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.’

There seems little doubt that in acquiring a reputation as a liar Ford damaged his reputation more generally, and that this had an effect on his reception; perhaps it continues to do so, in spite of distinguished advocacy over the years, for instance from Pound, who admired his combination of old-world Tory manners and avant-garde sympathies, and from Graham Greene, who imitated his techniques, notably in The End of the Affair.

These writers and many others of many stripes – Herbert Read, D.H. Lawrence, Hugh Walpole, for instance – admired him because he was shrewd and helpful about the business of writing. That Max Saunders is a fervent admirer in this tradition is amply proved by his devoting the best part of two decades to this biography. He attends carefully to the writing, and he has discovered much previously unknown material, here expounded with exemplary care. His portrait of Ford includes sketches of all those writers with whom he came into mostly beneficent contact (they certainly make an impressive list, especially the ones he could refer to as les jeunes), and the slightly smaller but still considerable number of women with whom he had more or less catastrophic relationships.

Knowing so much about all the disgraceful goings-on doesn’t prevent Saunders from being a complete devotee, assured of the greatness of his subject. His wish to defend Ford against the charge that he was a pathological liar is all too evident. He accepts Ford’s account of himself as an ‘impressionist’, devoted to ‘shaping’, in love with the arts of storytelling, a man to whom writing was life, so that the facts of real life were merely contributory to it. Recurring constantly to this topic, Saunders almost always grants absolution. He loves the memoirs, and of course the central works, The Good Soldier and Parade’s End, to which he devotes what amount to book-length studies, the first embedded in Volume I and the second in Volume II.

These books have had a lot of critical attention, and Saunders has taken it all into consideration, but his studies are as fresh as they are minute. Perhaps admiration for the technical virtuosity of The Good Soldier should be tempered by some consideration of the bundle of errors and inconsistencies introduced during the virtuoso ‘treatment’. Still, it remains a wonderful book, and a prime concern to lovers of Ford; Saunders does it justice. It may seem useless to complain that doing so much justice makes this biography too long. Saunders looks into every corner and does a lot of literary criticism along the way; one feels, as his prose rolls equably on and the notes pile up, that this is a celebration that could go on indefinitely, always intelligent, always considerate, always affectionate.

Ford, conscious of having been reared in the shadow of greatness, was a companionable, even, on occasion, a modest, fellow, invariably helpful (‘everybody’s blessed uncle’, said D.H. Lawrence) but apt to put on airs when things were for the moment going well, not least with publishers. Saunders rather enjoys these grandiose moments, while lamenting the harm they did Ford. He is equally patient in dealing with his subject’s unusually awful sexual tangles. ‘The abominable tortures of sex’, he moaned, being, as he thought, naturally polygamous in a society that discouraged polygamy. Married young to Elsie Martindale (he told her she mustn’t expect him to be faithful), he had some sort of affair with her sister Mary; then he was seriously involved with Violet Hunt, a fashionable novelist and by all accounts a very alarming woman. When she called herself Mrs Hueffer (Ford’s original surname) she was at once sued by Elsie, who would never consent to a divorce: Ford tried to get one in Germany and failed but lied about it. He behaved foolishly in court and was sent to prison for withholding maintenance payments to Elsie, who also got an order for the restitution of conjugal rights, which Ford ignored. Hunt, who is, roughly speaking, the Sylvia of Parade’s End, still called herself his wife and would not free him to marry Stella Bowen. His partnership with that talented woman, bedevilled by these other women and other evidence of Ford’s polygamous nature, lasted about ten years, and she accepted its end with the sort of honourable renunciation that Ford’s code prescribed and which he often invoked but rarely practised. Having given his women a bad time he tended to feel guiltily obliged to them, on occasion offering them marriage when he had no intention of returning to them. There was a period in New York in the Twenties when he was still, in his sixties, writing apologetically to Bowen, while wooing a young woman called Rene Wright, while needing to shed Wright in order to have Elizabeth Cheatham – a girl unknown to Mizener who is here honoured with a whole chapter, though it seems unlikely that there was a conquest. Saunders knows about eighteen or so affairs of varying depth and length and misery, including the one with Jean Rhys. ‘Men suffer for their desires,’ he said, and Rhys was sure they should. Eventually, already old, he was joined by the youthful Janice Biala, who saw him through to the end.

