His tongue partly in his cheek – realism or not

White

On 14 June 1940, T. H. White, who had been in Ireland since the previous year, wrote from Healion’s Hotel, Belmullet, Co. Mayo, to his friend David Garnett. ‘Ireland is in a most amusing condition just now. Everybody has noticed in the last 3 days that there is a war on: it is too ridiculous.’ He went on: ‘Lord Dunsany said to me six months ago that we are like children on the beach at Howth, quarrelling about what shape our sand castle is to be, while all the time the tide is coming in.’ Then: ‘I wonder if I wrote to you about Dunsany? I made friends with him when I was in Meath. He is not a patch on his wife, who remarked in a tone of acute nostalgia, à propos of a Daimler which they had once owned: “Ah, that was a splendid car. It was simply riddled with bullets.”’[1]

White had lunched with Lord Dunsany at Dunsany Castle, ‘an ugly Victorian gothic structure in a very beautiful park’, and thought him ‘a decent, amusing, interested, selfish, vain, enlightened fellow’.[2]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(Via www.buildingsofireland.ie )

Dunsany died in 1957, having published more than ninety books in practically every genre, though he was best-known as a writer of fantasy, his most celebrated title being The King of Elfland’s Daughter. He had been a significant donor to the Abbey Theatre, worked with Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, and his work was extraordinarily well-regarded in the period of the First World War.

In November 1953, White, now living on Alderney, wrote to Garnett about the recently published The Golden Echo, the first volume of Garnett’s autobiography.

‘Far the best of your character pictures are of course the safely dead: Lawrence and the charming Ford.’ He added, ‘If there is a chance in the next volume, do give us some more of Ford’s relative truths. What a kinship I feel for him! All my truths are relative. He must surely have had his tongue partly in his cheek?’[3]

David-Garnett

(David Garnett)

Partly often, yes, and wholly sometimes. To what extent, I wonder, when he used the occasion of reviewing Dunsany’s Five Plays for a prolonged meditation on realism, in the course of which he produced one or two of the critical remarks most often revisited by Ford enthusiasts.

Passing general remarks about Ireland and the Irish is risky at the best of times but in the spring of 1914, it was frankly hazardous. Ford declared that while the Irish were as humourless and joyless and materialist as anyone else, they had impressed upon ‘the bemused world’ the conviction that all the Irish ‘are passionate pilgrims journeying through a material world with their eyes on the great stars of heaven, with the verses of the old poets on their lips and gallant thoughts in the hearts of them’.[4]

All this was a disquisition on literary technique, Ford went on, ‘for what is literature but the producing of illusions?’ And, ‘for the producing of an illusion there is nothing like an Irishman.’ Dunsany’s great conjuring trick for Ford was to imagine himself ‘to represent the revolt against realism’, while in fact he did nothing of the sort, ‘since he is one of the chief realists of them all.’ And ‘we need realists very badly, because this world is so much too much with us. It is too much with us, and it is an extraordinarily unreal mirage. Yes, just a mirage.’ Ford describes the stones in the drive, a broken bucket in the orchard, the rain against the window, the baker coming in at the front gate. ‘But all that is really mirage; there is nothing real about the stones or the discarded bucket, or the rain, or the baker coming in at the gate. Myself, my own self, is miles away – thirty miles away, thinking of things how different – how utterly different!’

Ford Madox Ford, 1915
Ford Madox Ford, 1915

(The good soldier via NYRB)

And the future is to ‘the artist who, by rendering the stones and the bucket and the baker and the Daily Telegraph that is lying on the sofa, will give the world the image of that kingdom of heaven that is behind it all.’

‘I rather fancy’, Ford remarks, ‘that the Cubists and the Futurists and the rest of the movement that is trying to get away from representational art are trying to put the kingdom of heaven too directly on to canvas’.

Yes, the way to heaven is via the earth; the way to transcendence is via the real. Begin with the fantastic and you find you’re holding a one-way ticket ­– fine if that was the plan, if not, not. I’ve always liked realism plus, the world that seems solid enough, seems familiar enough, until you try to lean on it. With a little of what Muriel Spark called ‘the mental squint’. And Ford, with the body in one place and the mind somewhere quite other. Or, indeed, Mr Joyce, Mr Germ’s Choice, whose great novel is – what, precisely? Modernist, realist, naturalist, expressionist, surrealist, symbolist, postmodernist, mythic, epic, not a novel at all. If Dublin were destroyed in an earthquake, it could be rebuilt using Ulysses as a blueprint, its author thought. Yes, realism with a reach like that.

References

[1] David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 70.

[2] Letter to Ray Garnett, in The White/ Garnett Letters, 45; Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 141.

[3] The White/ Garnett Letters, 264.

[4] All quotations from Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits-XXXI. Lord Dunsany and “Five Plays”, Outlook, XXXIII (11 April 1914), 494-495; reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 142-146.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s