Taking some lines for a walk: Ford, Conrad, Novalis

(Ford by Hoppé; Conrad via New York Public Library)

On this day in 1913, Ford Madox Ford published an essay in The New Freewoman, the middle incarnation of three journals edited wholly or in part by the suffragist and radical activist Dora Marsden. She started The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review (1911-1912) with her friend Mary Gawthorpe; in the latter half of 1913, she edited what had become The New Freewoman – Rebecca West (who had got her start in The Freewoman) was literary editor; finally, it became The Egoist, with Harriet Weaver as editor (and primary financial backer) and Marsden as contributing editor, running from January 1914 to December 1919 and famously publishing some key modernist texts (by Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Pound and Eliot).[1]

Dora-Marsden

Dora Marsden apparently necessitating the attention of several big strong men:
http://spartacus-educational.com/WmarsdenD.htm

Ford’s essay, ‘The Poet’s Eye’, unsurprisingly bore a strong resemblance to the ‘Preface’ to his Collected Poems, published towards the end of that year. Much of it discussed his view of the differences between poetry and prose, the first being for him quite uncontrollable, ‘words in verse form’ coming into his head from time to time and being written down ‘quite powerlessly and without much interest, under the stress of certain emotions.’ With prose, ‘that conscious and workable medium’, it was ‘a perfectly different matter.’

Ford is actually arguing that the ‘literary jargon’ to which English poetry is wedded, together with the narrow assumptions of what constitutes the suitable material of poetry, renders it incapable of dealing with modern life, ‘so extraordinary, so hazy, so tenuous with, still, such definite and concrete spots in it’. Poetry in English was, of course, on the cusp of extraordinary change: Pound’s Ripostes the previous year had included ‘The Return’ and T. E. Hulme’s poems; Des Imagistes would follow in 1914, as would W. B. Yeats’s Responsibilities; Cathay and Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1915. But, at the time of his writing, there was still a strong and widespread adherence to what Ford termed ‘the sure cards of the poetic pack’.

‘I may really say’, Ford asserted, ‘that for a quarter of a century I have kept before me one unflinching aim—to register my own times in terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are better poets and better prose writers than myself to have the same aim. I suppose I have been pretty well ignored; I find no signs of my being taken seriously. It is certain that my conviction would gain immensely as soon as another soul could be found to share it. But for a man mad about writing this is a solitary world, and writing—you cannot write about writing without using foreign words—is a métier de chien.’[2]

Ford was precocious—but perhaps not to quite that degree: a literal ‘quarter of a century’ would have made him fourteen. His first book was published shortly before his eighteenth birthday. But there are some splendidly recurrent phrases here, I mean ones that resonate in minds that have grazed in Fordian fields. I remember Donald Davie writing about a phalanx of details in Pound’s Canto 80, pausing to remark that ‘Anyone is free to decide that life is too short for such unriddlings; others (I speak from experience) may develop a taste for them.’[3] This is not such an unriddling but certainly a related pleasure—or vice.

Novalis

(Friedrich von Hardenberg: Novalis)

‘It is certain that my conviction would gain immensely as soon as another soul could be found to share it.’ Yes, ‘recurrent’ is an apt word here. In 1900, William Blackwood published Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, its epigraph reading: ‘“It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it.”—Novalis.’ Cedric Watts’ note points out that in the German original, the word means ‘opinion’ rather than ‘conviction’, that Conrad was probably using the translation by Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, and that an alternative version appears in another Carlyle book, Sartor Resartus, which Conrad has his character Marlow read in his novella Youth. Watts also notes that Conrad quotes Novalis’ aphorism again in A Personal Record.[4]

Lord Jim was published during the intense period of collaboration between Ford and Conrad which eventually produced The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (1909; 1924). It was in the September of 1898 that the two men met and , in the following month, Conrad and his family moved into Pent Farm, Postling, Kent, sublet to them by Ford. A quarter of a century later, Ford recalled of that time: ‘Conrad’s conviction restored life to the fainting Pent: it breathed once more: the cat jumped off the window sill; the clock struck four’: this immediately preceding the arrival of W. H. Hudson—their first meeting—who would be of immense importance to Ford, though in less immediately evident ways than Conrad.[5]

Use what’s at hand: ‘pent’, wonderful. Ford’s fictional ambitions were both fired and freed in the course of the collaboration, while ‘the bulk of [Conrad’s] greatest fiction—the completed Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent—was written while collaborating with Ford.’[6]

In 1915, in the second of Ford’s propaganda books, he notes in the ‘Preface’, ‘It is certain that my conviction gains immensely as soon as another soul can be found to share it.’[7] The following year, writing to Conrad from a Red Cross hospital in Rouen, he commented, ‘Since I have been out here this time I have not had one letter from one living soul. So one’s conviction does not get much from wh[ich]. to gain anything!’ By 1921, when Ford was writing to Harriet Monroe to acknowledge the Poetry prize awarded to him for A House (1921), the quote from Novalis (not named here) had become ‘the immortal dictum: “It is certain that my conviction gains immensely as soon as another soul can be found to share it”’[8] and the precise wording recurs in a 1927 essay about Ford’s memories of New York.[9]

