Difficult demands, corresponding charms

Macdonald-books

I drift back—early enough to cook the dinner—from a couple of days in California in the company of Ross Macdonald, not for the first time. The thirteenth occasion, I think. I must have seen, in a previous life, one of the films featuring Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer, either Harper (1966, based on The Moving Target) or The Drowning Pool (1975), both starring Paul Newman. There was a later film, Blue City (1986), based on an early Macdonald novel, not a Lew Archer book. But I only started reading Macdonald a few years ago, decades after going through the whole of Chandler and of Hammett (one of whose books made a strong impression on the sixteen-year-old Macdonald).

Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California, though his parents were Canadian. After a difficult childhood, he studied at the University of Western Ontario and eventually received a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1952: his dissertation was on Coleridge.

While I wait for The Archer Files to make its way through the postal system, I review my collection of Macdonalds: seven mass market paperbacks jostle the three handsome Library of America volumes which, between them, contain eleven full-length novels. The last of these, Four Later Novels, published this year, is a recent arrival on my shelves and awaits the week’s holiday towards the end of the year—probably, if I can last that long.

tspa_0099971f

(Kenneth Millar/ Ross Macdonald via Library of America)

Inclusion in the Library of America series probably hints at the status that Macdonald has achieved in the view of some influential readers, since The Goodbye Look (1969) prompted the New York Times Book Review notice by William Goldman (‘the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American’).

Thirty-three years before the first Library of America volume of Macdonald’s work appeared—the series was launched in 1982, with eight volumes published that year—Hugh Kenner published an essay, ‘Classics by the Pound’, which began by detailing some comparisons between the products of that list and ‘the esteemed French series Bibliothèque de la Pléiade’, not least the fact that early volumes suggest a tendency to play it safe, perhaps influenced too much by potential copyright problems with more recent writers. Kenner went on to remark that ‘one difference’ between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ross Macdonald was that Macdonald, ‘in devising his fables of modern identity, wrote them as things called “detective stories,” handled at Harvard with tongs’, while Stowe’s ‘famous eleven-Kleenex tract, sanctified by a testimonial of Lincoln’s, soars aloft into the Disneyfied sunsets of Literature.’ But, he added, a hundred years hence, should the Library of America series still be around, ‘it either will have atrophied into total irrelevance or else will have managed to embalm three novels by Ross Macdonald. Just watch. And you read it here first.’[1]

Kenner

(Hugh Kenner)

Ah, literary history. The friendship between Kenner and Macdonald dated back to 1950, when Kenner was teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Kenner acknowledged his gratitude to Macdonald—Kenneth Millar—‘for his patience in expunging the flaws from the manuscript’ of Wyndham Lewis (1954); Macdonald reviewed Kenner’s Gnomon and his The Invisible Poet (on T. S. Eliot), while Kenner would contribute a piece to a collection of essays, memoirs, poems and photographs, Inward Journey: Ross Macdonald, edited by Ralph B. Sipper, published in 1984.[2] But the friendship ran into trouble long before the Sipper volume.

Sleeping Beauty (1973), my most recent outing in the Los Angeles/Santa Barbara area, is one of his most intricately plotted, with the trademark Macdonald complexities of generations of family history, unsuspected interrelations, threatening secrets and vulnerabilities, this one set against the backdrop of a disastrous oil spill. (Macdonald was politically engaged and environmentally concerned: when an underwater oil well blew out off Santa Barbara in early 1969, both Macdonald and his wife, novelist Margaret Millar, took part in the ensuing protests.)