One reason for listening to these sad stories is that they exhibit a temperament perfectly rendered in The Good Soldier, originally named The Saddest Story. Ashburnham, the romantic seducer who can’t keep his hands off a nursemaid in a train, is driven to suicide by the effort of repressing his desire for his ward Nancy Rufford (Saunders conjectures, from various dark hints in the text, that Nancy is Ashburnham’s illegitimate daughter). Dowell, the narrator, is another rather caricatured view of Ford, suffering for his desires, abominably tortured because of his failure to understand the deviousness of his wife and his classy English friends. He frequently remarks that he knows nothing, and proves it. Sex in particular is what he knows nothing about. He accepts his blank marriage without complaint, yet longs to be exactly like the stud Ashburnham, who is years into his affair with Dowell’s wife. (Ford had a notion that Americans were undersexed: nowadays Americans profess to think the same of Englishmen – it must have something to do with political and imperial power/impotence.) This sexually ignorant and gullible narrator admirably serves Ford’s purposes; his failures to see the point, his vaguenesses and propensity for impercipient but excited chatter serve the great cause of Technique, time-shifting, progression d’effets, the whole ‘treatment’ business.

The most startling moment in the novel is its opening, when Dowell says: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’ If I understand the textual note in Martin Stannard’s authoritative edition of the novel (Norton, 1995), this sentence wasn’t in the typescript of the first three and a half chapters sent to Wyndham Lewis for inclusion in the first issue of BLAST (June 1914). What is so odd and brilliant about the addition is that the story Dowell has to tell is about four principal characters, of whom he himself is one, and that it involves him as a long-term cuckold, deceived with laughable ease and eventually left to spend his widowhood looking after a girl driven mad by his associates, with their wicked blend of bogus honour and selfish malignancy. Meanwhile he can reflect on the suicide of his wife and her lover. This story, the story of his wretched life, he can describe as one he has heard. James and Conrad would have been proud of such narratorial passivity. The sentence is an excellent prelude to a narration in which the proximate cause of complexity is Dowell’s inability to understand what he’s involved in; which in turn enables Ford to produce his splendidly ambiguous moments of recognition. Even the mistakes in the complex chronology can be attributed either to Dowell’s stupidity or to his mendacity.

Ashburnham and Dowell are a right pair, a perfect illustration of the habitual duality of Ford (even his chosen name provides him with what he lacked by birth, an extra Ford). Saunders, as his subtitle suggests, discovers all manner of dualisms in his hero, and possibly uses the idea to explain too much. But the dualisms certainly exist. The Tietjens of Parade’s End is another sort of double (Ford as he would have liked to be, under stressful conditions he well understood). He clearly believed that it was in novels that one told the truth, which would always be obscure and ambiguous; so that there is another duality: everyday Ford the honourable liar, and Ford the artist telling the dishonourable truth. Violet Hunt remarked knowingly that Ford was ‘an author unfortunately doubled with a man’.

That ‘the good soldier’ should have been published on either side of 4 August 1914 has a certain propriety. Ford came to attach a superstitious importance to that date, and his determined attempt, in revision, to make almost all the big scenes of the book happen on it results in certain muddles. It was the date when the world he thought he understood came to an end. He did his bit in the war, though far too old to be in the fighting line, and was blown up by a shell burst. Saunders emphasises the suffering this caused him over the following years, nervous breakdowns made worse by the evident decision of the literary world, where he had been a fairly considerable figure, to forget him. (Perhaps it didn’t help that he changed his name from Hueffer, with which he had signed his prewar writings, to Ford.) After that, says Saunders, his work was largely an ‘attempt to render and to understand the changes wrought by the war in the world and himself’. This attempt included some intermissions of his prodigious literary output, when he and Stella Bowen supported themselves by small-scale farming. But he was always ‘mad about writing’, and seemingly wonderfully equipped for the job, with high notions of technique, extraordinary quantities of information, literary and otherwise, a unique store of reminiscences and the desire to polish and publish them, and an acquaintance that included many of the important writers of three generations.