One clear implication of these instances is that, while Ford—at least trilingual—could have read, and translated for himself, the lines from Novalis, he didn’t: though perhaps, even if he’d done so, he might have persisted with the version he associated with Conrad. But it’s also very striking, and surely poignant, that Ford, editor as well as writer, closely connected with so many groups of writers and artists, from the late 1890s through the English Review crowd, Imagism, Vorticism, Paris in the 1920s, New York and Tennessee in the 1930s, had that constant need for another soul to share his conviction. ‘He needed more reassurance than anyone I have ever met’, Stella Bowen remembered.[10] ‘Until the arrival of such “uncomfortables” as Wyndham Lewis, the distressful D. H. Lawrence, D. Goldring, G. Cannan, etc., I think Ford had no one to play with’, Ezra Pound wrote—an oddly selected cast but with a grain of truth, nevertheless.[11]

Hokusai

Those phrases, ‘a man mad about writing’ and ‘a métier de chien’ in Ford’s essay also have their histories. Describing himself as ‘an old man mad about writing’, Ford pointed to the artist Hokusai who called himself ‘an old man mad about painting’: he used the phrase or variations on it several times.[12] That ‘métier de chien’ is, again, associated particularly with Conrad: ‘For Conrad hated writing more than he hated the sea. . . . Le vrai métier de chien. . . . ’ but employed and alluded to in various contexts.[13] Then later references to the Shepherd’s Bush Exhibition and that phrase, ‘We are the heirs of all the ages’. . . But no, the comments on the essay would threaten to rival, in length at least, the essay itself. Perhaps another time, another walk, another conviction. ‘Taking a line for a walk’ – that was Paul Klee, I think. Another kind of line but the phrase would probably serve: taking a few Fordian lines for a walk. Yes, why not?

 
References

[1] Detailed on the indispensable Modernist Journals Project website: http://modjourn.org/index.html

[2] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Poet’s Eye’, New Freewoman, I, 6 (1 September 1913), 107-110.

[3] Donald Davie, ‘Ezra Pound Abandons the English’ (1975), reprinted in Studies in Ezra Pound (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991), 236.

[4] Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, edited by Robert Hampson with an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 41, 353; see also Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 40 and n.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 155.

[6] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 117. Alan Judd observes that, ‘Most of Conrad’s best work was written during periods of their intimacy’: Ford Madox Ford (London: Collins, 1990), 63.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Between St. Dennis and St. George: A Sketch of Three Civilisations (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), vi.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 80, 136. E. M. Forster was at it too, quoting the same aphorism of an unnamed ‘mystic’: Howards End (1910; edited by Oliver Stallybrass, London: Penguin Books, 1989).

[9] Ford Madox Ford, New York Is Not America (London: Duckworth, 1927), 91.

[10] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (London: Collins, 1941), 80.

[11] Ezra Pound, ‘Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford; Obit’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 433.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), vi: Conrad is named on the last page (850) of the text. Nicholas Delbanco’s essay on this book is titled ‘An Old Man Mad about Writing’: Joseph Wiesenfarth, History and Representation in Ford Madox Ford’s Writings (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004), 219-231. In A Mirror to France (London: Duckworth, 1926), for instance, Ford is ‘an old man mad about Provence’ (208).

[13] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, 113, 255; Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 57; Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 292; The Simple Life Limited by ‘Daniel Chaucer’ (John Lane, 1911), 73.

 

Thin crusts, modern girls: John Buchan

JB_Buchan_in_library

John Buchan in the library
https://archives.queensu.ca/exhibits/buchan/family

‘You may say that everyone who had taken physical part in the war was then mad’, Ford Madox Ford wrote a dozen years after the Armistice. Objects that ‘the earlier mind labelled as houses’, that had seemed to be ‘cubic and solid permanences’, had been revealed as thin shells that could be crushed like walnuts, he went on. ‘Nay, it had been revealed to you that beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched, the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.’[1]

In John Buchan’s Huntingtower (1922), the poet John Heritage remarks to Dickson McCunn, ‘I learned in the war that civilization anywhere is a very thin crust.’[2] And here is Andrew Lumley in The Power-House: ‘“You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”’[3]

On the face of it, the two novelists could hardly appear less alike, one a modernist with a markedly artistic background, whose work sold poorly for most of his life; the other a hugely successful writer of popular fiction, keen sportsman, son of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, very traditional, a seemingly paradigmatic establishment figure: Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, born in Perth on this day, 26 August, 1875. Still, they were almost exact contemporaries: Buchan published his first book at the age of nineteen—Ford’s was published shortly before his eighteenth birthday—and produced more than a hundred in total (as against Ford’s eighty). I’ve read around a quarter of Buchan’s titles, ten of them more than once, I see. The ‘shockers’ like The Thirty-Nine Steps are by far the best-known but those made up a relatively small part of Buchan’s huge output: even fiction comprises barely one-third of it.