Sleeping Beauty is dedicated to Eudora Welty. Two years earlier, the New York Times Book Review had run, on its front page, Eudora Welty’s hugely positive review of The Underground Man. The two writers’ correspondence had begun the previous spring and would develop into a close personal relationship. In January 1973, following Welty’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line television programme, Macdonald mentioned that Buckley had recently been in Santa Barbara, ‘house guest of an old friend of mine, Hugh Kenner—a friendship that began to lose its virtue about the time that Hugh became literary godfather of the National Review, and has now eroded—but a friendship that I regret. In the late forties and early fifties Hugh and I taught each other a good deal, he more than I. Who is our most brilliant literary scholar? Alas, it is Hugh Kenner.—This summer he leaves Santa Barbara for Johns Hopkins.’[3]

Yes, that was the issue. Kenner had become friends with Buckley in the late 1950s and published his first contribution to Buckley’s conservative National Review in November 1957, his last more than forty years later. (My own knowledge of Buckley is pretty limited but I thought Best of Enemies, the 2015 documentary about the televised debates between Buckley and Gore Vidal in 1968 was tremendous: funny too.)

eudora-welty.paris.review

(Eudora Welty via The Paris Review)

Is there a Ford Madox Ford connection somewhere here—apart from Kenner? Indeed there is. In the spring of 1971, Welty mentioned to Macdonald that she was writing a review of Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford (‘I’m not sure if I can stand Arthur Mizener on Ford, anyway [ . . . ] I’ve been reading all the Ford I can, to get a little balance.’ In his reply, Macdonald mentioned having seen a part of the biography and being struck by ‘what seemed to me its rather dull antipathy towards its subject.’ And it’s true that, while Arthur Mizener made some valuable contributions to the body of biographical work on Ford, what queers the pitch is that he really disliked Ford and ends up not believing a word he says, hardly the best frame of mind to foster insight and understanding. Ford had to wait another couple of decades before Alan Judd and Max Saunders corrected the Mizener view.

Another of Macdonald’s friends was Richard W. Lid, whose book, Ford Madox Ford: The Essence of His Art had appeared in 1964, dedicated ‘To Kenneth Millar’. Macdonald’s letter went on to mention this: ‘Dick wrote his own book on Ford—an analysis of the major novels which I think is the best thing done on him so far. Could be I’m prejudiced: I worked on it with Dick—this in confidence—and in fact he dedicated it to me. So when you told me you were involved with Ford, it closed another circle, dear Miss Welty, with a tinkle. But it’s no coincidence, is it? All writers admire Parade’s End and love The Good Soldier, and hate to see them fall into fumbling hands, unimaginative hands.’[4]

Thanking him for his letter—and Macdonald’s own copy of Lid’s book which he’d sent her—Eudora Welty said it was just what she needed ‘at this very point, when Mizener in his jovial disparagement was about to get me down.’ She claimed to see the traces of Macdonald’s work on the chapter devoted to The Good Soldier, ‘in the awareness of what Ford is doing in that marvelous book’, adding: ‘I don’t need to tell you I undertook the review not for love of Mizener but for love of Ford.’[5]

Eudora Welty’s review of Mizener’s biography is included in The Eye of the Story, a selection of essays and reviews. In that book, the review is immediately followed by her appreciation of Macdonald’s The Underground Man: ‘In our day it is for such a novel as The Underground Man that the detective form exists. I think it also matters that it is the detective form, with all its difficult demands and its corresponding charms, that makes such a novel possible.’[6]

We know that Ford greatly appreciated Welty’s writing.[7] I like to think that he would have admired Macdonald’s work too—‘fables of modern identity’ indeed.

References

[1] Hugh Kenner, Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 118, 123, 124.

[2] Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (1954; New York: New Directions, 1964), viii; other details are from Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography, edited by Willard Goodwin (Albany, New York: Whitston Publishing Company), 2001.

[3] Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan, editors, Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015), 109-110.

[4] Meanwhile There Are Letters, 11, 12.

[5] Meanwhile There Are Letters, 13.

[6] Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (London: Virago Press, 1987), 258: review of Mizener, The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford, 241-250; review of The Underground Man, 251-260. The book is dedicated ‘To Kenneth Millar’.

[7] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 310; Sondra Stang, editor, The Ford Madox Ford Reader (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986), 510-512.

 

The Sea – and James Agee

Beach

We have been to see the sea. We see it fairly often in any case but this time it was for a long, hard look, the window of the sitting-room of the rented apartment giving straight out onto the smaller beach and a wide view of the sea.

