Grandiose Moments

Frank Kermode

  • Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Vol. II by Max Saunders
    Oxford, 696 pp, £35.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 19 212608 3

Ford Madox Ford, an appealingly talented and gossipy subject, has naturally attracted biographers. In 1971 Arthur Mizener’s The Saddest Story seemed adequately exhaustive, but now Max Saunders comes along with two vast volumes, even more thorough and more than doubling the page count. Alan Judd, faithful to Ford’s own lack of respect for academic pieties, brought out his footnoteless but still valuable life of Ford in 1990. Saunders, like Mizener, is an academic and has hundreds of scrupulous notes. Mizener had the advantage of being able to consult many surviving friends of Ford, including Allen Tate, Herbert Read, Jean Rhys and Rebecca West. He also had access to the papers of Ford’s mistress Violet Hunt and the Ford collections in various American libraries, notably those of Cornell and Princeton. Judd and Saunders were denied by death of useful contemporary testimony, except for that of Janice Biala, Ford’s widow, to whom all three biographers are properly grateful. With her consent they all had access to the archives, and the later writers also acknowledge their debts to Mizener, despite some sharp disagreements in interpretation.

If you add to the list other works wholly or partly biographical, such as Frank MacShane’s of 1965, and various memoirs such as Douglas Goldring’s South Lodge, you have to agree that Ford the man has been capable of sustaining interest. The record as to his work is not quite so impressive; of his eighty-odd books not many are read, except for The Good Soldier and the tetralogy Parade’s End. These have many admirers, some fanatical, but the hectic and often disastrous life story has claimed more attention than most of the books. Max Saunders, however, is devoted to the life and works in toto, and his volumes are an extraordinary act of homage to Ford as both great writer and inexhaustibly fascinating personality – to borrow Wallace Stevens’s words of the dying Santayana, as ‘master and commiserable man’.

Ford was, in crude ordinary parlance, a liar, and Mizener made no bones about saying so and deploring the fact. It was a charge perfectly commonplace among all who knew Ford, friends as well as enemies. Robert Lowell, who met him through Allen Tate near the end of his life, quotes the story of Ford, an over-age wartime second lieutenant, playing golf with Lloyd George and giving the PM a piece of his mind on golfing etiquette: had he refrained, he told Lowell, he ‘would have been a general of a division’. Lowell speaks of ‘lies that made the great your equals’, which identifies one major motive for mendacity. H.G. Wells thought Ford’s habit was a result of his shell shock. Nothing was too extravagant: Lizst had played for him; he had helped Marconi to transmit the first transatlantic radio signal; Henry James, ‘tears in his eyes’, would come running to him with a novelistic problem; Escoffier said he could ‘learn cooking’ from Ford. If Conrad, in a temper, banged his fist on the table and made the teacups jump, Ford must say that he threw the teacups into the fire. He was ‘a baron five times over’. One of his stories caused some indignation in Whitehall and the Palace: he claimed that his powerful, admired friend C.F.G. Masterman once told him George V had threatened to abdicate if the Government refused to hold a conference on the Irish question. He told so many absurd lies that people didn’t believe him when he happened to be telling the truth – for example, that he wrote quite a bit of Conrad’s Nostromo and in other ways made himself much more than merely useful to his admired senior collaborator, though this didn’t prevent Conrad from dropping him, or the widow Conrad from calling him a liar at a rare moment when he wasn’t.

So the degree of his mendacity was a constantly recurring and finally a serious question. Some, like Hemingway (who, in common with most of the younger writers he knew, was directly indebted to him), rarely referred to Ford without contempt. Ezra Pound, a sometimes exasperated admirer, took the fibs less seriously. Allen Tate, the writer closest to Ford in his last years, was also indulgent. Opinion depended to some extent on one’s estimate of the other side of Ford: how much one valued his extraordinary generosity, not only with money (though he was ‘perpetually penniless’) but also with editorial and literary assistance and advice. Naturally Ford himself defended his tall tales, explaining his need to ‘poeticise’, whether in conversation or in his autobiographical volumes. He was an ‘impressionist’, not a purveyor of fact. A memoir needed to be ‘shaped’. His hero in The Rash Act finds that pretending to be somebody else ‘proved easy. It had been like when you valorously set out on a course of lying. You come to believe yourself in the end.’

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