect of reality in his head as did “my first sight of the German lines from a down behind Albert in 1910.” This, concludes Ford, is what the artist does—give the world experiences which are not vicarious but seamless with “real” experience. It also gives the biographer nightmares.
Allen Tate, writing in these pages in 1963, said: “Ford’s best biographer will understand at the outset that Ford himself must be approached as a character in a novel, and that novel a novel by Ford.”* He also gloomily noted “the staggering disproportion between the number of books about Ford and the number of his own books…in print,” which he called “an anomaly of Anglo-American literary history.” The anomaly continues: for instance, the First World War novel No Enemy has still never been published in Britain; though some of Ford’s lesser-known titles have struggled back into print on both sides of the Atlantic, and at least Parade’s End is now generally available as a quartet. But the books about Ford continue unabated: five substantial biographies—MacShane, Mizener, Moser, Judd, and Saunders—have appeared since Tate wrote his prescription. All have faced that great capering beast—“O unforgetting elephant”—and wondered what to do. Should you capture impressionistically the waving trunk and swaying motion, or seek to stun the thing with a dart and then measure every centimeter of the recumbent body? Alan Judd takes the former, Tateian approach: “novelistic,” Saunders calls him, a semi-put-down which precedes approval of specific insights. Judd offers well-paced narrative, shrewd character-work, decent prose, and a constant sense of the life being lived; though he is weak and unoriginal on Ford’s work, and repeats earlier errors.
Saunders’s massive work has quite opposite virtues: it is scholarly, careful, and grinds exceedingly fine. The pulse of Ford’s actual life often vanishes completely for long stretches; on the other hand, the books are given the primary weight. It is in effect a reference biography, something you will take down in the future to check the plot of that still-unavailable novel, a book difficult to read as one normally reads books; and certainly a biography to put a stop to further Ford biography for quite some time. All the known knowledge—if not all the true truth—is here. About the only thing Saunders could have told us but doesn’t is the brand of beer which Ford surprisingly helped advertise toward the end of his life.
Judd, justifying his Tateian venture, points out that Ford hated academic discussion of his work, and quotes a splendidly Fordian dismissal of critics as a breed. “I mean,” he said in an article for Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, “that it is an easy job to say that an elephant, however good, is not a good warthog; for most criticism comes to that.” This might seem like a strike against the sort of biography Saunders proposes; but Ford wouldn’t necessarily have smiled any more on the Judd approach. In religion Ford was an Albigensian, believing (as Judd writes) that “Christ was an angel with a phantom body who thus did not suffer or rise again and whose redemptive work consisted only of His teaching.” In art Ford was the equivalent of an Albigensian, namely a Flaubertian, believing in the primacy of the work and the desired incorporeality and invisibility of the writer. This is a creed long since declared heretical by the Church of Biography. So, in a way, Judd’s warm recreation of the man is more disobedient than Saunders’s extensive celebration of the work.
A typical Judd remark, of the 1908 novel Mr. Apollo, is: “It is probably of interest mainly to the enthusiast.” Saunders is that enthusiast, and a most intelligent and defending one. He is also well aware that his vast project is proceeding under Ford’s distrusting eye. But his basic position is correct and pro-Fordian. If biographical criticism “uses fiction to explain life, life to explain fiction,” it’s the case that most biographers prefer the second approach to the first. This frequently leads to reductivism and a diminution of the work; also a diminution of the life, since the work is often discussed as a way of making up for, and making art out of, the supposed inadequacies of the life. Saunders states firmly that “the oeuvre should be where a truly critical biography begins and ends,” and notes refreshingly that “the most important events in his life are his creations.” This makes sense in Ford’s case, since much of his life is either undocumented, irrecoverable, or trampled over so many times by his fictional and autobiographical footprints that no clear thin original path can be traced. Nor is Ford the only trampler. Discussing Ford’s attraction for Janice Biala, Saunders writes, “Mary McIntosh said Biala told her: ‘I have looked all my life for a man with a mind as old as my own and what difference does it make if, when I find the man, he has a pot belly?’ Sixty years later she thought she hadn’t said it.” This is a very Fordian moment.
Saunders is agreeably sharp about biographical “sourcery,” the assumption that the novelist’s imagination works rather like a paint-mixing machine: a squirt of Violet, a dash of Edith, a base of Stella, bung them in the centrifuge, give them a whirl, and there you have her—your new heroine. Such sourcery also allows the unfriendly critic to put the novelist under a double accusation: both of not digesting experience, and of evading reality. (The family of Arthur Marwood managed to resent both Ford’s “inaccuracy” about Arthur in his reminiscences, and also his “accuracy” about the family in his novels. This is a bit like Zhdanov calling Akhmatova “both a slut and a nun.”)