Neglected at home, he moved to America, where he found a good many admirers, some not without influence. Yet he never had the degree of success that came belatedly to Conrad with Chance. Why should this have been so? Saunders, always intelligently loyal, is reluctant to agree that he wrote too much and sometimes not well enough; he has a good word for most of the books, and some of them seem to him evidence that Ford was a great writer. In maintaining that opinion he goes beyond what many of Ford’s greatest admirers have argued. About The Good Soldier it would be futile to dissent: it is surely one of the great English novels of the century; and Parade’s End, whether or not you omit the last volume of the tetralogy as Graham Greene did, is not much behind it.

Yet even in these books there are traces of a characteristic that can, in larger doses, frustrate or irritate the reader. Saunders thinks very well of The Marsden Case, and his admiration for The Rash Act has the notable support of C.H. Sisson, who says in his Introduction to the Carcanet edition (1982) that ‘it has a seriousness which goes further and deeper than that of the great tetralogy’ – that it is a technical masterpiece, exhibiting Ford’s remarkable powers in their ripest state. The Rash Act is another of Ford’s doubling performances, with one character who admires another, very like him in physique and even in name; after the suicide of the admired one the other assumes his identity. There are many brilliant passages, but there is also a lot of ostentatious fussing: ‘an immense amount of beating about the bush, army slang and endearing epithets’, as the narrator revealingly says of the dead man’s faithfully reported speech habits. And the same is true of The Marsden Case; it is as if the voice of Ford, huffing and puffing, always extravagant, always digressive, has got into the text. The effect, associated with Ford’s ‘impressionism’, is not the simplicity of language he claimed to be necessary (to keep in touch with the average reader, to cover the clever manipulations of time, and so forth). Apart from the acknowledged masterpieces these are regarded as Ford’s best books (though Saunders also greatly admires Henry for Hugh, a sequel to The Rash Act). It is hard to imagine either of them appealing to a large audience. And Ford’s keenest admirers were themselves artists and technicians, some of them pupils, like Jean Rhys, who in revenge turned his own weapons against him, and Allen Tate, a poet who wrote one fine Fordian novel, The Fathers, which uses the method, imitates ‘the treatment’, but avoids the fuss.

Saunders thinks of The Good Soldier as consummating a ‘tragic phase’ in Ford’s work, and of The Rash Act as ‘Ford’s Tempest’, which might seem to many an excessive degree of veneration. Yet it is impossible to read his two enormous volumes, with all the new information they contain (for example, about an important unpublished postwar fragment, ‘True Love and a GCM’), without paying tribute to Saunders’s devotion and his account of the many-sided, foolish brilliance of his subject. In giving us a new measure of Ford’s greatness he cannot help explaining along the way why it has never become a matter of general agreement. The life and the work multiply reflect one another. Ford wrote autobiographies which are works loosely and unreliably founded in the life, and these also have that expansive superficial fuss. Perhaps only committed Fordians really love them.

Then again, as is often the fate of major literary figures, the people he knew were mostly writers, so we have the views of wounded women – his wife, Violet Hunt, Stella Bowen (the noblest of them) and Jean Rhys (the bitterest and most gifted). He is odious to Hemingway, a forgivable hero to Pound, the doomed Old Guard to Wyndham Lewis, a lovable absurdity to H.G. Wells. Gertrude Stein, in his presence, said he simply wouldn’t do: ‘Fordie is hopeless – all European, all experience.’ He probably wouldn’t contest this, might even have seen it as a reluctant accolade. Stein’s compatriots have been kinder to Ford, and until recently nearly all the most interesting biographical and critical work has come from America. What it has achieved is proper respect for The Good Soldier and some other books – Parade’s End, The Fifth Queen perhaps. It hasn’t quite got Ford through the strait gate that leads into the Canon, but perhaps in these days that isn’t, anyway, a very desirable or permanent location. He remains half in and half out, in accordance with Saunders’s prescription dual to the last.