We are, of course, acquitted of the need to fashion trenchant or memorable remarks about it. It has all been done so many, many times before. ‘MER: N’a pas de fond. Image de l’infini. Donne de grandes pensées,’ Gustave Flaubert wrote, a hundred and fifty years ago, in his posthumously published Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Bottomless, a symbol of infinity, prompting deep thoughts.[1] That more or less covers it.

The fact is that gazing at a calm sea or, indeed, a restless one, is as transfixing as staring into an open fire, far more so, in fact. I might have added ‘watching other people work’ but this is often oddly gender-specific: men will watch for hours while other men dig a hole but perhaps they are ex-diggers themselves, so the watching is simply an exercise in nostalgia. Certainly, I can regard the open sea for a considerable period of time without strain; and have seen innumerable other people—regardless of gender—doing the same.

Agee

(© Walker Evans, 1937; via Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Writing of summer evenings in Knoxville, 1915, James Agee describes at length ‘the fathers of families’ all ‘hosing their lawns.’ After closely describing the varied sounds emitted by the hoses, singly and in concert, and then the dwindling and final ceasing of such activity, he notes that the locusts ‘carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key.’ There is, again, the doubled effect, of the individual and the choral:

‘They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.’[2]

That wonderful sentence is echoed for me, in another book published that same year, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, in which he stands with the Hodja (teacher) as darkness falls over the sea. ‘It was a blessed moment—a sunset which the Greeks and Romans knew—in which the swinging cradle-motion of the sea slowly copied itself into the consciousness, and made one’s mind beat with the elemental rhythm of the earth itself.’[3]

Bitter-Lemons

That ‘great order of noises’ evokes for me a faint tang of the divine, as of a religious order, which may not be fanciful, since religion played a significant part in Agee’s development: from the age of about ten, he lived for years in the dormitory at St Andrew’s School, established by Episcopal monks of the Order of the Holy Cross. His short novel The Morning Watch is set in such an institution, and centres on the thoughts and emotions of a young boy, Richard, in the early hours of Good Friday.

‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’ now stands as a brief prologue to Agee’s major novel, A Death in the Family. The central event, the death of the father in an automobile accident, is drawn from Agee’s boyhood: his own father died in just that way when James was seven. It’s an uneven but often very powerful book. The unevenness, or variations in control, focus and intensity, derive in part from the fact that Agee did not live to effect final revisions, which means, on occasion, that choices haven’t been made and words or phrases overlap and blur into one another. Then, too, the first editors chose to italicise sections of the book which they feel are not strictly part of the story: these are the reflections of the boy, Rufus, but it’s highly problematic to decide what is or is not ‘part of the story’ when that story largely comprises an intense recall of the events and its consequences: psychological, emotional and religious. The italics, anyway, are a little disconcerting at first – though only at first – recalling Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Agee explores the reactions (and fears and repressions) of several members of the extended family, sometimes with a startlingly close-up, penetrative stare. Not formally perfect then, not aesthetically neat, but very effective, often strong, sometimes delicate.

Agee worked on A Death in the Family for several years from the late 1940s. When he died in 1955, it was completed, with the addition of ‘Knoxville : Summer 1915’, by the editors at McDowell, Obolensky (Agee’s friend David McDowell, was one of the co-founders), who also produced books by Hugh Kenner and William Carlos Williams, among others. Published in 1957, Agee’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The University of Tennessee Press published a scholarly edition of the ‘restored’ manuscript ten years ago, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, professor of American literature and American and cultural studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

There’s a nice photograph by Helen Levitt, dating from 1939, which sat on my desktop for a while: Agee sitting at the wheel of his convertible beside his second wife, Alma, with, in the back seat, the young Delmore Schwartz.

Agee-Alma-Schwartz

Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art © Estate of Helen Levitt (1913-2009)

Clouds of cigarette smoke, inevitably, drift up from the front seat; and all three are facing forward, Agee in what looks like a corduroy cap, Schwartz with his intent, distinctive profile; Alma, with her headscarf slipping back a little, gazing slightly down and, perhaps, inwards, maybe already sensing trouble to come. Here’s another photograph of Alma, by the great Walker Evans, taken in Brooklyn in 1939.