Walton

(Izaak Walton: Dean & Co © National Portrait Gallery, London)

In a more detailed sense, even confining the matter to Huntingtower, a reader infected with the Ford Madox Ford virus might be pencilling faint marks in the margin against such lines as ‘Finally he selected Izaak Walton’ and ‘the seeing eye’ (16), ‘Poetry’s everywhere, and the real thing is commoner among drabs and pot-houses and rubbish-heaps than in your Sunday parlours’ (26)[4] and ‘a white cottage in a green nook’ (31), as well as the editor’s citing of a passage in Buchan’s autobiography dealing with his feelings about the war (xx). Buchan writes there, ‘I acquired a bitter detestation of war, less for its horrors than for its boredom and futility, and a contempt for its panache. To speak of glory seemed a horrid impiety.’[5]

Before all else, Buchan writes a rattling good yarn and I enjoy his books enormously for themselves. Those thrillers and adventure stories and romances largely achieve exactly what they set out to do, while their limitations are fairly obvious, not least to Buchan himself. Writing to his sister Anna about her second novel The Setons (she wrote under the name of O. Douglas), Buchan remarked: ‘In Elizabeth you draw a wonderful picture of a woman (a thing I could about as much do as fly to the moon).’[6]

The_39_Steps_1935_British_poster

Oh Carroll! (character added by Hitchcock) https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38053736

Of course, hundreds of other writers have written rattling good yarns, made a living and duly faded from view; but many of Buchan’s books have not only survived but seem to be in a state of constantly improving health. They certainly possess qualities or contain features, often hard to pin down and specify, which have enabled that continued vitality. David Daniell refers to Buchan’s writing novels ‘with a mixture of surface pace of action and a deeper density of content which have a timeless quality’.[7]

For me, one of the pleasures is noticing the many ways in which a writer superficially so different from the usual modernist cast list overlaps with them, inhabits a recognisably similar world. His writing may be aimed at an audience quite unlike those aimed at by Joyce or Woolf or Ford; and he may not be fragmenting narratives or operating tricky timeframes or incorporating extra-literary discourses or multilingual puns but the overlap is certainly there for me.

This is largely because much of his work is set in and around the First World War, particularly in the years following it, perhaps my main area of interest. And although Buchan himself inhabited a world of prominent political and diplomatic figures, there remained a touch of the outsider, not least because of the war. Rejected for the army on grounds of both age and health, he visited France and Flanders as correspondent for The Times and took increasingly senior roles in information and intelligence but, as Andrew Lownie writes, Buchan ‘emerged from the First World War physically and emotionally shattered. Many of his closest friends had been killed and this loss of his immediate circle reinforced his sense of being displaced.’[8]

A good deal of his writing, then, is concerned with the terrain that most engages me: with the effects of the war both on individuals who were actively engaged in the fighting and those who were not, with shifting perceptions and understanding of shell-shock, with radical jolts in social relations, the rising threat of fascism, the ‘new Vienna doctrine’ and shifts in fashion and femininity, as the Edwardian ‘hourglass’ shape was replaced with the ‘tubular look’.[9]

Flapper
https://www.collectorsweekly.com/

This last is an example of the fascinating detail that can be followed for a short stretch or for many, many miles. While there is never (to my mind) any convincing strain of homoeroticism, here in Huntingtower is Saskia: ‘her slim figure in its odd clothes was curiously like that of a boy in a school blazer’ (70); in Mr Standfast, Mary is described as moving ‘with the free grace of an athletic boy’.[10] In John Macnab, Janet’s face ‘had a fine hard finish which gave it a brilliancy like an eager boy’s’ and later she looks to Sir Archie ‘like an adorable boy.’[11] Finally, in The Dancing Floor, Mollie Nantley says of Koré that she is ‘utterly sexless – more like a wild boy’, while Leithen reflects that, ‘These children [both youths and girls] looked alert and vital like pleasant boys, and I have always preferred Artemis to Aphrodite.’[12]

Artemis: virginal, eternally young, independent of men, athletic, the huntress. In C. E. Montague’s Rough Justice, Molly, ‘the young Artemis’, has a job as ‘games mistress’,[13] as does Valentine Wannop in Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up–, though a good many other male novelists and poets of the period would far rather, I think, have embraced Aphrodite. Trudi Tate mentions Lawrence and Faulkner as seeming ‘to disapprove of these androgynous figures’,[14] and one would immediately add Joyce. All non-combatants, I notice, which is either irrelevant or a thought for another time.

Catherine Carswell

Writing of her single meeting with Buchan in the summer of 1932, Catherine Carswell, novelist and friend (and biographer) of D. H. Lawrence, observed that, ‘A traditionalist in so many respects, he was yet a champion of the modern girl, delighting in her independences, even in her defiances, frowning neither upon her sometimes extravagant make-up nor upon her occasions for wearing trousers. As among the goddesses, his preference was for Artemis.’[15]

Ah, the modern girl. In The Dancing Floor (213), Buchan writes: ‘Virginity meant nothing unless it was mailed, and I wondered whether we were not coming to a better understanding of it. The modern girl, with all her harshness, had the gallantry of a free woman. She was a crude Artemis, but her feet were on the hills. Was the blushing, sheltered maid of our grandmother’s days no more than an untempted Aphrodite?’

