Perversity, perhaps

(Francis Carco; Jean Rhys)

In ‘A Feeling for Ice’, Jenny Diski describes the moment in her trip to Antarctica when the ship approaches St Andrew’s Bay, ‘the great penguin treat of the trip.’ She notes the ‘legion of black faces and orange beaks pointed out to sea facing in our direction, seeming to observe our arrival.’

‘One day, once a year or so, black rubber dinghies approach, and a handful of people come to the Bay, believing that the penguins are watching them arrive. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They parted slightly to make way for us, but they still stood looking out to sea.’[1]

Looking out to sea, looking in to see. Out there, of course, the days go by, sometimes galloping, sometimes on hands and knees – but generally not hanging around. ‘Time is different at different times in one’s life’, Doris Lessing observed. ‘A year in your thirties is much shorter than a child’s year – which is almost endless – but long compared with a year in your forties; whereas a year in your seventies is a mere blink.’[2]

(Photography by Edward Curtis)

Yes, those earlier days are denser, more numerous. There was a time in the United States when the buffalo numbered tens of millions; by the late nineteenth century, they could be counted in hundreds. In 1849, Francis Parkman had observed of the Western Dakota that the buffalo ‘supplies them with almost all the necessaries of life’, adding: ‘When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away.’[3] Peter Benson’s Isabel’s Skin is not upbeat on the matter of days— ‘Days come and days pass, and it is too easy to think you know what happened. People change and you think you knew who they were, who you were and how you reached the place you find yourself in, but you know nothing’—but more so when it comes to books, which ‘sleep, awake, open, and sometimes even change a life. They move like herds of animals across dust plains and leave clouds in the sky.’[4]

Red letter days, black letter days, some anonymous, some named. Last Friday was my mother’s one hundredth birthday – or would have been had she hung on just seven more years. When she had trouble recalling which day of the week it was, we hung a calendar on her wall. Now, since I retired, I can usually answer a query of that kind correctly – as long as I don’t have to give too snappy a response.

Named days. On All Hallows’ Eve, and on All Saints’ Day—I suspect that they won’t be marching in, and certainly not here—we walked between the showers, often accompanied by a furious wind as we began the long circuit of the cemetery. Then a few days of wetter weather, the grass of the park beginning to feel spongy, never quite drying out. And this morning a misleading blaze of blue through almost leafless branches at the back of the house where the tortoiseshell cat high-steps along our fence.

‘How odd Memory is – in her sorting arrangements’, the narrator of Walter de la Mare’s unsettling story ‘All Hallows’ remarks, ‘How perverse her pigeon-holes.’[5]

Perverse! The very word is like a bell, tolling me back. . . Well, here’s Guy Davenport, admirer of—and expert on—Ezra Pound’s poetry: ‘Pound’s strategy in choosing the materia and dynamics for The Cantos is at least consistent: reduced to a law it is this: In every subject to be treated, choose the matter which most perversely exemplifies it.’ He adds that it’s a good rule for a poet determined to be original. ‘When, however, the rule tyrannizes its manipulator, its perversity ceases to be strategic, and much in the poem that rings false can be traced to this simple rule.’[6]

Patrick White has a character resolving a theological dispute: ‘Then the old man, who had been cornered long enough [by the young evangelist], saw, through perversity perhaps, but with his own eyes. He was illuminated.  
‘He pointed with his stick at the gob of spittle.  
‘“That is God,” he said.’[7]

Still, the word’s primary nudge, for a Ford Madox Ford reader, is towards Perversité by Francis Carco or, rather, the vexed history of its translation. Carco was a poet, dramatist and novelist, and a pilot during the First World War, when he had an affair with Katherine Mansfield, who stayed with him in the spring of 1915 and drew on that time for at least two of her stories, one of them Je ne parle pas français.

Ford’s affair with Jean Rhys had various consequences for both parties: one of them was his securing for Rhys the job of translating Carco’s novel. As Carole Angier records, ‘This last kindness Ford had done her ended no better than the others: for when Perversity was published in 1928, the translation was credited not to Jean but to Ford. She was angry and upset about this for a long time, convinced that once again he had deliberately exploited and betrayed her. In fact, in this affair she hadn’t been Ford’s victim but that of the publisher, Pascal Covici. Ford had clearly named her as translator from the start, both to Covici and to others; but Covici had evidently decided that the book would sell better with Ford’s name on it.’[8]

Rhys’s own version, nearly forty years after its publication, emerged in a letter to Francis Wyndham, to whom she mentioned that she’d received a letter from Arthur Mizener, asking if she had any letters from Ford—which Cornell University would willingly buy—and also about the translation of Perversité. ‘I did that ages ago’, Rhys wrote to Wyndham, ‘and when it appeared my agent wrote to ask about it, for I hadn’t been told that I was “ghosting”. It was Covici the publisher’s fault, and I know Ford did his best to put things right. Then the book was banned and I heard no more about it. Mr Mizener said that a lot of ink had been spilled, which surprised me, for several people knew I was doing it at the time. I wasn’t very pleased with the translation for it had to be done in a hurry and there was a good deal of slang.’[9]

Arthur Mizener—not in person but by way of his biography of Ford—cropped up in a recent walk. Conversation with the Librarian in parks and cemeteries tends to begin with—or recur to—those perennial themes and questions: is this the worst government that either of us can remember? Yes. How was it news to so many people that the present administration is thoroughly corrupt? Don’t know. Can the country ever recover from the damage they’ve done, are doing, will continue to do to it? Probably not. But then there are trees, birds, other people, weather, food, wine and books.

On this occasion, I rambled on for a while about Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford, which I’d been re-reading. Although frequently assailed by anecdotes, alleged insights, snippets of research and the like, the Librarian’s interest in Ford is primarily, let’s say, by association, though she was getting along swimmingly with Parade’s End until she reached the final volume, Last Post – the one I edited, of course. Still, the fresh air, the surroundings, the rhythm of walking, together fostered a tolerant attention, so I rattled on.

Fordians tend to have a problem with Mizener. He did a lot of research and produced a great deal of valuable information – but ended up not liking Ford very much, often put the worst possible construction on his actions and reactions, and rarely believed a word he said. But what had struck me on reading the book again after a long hiatus was that Mizener seemed unfamiliar with what a novelist actually does—and, in fact, what anybody does to a greater or lesser degree. When he pointed out, rather censoriously, Ford’s recasting of experiences, rearranging the elements of a story, lightening or darkening materials, retelling an anecdote with variations, I found myself pencilling in the margins ‘But – Art!’ or ‘Fiction! Fiction!’ or silently shouting: That’s his job! or He’s a writer! or even (appallingly appropriative, I know) Me too!

None of which, obviously, will prevent my snaffling whatever useful details I can glean for my own purposes from his—or, indeed, anybody else’s—endnotes.

Not to do so would be sheer perversité.


[1] Jenny Diski, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 103, 104. The essay was first published in January 1997.

[2] Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade (1997; London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 32-33.

[3] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; edited by David Levin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 199.

[4] Peter Benson, Isabel’s Skin (Richmond: Alma Books, 2013), 19, 123.

[5] Walter de la Mare, Short Stories, 1895-1926, edited by Giles de la Mare (London: Giles de la Mare Publishers Limited, 1996), 339.

[6] Guy Davenport, Cities on Hills: A Study of I–XXX of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983), 257. The book was a revision of Davenport’s 1961 PhD thesis.

[7] Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 476.

[8] Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work (London: Andre Deutsch, 1990), 164.

[9] Rhys to to Wyndham, 28 January [1966]: Jean Rhys: Letters, 1931-1966, edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: André Deutsch, 1984), 294-295.