Goodbyes and Decay: On Ford Madox Ford

09.14.2004 | Sam Munson | Literature, Unfairly Forgotten | 1 Comment

It’s hard to know what to say about Ford Madox Ford. Robert Lowell (whose mentor Ford was) has already done a much better job of eulogizing him than I could hope to:

 …Fiction! I’m selling short
the lies that made the great your equals. Ford,
you were a kind man and you died in want.

These, the closing lines of Lowell’s “Ford Madox Ford,” probably would have offended Ford’s ambitions, which were consuming. They also would have gratified his perversity. I mean no offense to him by calling him perverse; he was something of a pathological liar and a compulsive philanderer, and a confirmed contrarian.  It is quite impossible to find any literary work of his time, and on his subjects, that resembles remotely the four novels (Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post) that comprise Parade’s End.

Parade’s End is the story of Christopher Tietjens and his exploits before, during, and after the First World War. The plot is fairly uncomplicated: Tietjens leaves his first wife, is wounded physically and mentally in the war, finds another love. His older brother dies. His friend Macmaster becomes a minor sort of literary success. If Anna Karenina can be read as the greatest and most comprehensive treatment of the theme “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay”, Parade’s End can be read as a similarly brilliant treatment of the theme “Goodbye to all that.”

Ford managed, somehow, to write a consummately modernist novel on the end of a certain era in England, to fill it with scenes of over-ripeness and decay, and to avoid, somehow, being allegorical, symbolic, or political in any way. Perhaps the best example of this is the famous scene at the country house, during a meal at which Tietjens and Macmaster are present, when the master of the house, one Mr. Duchemin, known as “Breakfast” Duchemin when he was Tietjens’ contemporary at Oxford, has a psychotic episode. Ford presents this with all the suddenness and violence to propriety that such an episode must have occasioned then (and still occasions now, after a century of our immersion in psychology). Duchemin’s madness is sexual, but Ford alludes neither to Priapus nor Caligula. He scrupulously avoids any attempt to extend this into a commentary on the decline of the British upper classes: the scene is over almost as quickly as it begins. But it remains lodged in the reader’s mind. There are many such scenes throughout Parade’s End — events that occur without warning or announcement, that jar the reader but do not violate the tone or texture of the book. When Ford begins writing about the actual war, the great use of this particular talent of his, this talent for the apparently incongruous, becomes brilliantly apparent. And through this particular talent he does bid a powerful goodbye-to-all-that, without being lachrymose, or falsely resilient, or grandiose: what is an idiosyncratic mind more suited to than eulogizing the last moments of an era?

Ford was a great encourager — he founded the Transatlantic Review, was the first to publish Joyce and Hemingway, and survived to help Robert Lowell become Robert Lowell. Like most encouragers, he is forgotten. Who remembers the Schlegel brothers, and the Athenaum review? Who remembers Mencken, really? Unlike most encouragers, he was not a mediocrity, as the Schlegels and Mencken, sadly, were. His talent may have been peculiar. We may even accuse him of belonging too much to his time, as we are wont to do to writers who never became major stars in the constellation of their particular movement. But Parade’s End and The Good Soldier, which was Ford’s own candidate for his finest book, remain fresher, and indeed more modern, than anything Virginia Woolf or E.M. Forster, who are perhaps the only authors at all stylistically comparable to him, ever wrote. (Poetry is another matter — Ford has a much closer compatriot in David Jones, in my opinion.)  Ford wrote more than thirty novels. I have not read any of them except The Good Soldier and the four that comprise Parade’s End. This removes much weight from my praise for him. Yet it seems doubtful to me that, even if his remaining corpus should constitute the most offensively minor and second-rate body of work in twentieth century fiction, it would outweigh or overwhelm the merits of the two mentioned above.

I have no doubt that Ford has been seized upon by some desperate Ph.D. candidate in English literature— he is exactly the kind of writer, at first glance, that attracts such people. He is obscure, and difficult, with has a huge and largely unknown body of work. But, I think, they would be surprised when they read The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. It is difficult to think of two books less deserving of being treated in a doctoral thesis.

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12.7.2010 | Linda D. Craig

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