Buchan is not a modernist novelist and not a part of any literary movement, though he doesn’t seem as wholly removed from the literary world as Kipling, who sometimes seems not to have known any writers other than Rider Haggard. Buchan and his wife knew Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hugh MacDiarmid, Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, T. E. Lawrence – and Virginia Woolf, whose novels Buchan admired. Woolf had known Buchan’s wife Susan for many years and one of her last letters was written to Susan, though unposted: Leonard Woolf sent it on in the month following Virginia’s death.[16]

There have, naturally, been recurrent complaints about Buchan as racist, anti-Semitic, sexist: the usual fare. There have been equally recurrent rebuttals and, indeed, what a lot of it comes down to seems to be complaints that people a hundred years ago didn’t wholly share the social attitudes that we – that most of us, we hope – share today. Still, one clue to his books lasting is, I suspect, the way that certain artists fall out of fashion because of their content or attitudes or language but then, after a further period of time has elapsed, come into focus again, far enough back now to be viewed objectively and enjoyed without fretting about ‘relevance’ or current orthodoxies. Here’s Graham Greene, looking back to the 1930s:

‘An early hero of mine was John Buchan, but when I re-opened his books I found I could no longer get the same pleasure from the adventures of Richard Hannay. More than the dialogue and the situation had dated: the moral climate was no longer that of my boyhood. Patriotism had lost its appeal, even for a schoolboy, at Passchendaele, and the Empire brought first to mind the Beaverbrook Crusader, while it was difficult, during the years of the Depression, to believe in the high purposes of the City of London or of the British Constitution. The hunger-marchers seemed more real than the politicians. It was no longer a Buchan world.’[17]

Not a Buchan world; yet, although the attitudes towards the threats may have changed over the years, some of the current threats themselves—the threat of fascism, attempts to subvert democracy, ‘fake news’ (that blood relation of propaganda)—seem worryingly familiar. But, alas, Richard Hannay, Edward Leithen, Sandy Arbuthnot and Archie Roylance will not be saving us this time around.
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 48, 49.

[2] John Buchan, Huntingtower (1922; edited by Ann Stonehouse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 116.

[3] John Buchan, The Power-House (1916; Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1993), 38.

[4] See Ford Madox Ford on ‘the portable zinc dustbin’, in the ‘Preface’ to Collected Poems (London: Max Goschen, 1913 [dated 1914]), 16-17.

[5] John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1940), 167.

[6] Quoted by Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 284.

[7] David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (London: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 209.

[8] Andrew Lownie, John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (London: Constable, 1995), 297.

[9] Martin Pugh, ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 171.

[10] John Buchan, Mr Standfast (1919; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, edited by William Buchan), 11.

[11] John Buchan, John Macnab (1925; edited with an introduction by David Daniell, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 125, 182.

[12] John Buchan, The Dancing Floor (1926; edited with an introduction by Marilyn Deegan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 57, 51.

[13] C. E. Montague, Rough Justice (London: Chatto & Windus 1926), 171.

[14] Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 115n.

[15] Catherine Carswell, ‘John Buchan: A Perspective’, in John Buchan by His Wife and Friends (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947), 160.

[16] Virginia Woolf, Leave the Letters Till We’re Dead: Collected Letters VI, 1936-41, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann Banks (London: The Hogarth Press, 1994), 483 and n.

[17] Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (London: Vintage, 1999), 69.

As easy as pie – sometimes

Basil

‘Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.’[1] This seems a pretty straightforward example of a symbol (pie = boyhood), though the passive construction of those verbs (‘He was wearing’ and ‘it made him look’) must be seen a little warily in the context of ‘Basil’ being the ‘great actor’, Sir Basil Hunter, come back from England to Australia to ease his dying mother into an old folks’ home, secure as much of the loot as he can, and play whatever roles are required.

EyeOfTheStorm.jpg

In the opening paragraph of her second novel, Penelope Fitzgerald writes of her central character, Florence Green: ‘She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.’ Bracketing this description, there are passages of studied ambiguity: it is one of the nights when Florence is ‘not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not’; and ‘Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all – and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind – she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.’

A little later, we read that, ‘The weather was curious, and reminded her of the day she saw the flying heron trying to swallow the eel.’ One more reference, a dozen pages further on, seems to emphasise dreaming rather than thinking in that first instance: ‘Completely tired out by the time she went to bed, she no longer dreamed of the heron and the eel, or, so far as she knew, of anything else.’[2]

Some fifteen years later, in an essay on the voices of fictional characters, Fitzgerald quoted from that opening and commented, ‘I now think this was a mistake, because dreams in fiction are just as tedious as people’s dreams in real life.’[3] True enough: but the reference to the form rather than the content seems a little disingenuous – or am I oversimplifying by seeing the heron and the eel as a symbolic conjunction relevant to Fitzgerald’s entire corpus? One of her critics, enlarging on this ‘remarkable, predatory image’, remarks that, ‘As if borrowed from the sphere of sleep’s hauntings, the image, Darwinian and predacious, will be recalled more than once in the course of the novel, and it sets up, right at the start, the theme of survival—and the challenges that make survival, especially for the less fit and self-assertive, a chancy matter.’[4]