Alma-Agee

Walker Evans Archive, 1994 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evans took the photographs which are so integral a part of the classic book he produced with Agee, published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (included in the Agee volume together with A Death in the Family and Agee’s shorter fiction: his novella The Morning Watch and a handful of short stories).

Much of Agee’s creative energy went into his film criticism (and co-writing the screenplay for The African Queen; he wrote the script for Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter too, though Laughton cut it substantially). Agee also adapted ‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky’ by Stephen Crane. He appeared in a minor role in the film, which was released in a two-part Face to Face, the second section being an adaptation of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer.

That last detail interests the Ford Madox Ford scholar, because of Ford’s very specific allusions to Crane’s story,[4] and because several commentators have seen in Conrad’s novella evidence of his complicated attitude towards the collaboration with Ford (which produced two full-length novels and a long short story) and its ending.[5]

When her marriage to Agee broke down, Alma moved to Mexico with their young son, Joel; then back briefly to New York, then Mexico again, where she finally married the writer and political activist Bodo Uhse. She had some interesting encounters while working in a Mexico City Gallery, coming to know Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Pablo Neruda. In 1948, Alma, Bodo and Joel moved to East Germany. Joel later wrote a memoir called Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany (2000), published by the University of Chicago Press. Also for Chicago, Joel Agee has translated from German a number of volumes by writers including Rilke and Hans Erich Nossack, but principally, Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Pledge, The Assignment, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries and the three-volume Selected Works.

Alma lived into her mid-sixties, dying in 1988: her memoir, Always Straight Ahead, appeared in 1993. But one striking fact about Agee’s generation of writers is how many of them failed even to attain that age. Agee himself died at 45, suffering a massive heart attack in a New York taxicab, while Delmore Schwartz died in a shabby hotel at 52. Weldon Kees was 41, John Berryman managed 57, and Robert Lowell 60. The slightly older R. P. Blackmur died – very slightly older – at just 61.

References

[1] Published in 1913: Robert Baldick’s translation of The Dictionary of Received Ideas is included in the A. J. Krailsheimer translation of Bouvard and Pécuchet (London: Penguin Books, 1976).

[2] James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow (New York: Library of America, 2005), 470, 471.

[3] Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 240.

[4] See Ford, Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 108; and, particularly, ‘Stevie and Co.’, in New York Essays (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1927). 29.

[5] See Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 673; letter from Thomas C. Moser, quoted in Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, translated by Halina Carroll-Najder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 361; Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 149.

 

Seeing again, making it new

Inheritors

Re-reading an early Ford Madox Ford work recently, I noticed that, while my scrappy and often baffling notes from the previous reading ran to little more than a page, I now have something over ten pages of extracts, cross-references and occasionally more general comments. Should I be impressed or anxious? Was it admirably thorough or mildly deranged? Clearly, this reader had changed substantially in the intervening period and, to that extent, the book itself was changed. Curious, since it had seemed stable enough in its hard covers, more than a century old.

Yet – how stable, exactly, even at the most basic level? It was written by Ford Madox Hueffer, who would subsequently become (in 1919) Ford Madox Ford, in collaboration with Joseph Conrad, who had become a British subject in 1886 and was previously known as Konrad Korzeniowski. It was written when work on their initial collaborative venture, Romance, was already well-advanced but was completed and published first; an unsteady hybrid of science fiction, political satire and roman à clef, it concerned itself with nefarious dealings in a country—‘Greenland’—which was clearly in Africa and, pretty obviously, the Congo Free State of the rapacious King Leopold II of Belgium. As Ford recalled it more than twenty years later: ‘The novel was to be a political work, rather allegorically backing Mr Balfour in the then Government; the villain was to be Joseph Chamberlain who had made the [Boer] war.’[1]

Conrad_1904

(Joseph Conrad, 1904)

Stability. A key word for those that have followed, with bafflement or appalled disbelief, the mad pantomime of British politics over the past few months. In The Inheritors, we find: ‘I became conscious that I wanted to return to England, wanted it very much, wanted to be out of this; to get somewhere where there was stability and things that one could understand.’[2] Cue a pained smile. ‘Permanence? Stability? I can’t believe it’s gone’, a later Ford narrator lamented.[3] Of course, it was—it is—always already gone. . .