But there is a reciprocal danger in Saunders’s approach, that of reverse reductivism: the tendency to conclude that because something is in the fiction, then it must have occurred in the life. Discussing Ford’s 1909 separation from his wife Elsie, Saunders finds himself writing: “A passage from his 1912 novel The New Humpty-Dumpty suggests that the separation was Elsie’s idea: the Fordian Macdonald dares his wife to deny that she suggested they should separate.” The “Fordian Macdonald” is as much a restrictive shorthand as would have been the “Macdonaldian Ford”; while it’s perfectly possible that Elsie never proposed the separation, that Ford was reversing or skewing or neatening reality, or that he made it up. This, after all, is why we are interested in him in the first place. Saunders is stern with critics who tot up the biographical components of Christopher Tietjens (Marwood, Ford himself, Masterman, F.S. Flint, and “even William of Orange”); but he is himself capable, in discussing The Marsden Case, of writing this: “In the figure of George’s father, Earl Marsden, Ford combines his memories of the deaths of five father-figures, three of them suicides: his father’s, Marwood’s, Ralston’s, and two other suicides: those of his father-in-law, and of the Frankfurt waiter.”
Ford’s life, as Saunders’s subtitle asserts, was riven with duality. He could twitch one ear while keeping the other one still. He could combine self-pity and self-aggrandizement without a hiccup. He both craved and feared publicity. He must be the only writer capable of publishing six books in the same year (1907) as he applied to the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance. He must be one of the few husbands subject to a court order at the start of his marriage forbidding him from having conjugal relations with his wife, and also to a court order at the end of it insisting that he perform them. Stella Bowen, when she first met him, thought he was a militarist; but as she recorded in her memoir, Drawn from Life,
If he was a militarist, he was at the same time the exact opposite. When I got to know him better, I found that every known human quality could be found flourishing in Ford’s make-up, except respect for logic…. He could show you two sides simultaneously of any human affair, and the double picture made the subject come alive, and stand out in a third-dimensional way that was very exciting.
Thus human duality, self-contradictoriness, indecision, lying, are sources of artistic fecundity: flat surfaces produce a pop-up book, two sides suggest a third dimension. Dowell tells us at the start of The Good Soldier that his narrative motivation is the normal one for people in his position: a desire “to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.” A riven motive: he records in order to remember, but also in order to forget. A huge duality lies behind Parade’s End as well: the story of a soldier who goes to the public arena of war to forget his private business, only to find that marital squeaks can drown the sound of gunfire.
Duality, however, implies a certain neatness, a robust and creative sense of the other. Few lives are really like this, and Ford’s less than anyone’s. Believing everything and its opposite makes the brain a whirligig rather than a neat system of double-entry bookkeeping. (Though there were uncomplicated areas: Bowen recalled that “his attitude to science was very simple. He just did not believe a word of it.”) In his amatory life Ford displayed that well-known trait of never leaving a woman until he could jump to another—perhaps a kind of duality—except that when the moment came he often declined to jump. The breakdown of his marriage left him in a weird legal-religious bind: he, a Catholic, kept trying to divorce Elsie, a non-Catholic, who kept refusing his plea with the implacability of a Catholic. When his desire for Violet Hunt was waning and she said to him accusingly, “I suppose you want adventure,” he replied, “If I could have another woman I might desire you.” This may sound like another painful example of duality, but Ford’s emotional life is better described as Another Fine Mess. When he broke with Stella Bowen in favor of Janice Biala (while still being married to Elsie), he made Stella an offer of Fordian complexity whose only virtue was that its tortuousness invited refusal: he proposed getting a Mexican divorce from Elsie so that he could marry Stella now that he was leaving her for Janice. Fortunately, Bowen and Biala seem to have had enough common sense and emotional maturity to sort out old Fordie. Biala told Bowen: “I had more respect for him, because he’s had a woman like you.” And when Bowen lay dying of cancer in 1947, she sent for Biala as being the only person she could talk to about her “real” life. By which, presumably, she meant her life with Ford.
A final Fordian moment, for those who know that fiction is about transforming life rather than disguising autobiography. The novelist who wrote that grand romantic line, a line both heroic and hopeless, “I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne,” had visited the city a couple of years earlier in the company of Violet Hunt. And what had he found there? “Rabies and snow.”
January 9, 1997