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Review of Ford Madox Ford
Saturday June 24th 1989
Ford Madox Ford wrote 82 books yet had three people at his funeral 50 years ago. Alan Judd offers a reassessment
WITH THE SCHOLAR GYPSY
Ford Madox Ford died in Deauville 50 years ago this coming Monday, aged 65, and in the arms of Janice, his young wife in all but law. A drunken grave-digger buried him in the wrong place.
"That," Janice said, "was Ford all over."
He died with his gift for incongruity and muddle intact. Elopement at 19 had resulted in a court order forbidding intercourse; when trying to divorce, he was virtually ordered to resume it. He wrote 82 books, some among the greatest in this language this century, and had three people at his funeral. At death, he owned almost nothing - possessions were
"just a sort of public property that happened to have floated into my
kitchen" - but he was rich in ways that mattered.
Already in 1915, Rebecca West had called him "this Scholar Gipsy of English letters; he is the author who is recognized only as he disappears round the
corner". Ezra Pound, a close friend, said that Ford had all the virtues, plus a knack for deploying the wrong one and that his epitaph should be
A celebration of this great novelist has therefore to begin by excusing him for not being better known, by insisting that he was English and that he was not his own grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown. Those that read him now usually know only his masterpieces, The Good Soldier, The Parade's End tetralogy and the Fifth Queen trilogy.
The last is about Katharine Howard and would be better known if historical novels were not regarded as a literary sub-species, while The Good Soldier is a book that can have no successors. It is artistically perfect and enclosed, like a sphere and can be considered the high watermark of the James-tan tradition.
Parade's End, described by Auden as one of the few English novels that deserve to be called great, deals with similar themes of loyalty and deceit, passion and convention, principle and expediency, but on a broader scale and in the context of the First World War. Ford joined up at the age of 41 and his disguised autobiographical account, No Enemy, has only ever been published in America.
Others may know him as the teller of lies and tall stories. He was, as Pound said, one who saw Venus crossing the tram-tracks. But many of his stories occur in the richly entertaining volumes of reminiscence, in which he was seeking to convey impressions, not records, and in which a lie was made
"a figurative truth".
His reputation has suffered and his criticism has been neglected because his portraits of other writers were more vividly true to their subjects than other people's histories. Should such exaggerations matter now? As William Caries Williams wrote in an obituary poem,
... Thank god you
Were not delicate, you let the world in
and lied! damnit you lied grossly
sometimes. But it was all. I
see now, a carelessness, the part of a man
that is homeless here on earth ...
He may more properly be remembered as an editor of genius, founder of The English Review in Edwardian London and The Transatlantic Review in Twenties Paris. His involvement was short-lived and meteoric but he managed to include nearly all major literary names at the same time as publishing young unknowns such as Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Lawrence, and Hemingway. He had a lifelong mission to those unknowns; perhaps the only comparable modem journal is Alan Ross's London Magazine
He is known also for his women, involvements which may not merit comparison with contemporary editors but which continued to attract envious attention, perhaps because in portly and in unprepossessing middle age he still appealed to the young. His friend James Joyce (they argued about the virtues of red and white wine) wrote:
0 Father O'Ford, you've a masterful way with vou,
Maid, wife, wife and widow are wild to make hay with
Blonde and brunette turn-about runaway with you,
You've such a way with you, father O'Ford.
He liked women and they liked him, probably because of his conversation - like caviar, said one - his charm, his sensitivity (he was very good on female characters) and his natural sympathy. He was a lifelong feminist - as he was an anarchic Tory - and supported the Suffragettes.
Some see him as simply an archipelago to such land masses as Conrad, James and Wells. But any exploration will show a continent as deep as theirs; it is probably the vagaries of his personal life and his confused publishing history (he had more than 30 publishers) that have denied him proper recognition.
His lesser works are hard to find, although Carcanet are remedying this. Look for those wonderful reminiscences written from the Riviera, for novels such as The Rash Act, especially for the poetry. He wrote too much, inevitably, and most of his best were published only in America.
OUP was to produce a second collected edition in the late Thirties, but lost the proofs; that too was Ford all over. Basil Bunting edited a small American selection in the Seventies. There are war poems and poems of late love -the
"Buckshee" series, inspired by Janice - that should be indispensable to any anthology
In the United States, it is the academics who have kept him alive, here it is other writers, notably Pritchett, Burgess and Greene (although Max Saunders of Cambridge is shortly to produce a welcome critical biography). Greene, whom Ford had encouraged, wrote later
"I don't suppose failure disturbed him much: he had never really believed in human happiness, his middle life had been made miserable by passion and he had come through - with his humour intact, his stock of unreliable anecdotes, and a half-belief in a posterity which would care for good writing."
It is Ford's unbounded enthusiasm for good letters - not only his own - that makes him so likeable, his practice that makes him so readable. He is best honoured by being read.
Alan Judd's biography of Ford Madox Ford is to be published by Collins at the end of this
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