Lemon and Pink

David Trotter

One day in 1914, Ford Madox Ford, then 40 years old and feeling it, found himself for a while in the custody of the youthful Percy Wyndham Lewis, a writer whose work had appeared in Ford’s magazine, the English Review, and who was about to launch a magazine of his own, the rather more intemperate Blast. Gripping Ford by the elbow, Lewis, who was as usual in incendiary mood, poured scorn on him and his associates. ‘You and Mr Conrad and Mr James and all those old fellows are done,’ he was to be heard insisting. ‘Exploded! ... Fichus! ... No good! ... Finished!’ Lewis’s beef was with literary ‘impressionism’: with novels which sought intricately to render the movements, at once furtive and immense, of a consciousness enmeshed in and inseparable from worlds not of its own making. ‘You fellows try to efface yourselves; to make people think that there isn’t any author and that they’re living in the affairs you ... adumbrate, isn’t that your word? ... What balls!’ Adumbration had been Flaubert’s method, and Turgenev’s, and James’s, and Conrad’s. It was rather ostentatiously the method of Ford’s The Good Soldier, whose opening chapters were shortly to appear in Blast. Lewis thought that people had had enough of all that. They did not want self-effacement. They wanted brilliant fellows like him performing stunts and letting off fireworks. ‘What’s the good of being an author if you don’t get any fun out of it?’

Ford told this story several times in several different ways, each time effacing himself assiduously, the better to adumbrate Lewis’s brilliant performance. The version recounted in Return to Yesterday situates Ezra Pound at his other elbow, talking incessantly in an incomprehensible accent. Ford, it would seem, could barely set foot outside his front door without importunate persons of one kind or another falling in beside him. When he lived in Holland Park Avenue, he would take his morning walk with Ezra Pound at one elbow, barely visible beneath an immense sombrero, and at the other the leopardskin-clad Mrs Gwendolen Bishop, who danced snake dances and made pottery; Mrs Bishop, although proceeding away from rather than towards her home, had in one hand a string bag full of onions, which Ford felt it his duty to carry. Ford attracted neediness. Beggars, runaways, lost property, writs, stray opinions, unwelcome confidences, random abuse: all attached themselves to him as though to a magnet. And there can have been few moments in his adult life when there weren’t at least two women competing for his sexual attention. Scandal, another kind of neediness, proved equally adhesive. He was suspected of more or less anything, from sleeping with his sister-in-law to leaving slices of bacon between the pages of the books he read at breakfast.

Return to Yesterday, first published in 1931, is a memoir of literary life in England in the Late Victorian and Edwardian eras. It begins in 1891, with Ford immersed in Kipling’s ‘Only a Subaltern’, on a train in Sussex; and ends at a country-house party in Berwickshire in August 1914, during which someone reads aloud from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then appearing in the Egoist, and war is declared. It describes two successive changings of the literary guard: from the Great Victorians to the Great Moderns (Hardy, James, Conrad, Kipling, Wells), and from the Great Moderns to really modern Modernism (Pound, Lewis, Eliot, Joyce). It also has much to say about the commercialisation of literature during the period, about literary agents, about booming and book wars. ‘So,’ Ford remarks, ‘if one can keep oneself out of it, one may present a picture of a sort of world and time.’

He never did keep himself out of the picture, of course, and never meant to. The autobiography in Return to Yesterday often amounts to little more than local colour. Ford may well be lying when he maintains that he once fought a duel in Bonn with a fellow student who trod on the tail of his dog, and got no credit for it, because duelling had suddenly become unfashionable. But the anecdote does record, as it were from the inside, both the appeal and the limitations of a certain historically specific habit of mind. More reliable, and more harrowing, is the description of his search for a cure from the agoraphobia and intense depression which afflicted him for a while in the early 1900s. Ford spent some miserable months in Continental sanatoria, existing on a diet of pork and ice-cream, or dried peas and grapes, while the specialists proposed a sexual origin for his troubles, and he lost weight dramatically. ‘Brain-Fag’ was about the best they could do by way of diagnosis, and perhaps they were right.

Autobiography’s main function in this picture of a sort of world and time is as an interference. It preserves the memoir from literary history: from the celebration of genius it sometimes threatens to become, from elegy. Ford took literature seriously, but not for granted. Insofar as Return to Yesterday is a portrait of the artist as a young man, it is the portrait of a young man who for much of the time would rather be a subaltern, a historian, a pig farmer, indeed anything at all, than an artist. It is a book about ‘pure letters’, and about much else besides, about politics, and suicide, and market-gardening. Literature, Ford wants to say, however luminous, cannot escape its own inconsequence; and he renders that inconsequence by a steady withdrawal of attention, emphatic but never petulant, from the performance writers make of their art. A chapter which begins momentously with Joseph Conrad, and develops into a meticulous and heartfelt tribute to Stephen Crane, concludes by recommending an old leather portmanteau as the best possible manure for fig trees. Mrs Gwendolen Bishop no doubt astonished Holland Park Avenue with the splendour of her costume; it’s the onions we remember her by.

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[*] It is the intimations of class and sex war in Parade’s End which have persuaded David Ayers to give Ford a prominent place in his resolutely invigorating account of English Literature in the 1920s (Edinburgh, 248 pp., £40, 5 February 1999, 0 7486 0985 7). English literature turns out to mean English fiction, but within that narrower frame of reference the argument is wide-ranging and sophisticated. Ford apart, the main beneficiary of Ayers’s contextualising approach is Lawrence, but he also writes well about Lewis and Woolf, in particular. A dizzying final chapter, which imaginatively construes A Passage to India with the help of Hegel and Derrida, seems to belong to a different book altogether.