Blue-Heron-via-Telegraph

(Blue heron, via The Telegraph)

Yes, just before the second reference to the heron and eel, we find: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’ And elsewhere, reflecting on V. S. Pritchett’s warning against writing one’s life away, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions – I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?’[5]

The heron and the eel—together—comprise then an image, and surely a symbol, of the battle that life entails for a certain kind of person, with that particular balance of courage and confidence, who will never triumph yet will never quite give up either. How conscious, how deliberate must the use of a symbol be to qualify as a symbol? It seems absurdly patronising to suggest that so accomplished a writer wouldn’t have been perfectly aware of what she was doing. Nevertheless, I wonder if some writers—having produced such images, or symbols, capable of such strong and varied interpretations—hold them at a distance, play down their ownership with its implied rights of sustained control, concerned to allow those images room to breathe, to expand and flower in their readers’ minds.

‘I think you are playing a dangerous game,’ Patrick White wrote to Manfred Mackenzie in 1963, ‘fascinating to the player, no doubt – in all this symbol-chasing. Most of the time, I’m afraid, it leads up the wrong tree!’ He added, ‘I am sorry not to be able to confess to most of the influences you suggest. I may have arrived at certain conclusions via other writers who had read those you mention. Otherwise I suppose symbols can pop out of the collective unconscious.’ Two years earlier, replying to James Stern’s queries about his religious development, White replied: ‘Certainly in my own case I did not return to orthodox Anglicanism, but the Anglican church is a feeble organisation compared with the Jewish faith. I made the attempt, found that Churches destroy the mystery of God, and had to evolve symbols of my own through which to worship.’[6]

White did sometimes use symbols quite deliberately, often foregrounding them, as with the mandala that becomes part of the title of one of his novels, though circles and other figures of wholeness are everywhere in his books (as are roses). Linked to this, a sense of the wholeness of the world, certainly the artist’s world, perhaps not rationally apprehended but felt, sensed, known, is conveyed by the figure of the dance: Arthur Brown dancing the mandala for Mrs Poulter, or the young musician when she first enters Hurtle Duffield’s house: ‘As she continued turning within the conservatory’s narrow limits, she began also to hum. A golden tinsel of light hung around her lithe, mackerel body; while out of the dislodged tiles and shambles of broken glass her shuffling feet produced discordancies, but appropriate ones: Kathy Volkov would probably never teeter over into sweetness.’[7] William Butler Yeats, mindful of the interconnectedness of every part of both a tree and a work of art, famously asked at the end of ‘Among School Children’, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’[8] And the novelist Richard Hughes, in his introduction to an edition of a William Faulkner novel, mentioned the story told of ‘a celebrated Russian dancer, who was asked by someone what she meant by a certain dance. She answered with some exasperation, “If I could say it in so many words, do you think I should take the very great trouble of dancing it?”’[9] It occurs to me that the title of Poussin’s painting that Anthony Powell adopted for his novel-sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, could hardly have comprised three terms more mysterious and more difficult to grasp with confidence and conviction.

Dance_to_the_music_of_time

(Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time: Wallace Collection)

The gap that uncertainty—as to whether a literary image or motif is deliberately designed to perform a more substantial symbolic function—allows can carry a good deal of force. I’ve reflected more than once on Ford Madox Ford’s multiple references to cooking and gardening. They are almost always, in the first instance, actual cooking and actual gardening—both arts that Ford practised and regarded as hugely important. But, of course, they also offer extraordinary scope for symbolic interpretation. Ford uses more explicitly symbolic images too, which occur less often but with a more focused aim. So Christopher Tietjens characterises his wife and his lover thus: ‘If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it . . . The two types of mind: remorseless enemy: sure screen: dagger . . . sheath!’ Later, the suffragette and pacifist Valentine Wannop will acknowledge her ‘automatic feeling that all manly men were lust-filled devils, desiring nothing better than to stride over battlefields, stabbing the wounded with long daggers in frenzies of sadism.’[10]

For literary critics, psychoanalysts and many others, the world is a seething mass of symbols—in the index to my Penguin edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘symbol’ runs into three columns, offering no end of joyous examples: asparagus, burglar, nail-file, zeppelin—but they would probably be the first to agree that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a pipe a pipe, a rose a rose. And surely sometimes a pie is just a pie.

 

 

References

[1] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 452.

[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 5, 29, 40.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Hearing Them Speak’ (1993), in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 499-500.

[4] Christopher J. Knight, ‘The Second Saddest Story: Despair, Belief, and Moral Perseverance in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 42, 1 (Spring 2012), 70, 71.

[5] Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air, 480.

[6] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 216, 217, 196.

[7] See Patrick White, The Solid Mandala ( Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 265-267; The Vivisector (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 443-444.

[8] W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 245.

[9] Hughes, ‘Introduction’ to William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966), vii.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 160, 284. Related images occur in many of Ford’s other works.