In any case, I find it an intriguing and curious business, this revisiting—of a place, a person, a painting, a book, a film, a piece of music—and finding it so changed. It’s commonplace and banal, yet enduringly mysterious and fascinating. There are, to be sure, many thousands of pages of philosophy, psychology, biology, neurology, physics, optics and more, devoted to just this phenomenon. We’re increasingly comfortable with the idea that the observer alters what is observed, that the slightest shift in position or perspective alters the thing seen. Some of us saw the intriguing 1974 Alan Pakula political thriller, The Parallax View, with Warren Beatty and Paula Prentiss, and looked up the meaning of the title. (‘Parallax, you see. Observed from different angles, Gestalts alter.’)[4] Fifty years before that, in 1923, Wallace Stevens published ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.

Parallax_View_movie_poster

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying. [5]

A goodly proportion of those thousands of pages, though, can probably be reduced to just two words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, panta rei, everything flows, flux and change as the essential characteristics of the world.[6] 

T. S. Eliot used two quotations from Heraclitus to preface Four Quartets, the second of them translated as ‘The way up and the way down are one and the same’. Eliot wrote of being ‘much influenced’ by Heraclitus when younger and thought the influence a permanent one. The quotations were, he said, ‘a tribute to my debt to this great philosopher.’[7]

In Little Gidding, the last of the Quartets, Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[8]

See it again but know it for the first time.

Stanley Spencer wrote of his celebrated painting, The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard: ‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realization of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to the fact. This is what is inspiring the people as they resurrect, namely the new meaning they find in what they had seen before.’[9]

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, 1924-1927, © Tate Gallery)

That ‘awakening’ is, again, indissolubly linked to the familiar or, at least, to that which has been seen before. Much of Spencer’s art is ‘religious’ but very idiosyncratically so, ‘visionary’ rather, an art constantly linking back to his feelings about the village of Cookham and its people, his childhood and familial memories and sensations revisited, recaptured and reworked.

Time slips and eddies. We return, retrace, revisit and see again, in thought, in dreams, in conversation. Memories lose their edges, become indistinct, bleed into others. We can’t always predict what has taken root in the mind or the nerves, what doesn’t need to be consciously recovered, what can be held and turned in a glancing light and mysteriously made new.

I could not draw a map of it, this road,
Nor say with certainty how many times
It doubles on itself before it climbs
Clear of the ascent. And yet I know
Each bend and vista and could not mistake
The recognition, the recurrences
As they occur, nor where. So my forgetting
Brings back the track of what was always there
As new as a discovery.[10]

 

References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 133.

[2] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 106.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13.

[4] Hugh Kenner, ‘Joyce on the Continent’, in Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 114.

[5] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 92, 94.

[6] ‘All things are a flowing,/ Sage Heracleitus says’, Ezra Pound wrote, adding: ‘But a tawdry cheapness/ Shall outlast our days.’ See Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 186.

[7] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 907. John Fowles offers: ‘The road up and the road down are the same road’, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), the ‘original impulse’ for the book and ‘many of the ideas’ in it having come from Heraclitus (214).

[8] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I, 208. Another faint connection for John Fowles readers: this is the first marked passage in the poetry anthology which Nicholas Urfe finds on the beach, in The Magus (London: Pan Books, 1968), 60.

[9] Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 226, citing the Spencer collection in the Tate Archives, reference TA 733.3.1.

[10] Charles Tomlinson, ‘The Return’, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 413.

 

Ford Madox Ford’s Fourth of August

Ford Madox Ford, 1915

The Good Soldier: Ford in 1915 by E. O. Hoppé: National Portrait Gallery via New York Review of Books

4 August commemorates not only a flurry of artistic birthdays—Shelley, Pater, W. H. Hudson, Knut Hamsun, Louis Armstrong—and a clutch of significant dates for relatives of artists—the wedding of D. H. Lawrence’s sister Ada, the birthday of Stanley Spencer’s sister Florence, the birthday of Violet Hunt’s sister Venice, named after The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, her godfather—but, probably above all else, Britain’s 1914 declaration of war, Sir Edward Grey’s ultimatum to Germany having expired.

