Lesson one, lessen won

 (Alfred Sisley, The Bell Tower at Noisy-le-Roi, Autumn’: The Burrell Collection)

In the absence of coherent or effective guidance from government, people are edging back to offices, often cautiously or tentatively, not knowing what to expect, what is expected of them or how others will behave. The Librarian also ventures in, for the first time in eighteen months, to explore the lay of the land.

‘I think that’s “lie of the land”’, I say.

She thinks not. Naturally, having an iPad to hand, she looks the phrase up and begins reading: the current situation, the features of an area. Yes, yes. She gets to ‘North American: lay’ and I make a gesture intended to signify that I rest my case. It means the same thing, she explains, while I point out that we are not North American but English.

‘I’m receptive and welcoming to other cultures’, the Librarian remarks, clearly regarding this as a knockout blow.

Left with Harry the cat and the collected and uncollected works of Ford Madox Ford, I gauge the lie of the land. The first lesson of research is—there must be almost as many versions as there are researchers. One lesson could be: keep things tidy. Or, at least, tidy things up every so often. Lessening chaos, in fact. Lesson and its homophone, lessen, offer one of those minor distractions or deflections so necessary to the diversion from Work. Writers will often sharpen twenty pencils, polish windows, vacuum an already-vacuumed carpet, anything to put off the moment of naked confrontation with a naked sheet of paper. Thinking about words, though, is surely in a different category: a diversion that may prove productive, that may turn out to be no diversion at all, like Ford Madox Ford’s ‘digressions’.

(Research: lesson one)

These make a long, intricate—digressive—trail through his work. I first thought ‘path’ but a path, laid out, is very simple to follow; ‘trail’ implies a little more effort, a little more awareness. So the early Ford of the English Review period (1908-1910) praises, neither for the first nor the last time, Joseph Conrad and Henry James, as the pre-eminent imaginative writers of the day, in his view. But he goes on to point out: ‘The defect of each as an artist is his too close engrossment in the affair he has in hand. In each case this leads to what is called digressions.’ (A digression might be offered at this point by mentioning that on or beside the trail that the ‘digression’ hunter is cautiously negotiating, other figures may sometimes be glimpsed, pursuing an ‘engrossment’ trail.) Ford explains that James, in his desire ‘to build up round his figures an immense atmosphere of the complexities of relationships’, sometimes ‘loses hold’ of ‘the faculty of selection’. In Conrad, it leads to excessive ‘justification’ (another trail), the minute details deployed to thicken and strengthen the reality of the character or situation depicted, by a writer who—sometimes—seems not to know when to stop with those details.[1]

By the 1930s, considering the lengths to which the novelist must go to seize and retain the attention of a reader, Ford observed that: ‘Of course, you must appear to digress. That is the art which conceals your Art.’ Since the reader, ‘you should premise, will always dislike you and your book’, he or she will welcome a digression which countenances removing attention from the book, such as lunch or a ringing doorbell. So provide your reader with what appear to be digressions, Ford advises. ‘But really not one single thread must ever escape your purpose.’ and then: ‘I am—I may hazard the digression!—using that principle of technique in writing this book.’[3]

A few years later, noting how he wanted to inspire in his reader a sense of the whole sweep of the journey and inspire them with a ‘feeling of its oneness’, he offered an example of a digression serving practical and positive ends, recalling his time spent lecturing British troops and finding that ‘a sudden digression from the subject in hand would very much waken group attentions that were beginning to wander.’[4]

As to what lessons actually lessen: ignorance, darkness, certainly – until you reach that point at which you know just enough to begin to grasp how much there is to know and how little of it you will ever learn. This realisation may be a crushing disappointment or powerfully liberating, depending on character. Samuel Johnson might have looked into almost every book that came off the press: you will not. In a long lifetime of relentless, intensive reading, you could read perhaps half as many books as are published in a single year in the United Kingdom. The most accomplished linguist might hope to master well under 1% of the world’s languages. Henry Adams remarked that ‘the profoundest lessons are not the lessons of reason; they are sudden strains that permanently warp the mind.’[5]

(Henry Adams: photograph by Marian Hooper Adams)

Perhaps ‘warp’ is not that encouraging. Try Aldous Huxley: ‘The most important lesson of history . . . is that nobody ever learns history’s lesson.’[6] A more recognisable scepticism, even textbook stuff. Perhaps something a little more literary, then. Joan Didion: ‘My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.’[7]

Talking to a friend the other day, we were having that conversation, not new but perhaps more frequent lately, about the need for people who saw and felt and viewed and valued things as we did to stick together, to look out for one another and to stand up for what we believed in. I was reminded briefly of James Salter on Graham Greene, an observation more than forty years old that has not lost its relevance. ‘Like Malraux, he asks to be read as a political writer and has set his fiction firmly in that world. The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.’[8]

There’s a lesson we can all learn from. When I say ‘all’, of course, I mean those I want on my side.


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 89-90.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Henry James: A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1914), 161.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 192-193.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 46.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 108.

[6] Aldous Huxley, Science, Liberty and Peace (1947), quoted in Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 451.

[7] Play It As It Lays (1970), in Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, edited by David L. Ulin (New York: Library of America, 2019), 524.

[8] James Salter, ‘Like a Retired Confidential Agent, Graham Greene Hides Quietly in Paris’ (January 1976), in Don’t Save Anything: Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017), 29.

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