Gilbert White of Selborne

Skylark

(Skylark: https://findingnature.co.uk/animal/skylark/ )

In Great Trade Route, Ford Madox Ford, recalling a visit to a New Jersey truck farm in the company of William Carlos Williams, commented on the behaviour of a snipe which was distracting the men from the nest to protect its young, an example of what Gilbert White famously termed storgé, using the Greek word for familial or ‘natural’ affection, one of the four Greek terms for ‘love’, along with philia, agape and eros: all were discussed in C. S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves (1960).[1]

Ford often mentioned Gilbert White of Selborne (born 18 July 1720), the ‘parson-naturalist’, in both fictional and non-fictional contexts. In Parade’s End, White crops up in the first volume, Some Do Not. . .  as Christopher Tietjens spars with Valentine Wannop on their night-ride.

Gilbert-White

(Gilbert White)

‘He said:
“Where do you get your absurd Latin nomenclature from? Isn’t it phalæna …
She had answered:
“From White . . . The Natural History of Selborne is the only natural history I ever read….
“He’s the last English writer that could write,” said Tietjens.
“He calls the downs ‘those majestic and amusing mountains,’” she said. “Where do you get your dreadful Latin pronunciation from? Phal i i na! To rhyme with Dinah!”
“It’s ‘sublime and amusing mountains,’ not ‘majestic and amusing,’” Tietjens said. “I got my Latin pronunciation, like all public schoolboys of to-day, from the German.”’[2]

Later, in the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up—, Tietjens is in the trenches, where his Sergeant enthusiastically praises the skylark’s ‘Won’erful trust in yumanity! Won’erful hinstinck set in the fethered brest by the Halmighty!’

Tietjens says ‘mildly’ that he thinks the Sergeant has ‘got his natural history wrong. He must divide the males from the females. The females sat on the nest through obstinate attachment to their eggs; the males obstinately soared above the nests in order to pour out abuse at other male skylarks in the vicinity.’

‘“Gilbert White of Selbourne,” he said to the Sergeant, “called the behaviour of the female STORGE: a good word for it.” But, as for trust in humanity, the Sergeant might take it that larks never gave us a thought. We were part of the landscape and if what destroyed their nests whilst they sat on them was a bit of H[igh].E[xplosive]. shell or the coulter of a plough it was all one to them.’

The sergeant is highly sceptical of such sentiments:

‘“Ju ’eer what the orfcer said, Corporal,” the one said to the other. Wottever’ll ’e say next! Skylarks not trust ’uman beens in battles! Cor!”
The other grunted and, mournfully, the voices died out.’

Later in the same volume, Ford recurs to White in Valentine’s own reflections – Ford uses the image or allusion echoed in the thoughts of multiple characters to frequently brilliant effect:

‘Her mother was too cunning for them. With the cunning that makes the mother wild-duck tumble apparently broken-winged just under your feet to decoy you away from her little things. STORGE, Gilbert White calls it!’[3]

White-The-Wakes

(The Wakes, Gilbert White’s house:
http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/?venue=gilbert-whites-house)

In The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984, a superb, rich study of how technological developments since the eighteenth century have affected the ways in which we interpret the world, Don Gifford wrote of how, for Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the ambition to be generally well read, that is, to have a reasonable grasp of all that was being published and made available, ‘was within reach’, and that a community of those sharing that distinction or at least that ambition was ‘at least imagined to be a given among educated men and women.’ His footnote mentions the assumption evident in Gilbert White’s letters that his correspondents shared his acquaintance with Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, Gray, Johnson, Hume, Gibbon, Sterne – as well as with the Bible, Virgil, Homer, Horace, the Koran, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. By the mid-80s (when he was writing this book), Gifford adds, ‘the idea of being well read and of belonging to such a community is a joke we have politely learned not to mention except with a shrug of self-deprecation.’

Of course, White’s acquaintance with Pope was not only with the man’s work: he was presented with a copy of Pope’s six-volume translation of the Iliad by the poet himself, when graduating with distinction from Oriel College, Oxford, in 1743.[4]

White’s fascinating and deceptively simple work has embedded itself in English culture in numerous contexts. His genius, as Ronald Blythe remarks, was ‘to revolutionise the study of natural history by noting what exactly lay outside his own back-door.’[5] In his first letter to the Honourable Daines Barrington in June 1769, White wrote, ‘I see you are a gentleman of great candour, and one that will make allowances; especially where the writer professes to be an out-door naturalist, one that takes his observations from the subject itself, and not from the writings of others’ (Selborne 104). He produced hundreds of pages, records of looking and listening and remembering and wondering. Birds, plants, insects, weather, animals, not least the human. ‘My musical friend, at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe set at concert-pitch, and finds they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring’ (Selborne 127).

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page

The local as the universal. A hundred and eighty years after White’s death, William Carlos Williams would note that the poet’s business was ‘to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, in the particular to discover the universal.’ He quoted the line of John Dewey’s that he had come upon by chance, ‘The local is the only universal, upon that all else builds’, commenting elsewhere that, ‘in proportion as a man has bestirred himself to become awake to his own locality he will perceive more and more of what is disclosed and find himself in a position to make the necessary translations.’[6] Williams in Rutherford; Thoreau in Concord; White in Selborne.