‘All that was left was to wait for midnight (eleven o’clock, British time). At nine o’clock the government learned, through an intercepted but uncoded telegram sent out from Berlin, that Germany had considered itself at war with Britain from the moment when the British ambassador had asked for his passports.’[1]

On the day that war was declared, the Bradford Daily Argus ‘suggested that “it will be in the kitchens that the pinch will be chiefly felt but that difficulty may be overcome by deleting the more dainty dishes”.’[2] An admirable prediction but, as things turned out, a little wide of the mark.

For readers of Ford Madox Ford, there are supplementary significances. In The Good Soldier alone, he mentions 4th August sixteen times; in other writings he refers to it more than a dozen times, frequently in conjunction with the name of the village of Gemmenich, the point at which German troops crossed the Belgian border that morning

blast1

The recurrence of the date in The Good Soldier is a well-established mystery. The novel was published in London and New York by John Lane, in March 1915. The first section of the novel, then still entitled ‘The Saddest Story’, had appeared in the June 1914 issue of Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. Tantalisingly, although the published section includes one mention of ‘August’, the excerpt ends a chapter and a half before the novel’s first specific reference to 4th August, which comes at the very beginning of Part II of the published text.

We can’t be sure, and are unlikely to become so, exactly when the novel was finished. It seems likely that a coincidental mention of 4th August was, in the course of revision, and after the war had started, made central to the novel, as noted by two of The Good Soldier’s most recent editors.[3] As Martin Stannard remarks elsewhere, ‘Trying to reconstruct the textual history of a Ford novel is like trying to establish the details of a dream.’[4]

There are dreams enough in The Good Soldier. Early on in the novel, the narrator, in a wonderful passage, proposes to ‘imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’[5] (As usual, I’m tempted to analyse and comment upon almost every word here with the possible exceptions of ‘at’ and ‘a’, though I’m not sure that even those can safely be left unexamined.) Spoken rather than written, an illusion maintained until very near the end (‘I am writing this, now, I should say, a full eighteen months after the words that end my last chapter’).[6] Intriguing, then, to find this:

‘But the fellow talked like a cheap novelist.—Or like a very good novelist for the matter of that, if it’s the business of a novelist to make you see things clearly. And I tell you I see that thing as clearly as if it were a dream that never left me.’[7]

Carcassonne

Carcassonne, late 19th century: Fonds Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia

And this, the wonderful conjunction of the specific (‘Carcassonne’) and the indefinite (‘some people’):

‘I don’t mean to say that I sighed about her or groaned; I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne.

Do you understand the feeling—the sort of feeling that you must get certain matters out of the way, smooth out certain fairly negligible complications before you can go to a place that has, during all your life, been a sort of dream city?’[8]

Yes, suffice to say that there are plenty of mysteries and diversions in this short novel other than the date of its completion or its repeated reference to 4th August.

 

References

[1] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August and The Proud Tower, edited by Margaret MacMillan (New York: Library of America, 2012), 155.

[2] Denis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 23.

[3] Ford, The Good Soldier, edited by Max Saunders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xxxviii-xl; edited by Martin Stannard, second edition (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2012), 192-193 and ‘Textual Appendices’, 216, 220.

[4] Stannard, ‘The Good Soldier: Editorial Problems’, in Robert Hampson and Max Saunders (eds), Ford Madox Ford’s Modernity, International Ford Madox Ford Studies 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), 147.

[5] The Good Soldier, edited by Max Saunders, 18.

[6] The Good Soldier, 178.

[7] The Good Soldier, 89. The phrase ‘to make you see things clearly’ is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”’, in Typhoon and Other Tales (New York: Signet Classics, 1962), 21.

[8] The Good Soldier, 97. See my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Sara Haslam, editor, Ford Madox Ford and the City, International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 197-210.