Don Gifford points out that, ‘In effect, White’s perspective differs radically from our own because he had no a priori basis for distinguishing between trivial and significant things.’ So, in addition to seeing with his own eyes, White ‘had to see cumulatively, a second order of seeing’. He tells the story of Henry Thoreau reducing Ellery Channing to tears when the two men went out into the woods together: Channing knew so little about what to record that he returned with an empty notebook, desperate and frustrated.[7]

White’s journals were published in 1931 and, Alexandra Harris comments, ‘his work was tirelessly reissued over the next decade.’ But then, in addition to being valued for his ‘timeless qualities’, White was ‘also being used as someone relevant to the present time precisely because the world he knew was disappearing.’[8]

When we read those writers detailing the current decline or disappearance of so much British wildlife, through environmental damage, farming practices and government policies, the parallels hardly need stressing.

On the matter of White’s journals, let your fingers do the running, to this superb resource:
http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/

House and garden, café and shop?
http://www.gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/

 

 
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 184; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 114, 133-134.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 163-164.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 63, 64, 65, 201.

[4] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 158 and n., 5.

[5] Ronald Blythe, Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2010), 226.

[6] William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1967), 391; Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 28.

[7] Gifford, Farther Shore, 10, 11.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson 2010), 171, 173.

 

Glorious ninth (or eleventh): Ford’s Encyclopaedia

Fordie

Hugh Kenner writes somewhere about the highly instructive experiment of going back to an encyclopaedia entry, once you actually know something of the subject to which it refers, and realising how much that entry has been altered by your enhanced knowledge. One of my favourite brief outlines of Ford Madox Ford’s life and work, of the encyclopaedic entry type (‘About the author’), appeared in the back pages of an American edition of one of his best-known works, managing four major errors in a dozen lines, while the prize exhibit among Ford scholars is probably the edition of one of his major novels which displays on the front cover an illustration placing the action of the book in entirely the wrong century, while, on the back cover, failing twice to spell the author’s name correctly. Between those covers, the last section of the text has mysteriously vanished.

That’s an individual perspective, of course, a personal, even specialised interest. But even in the case of Ford (a writer still not that widely known), a good many readers would surely have noticed the flawed nature of the Times obituary of Ford’s death. ‘Rather eccentric in selection of Ford books mentioned,’[1] Ford’s bibliographer comments of it. You might say that: the obituary fails to mention either The Good Soldier or the Parade’s End tetralogy. It does include a reference to the biography of his grandfather—though a mysterious painter named ‘Fox Madox Brown’ also features on this occasion.[2] But then at least one obituary of Herman Melville settled on Typee as his best book (though getting the publication date wrong) while omitting to mention Moby Dick at all.[3] (Although, as my old teacher, the late Tom Ingram, wrote in the margin of my essay, Typee is ‘still a damned good book.’)

FMB_Tells_Son

(Ford Madox Brown: Tell’s Son – Ford as model)

Like his friend Ezra Pound, Ford was wary of what he once termed ‘the half-learning of encyclopaedias’,[4] and made great play with them in several of his novels. In Some Do Not. . ., Christopher Tietjens is described as being ‘a perfect encyclopaedia of exact material knowledge’ – though this is stated not by the narrator but by Tietjens’ chief, Sir Reginald Ingleby. Tietjens diverts himself by ‘tabulating from memory the errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of which a new edition had lately appeared.’ But this, as so often, is a seemingly innocuous detail which expands, under informed scrutiny, into labyrinthine complexities, as the editor’s lengthy footnote explains.[5]

Later, his memory damaged by a shell-blast, Tietjens will work his way through precisely that encyclopaedia, though he will, as he realises, be forced out of his job on the pretext of his having no more general knowledge than is contained in it.

‘In the old days’, Ford had written just before the war, ‘a publisher had to consider what was Literature. [ . . . ] Now it was just a business. You found out what the public had to have. For what Mr. Sorrell supplied was just that. He gave them encyclopaedias’.[6] In that same year, in his short story, ‘The Case of James Lurgan’, the Encyclopaedia Britannica made another appearance: the doctor has ‘a copy of the ninth edition of this useful work in his dining-room’.[7]

IFMFS14

The ninth edition: Ford’s father had written for that edition, while his uncle, William Rossetti, wrote for the famous – the celebrated – eleventh edition, and even enlisted Ford’s help in revising his articles for it, mainly on Italian painters.[8] The eleventh edition appeared in 1910-1911, so Ford’s repeated references to the ninth edition are, I think, a joke—which is probably the explanation for a good many oddities and suspected errors in his work.

In his memoir of 1911 (that year again), Ford’s preface is addressed to his daughters: ‘To the one of you who succeeds in finding the greatest number [of errors] I will cheerfully present a copy of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so that you may still further perfect yourself in the hunting out of errors.’ Later in the book, he writes: ‘My father was a man of an encyclopaedic knowledge and had a great respect for the attainments of the distinguished.’ Yes, I think those last nine words save Ford needing to write fifty pages on his relationship with his father, even without the following sentence: ‘He used, I remember, habitually to call me “the patient but extremely stupid donkey.”’[9]

Ford Madox Ford died in the Clinique St François, Deauville, on this day, 26 June 1939. He was just sixty-five years old.

 
References

[1] David Dow Harvey, Ford Madox Ford 1873-1939: A Bibliography of Works and Criticism, (New York: Gordian Press, 1972), 425.

[2] ‘Obituary’, Times (27 June, 1939), 16.

[3] Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography. Volume 2, 1851-1891 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 921.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 129.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 6-7; 13 and note.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (London: Constable, 1911), 7.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Case of James Lurgan’, The Bystander, XXXII (6 December 1911), 540.

[8] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 195. David Jones lost his treasured copy of the eleventh edition in a bet with Evelyn Waugh on a point of history and Waugh arrived next morning in a taxi to collect it. See Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 169.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), xv, 41-42.

 

The Extraordinary Ordinary

Tree-of-Man

In Patrick White’s 1955 novel, The Tree of Man, Stan Parker, suspecting what has taken place between his wife and a commercial traveller, turns his car round and drives along familiar roads towards the city. ‘People who did not know what had happened were continuing to live their lives.’[1]

This called to mind the W. H. Auden poem referred to recently, the fall of Icarus into the sea barely warranting the attention of those others busy with their own concerns. In another Auden poem, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, he writes:

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays

He writes of the poet’s work passing into the minds and bodies of countless readers and listeners, who will adapt and interpret and use his writings in their own way and according to their own needs and urgencies, ‘The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.’

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have their sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And in each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.[2]

w-b-yeats

(W. B. Yeats via The Poetry Foundation)

The ultimate banal observation – that life continues – everywhere, or everywhere else, whatever disturbing or heart-rending or monstrous event is occurring here, or here, is something that must be confronted and withstood and, ultimately, accepted.

I remember the day on which I was waiting for a train to London, on my way to tell my mother that the hospital staff would be turning off my sister’s life support machine the next morning. My sister’s husband and daughter had made that impossible, inevitable decision and had asked me to break the news.

I was watching two young men on a bench across the tracks from me; one seemed to be dancing while still sitting down. His friend laughed, rocking gently to and fro. An elderly couple passed close to me, intent and purposeful; young women out for the evening shimmied and twirled. In touch with death and faced with exuberant or expressive or just ordinary life, you feel indignant but relieved, offended and thankful. You sit with your own arms wrapped around yourself, alive, while blood dances in your veins.

There is also the paradox against which you bruise yourself sooner or later: on the one hand, the life of practically any man or woman can be and generally is, in the end, whittled down to a handful of words, a few sentences. On the other hand, almost any individual life is, if viewed through certain lenses, immense, significant, infinitely varied. White’s novel, about professedly ‘ordinary’ people, embodies the question, over nearly five hundred pages, of whether there is really any such thing. ‘The sky was blurred now. As he stood waiting for the flesh to be loosened on him, he prayed for greater clarity, and it became obvious as a hand. It was clear that One, and no other figure, is the answer to all sums.’[3]

Sky-through-stone

All lives contain astonishments, illuminations, intensities, immeasurable depths – but very few can articulate, verbally, comprehensibly, what they have seen or glimpsed or divined. This is one purpose – or effect – of art: Guy Davenport despaired over the assumption, set in stone for so many, that the sole purpose of poetry is ‘self-expression’, ignoring the possibility that the poet ‘speaks for people who cannot speak’ and ‘makes sentences for people to say’.[4]

Hearing from Ford Madox Ford that he was publishing a fairy tale (three of Ford’s first five books were fairy tales), Peter Kropotkin said that he hoped it was not about princes and princesses (it was), or at least that Ford would write a fairy tale about simple and ordinary people. ‘I have been trying to do so ever since’, Ford commented forty years later. ‘I always want to write about ordinary people. But it seems to be almost impossible to decide who are ordinary people – and then to meet them. All men’s lives and characteristics are so singular.’[5] Elsewhere, he wrote of ‘The extraordinary complications of even the simplest lives! . . .’ and that ‘every case is a special case’.[6]

 The novelist Blanford, in Lawrence Durrell’s Quinx, also had his doubts about ordinariness: ‘Ah, the mind-numbing ineptness of the rational man with his formulations! Defeated always by the flying multiplicity of the real. “Ordinary life” – is there such a thing?’[7] While, perhaps most pertinently, Sarah Bakewell wrote of Michel de Montaigne, ‘From the start, Montaigne had the impression at once of being a peasant among peasants, and of being very special and different. This is the mixture of feelings that would stay with him for life. He felt ordinary, but knew that the very fact of realizing his ordinariness made him extraordinary.’[8]

 

 

References

[1] Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 322.

[2] W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 241, 242.

[3] White, The Tree of Man, 477.

[4] Guy Davenport, ‘Do You Have a Poem Book on E. E. Cummings?’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 132.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 108.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 43; Great Trade Route (London: Allen and Unwin, 1937), 299.

[7] Lawrence Durrell, Quinx, or The Ripper’s Tale, in The Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 1260.

[8] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 52.

 

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.