Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Ford Madox Ford: The Last Amateur |
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Ford Madox Ford : The Last Amateur

The notes at the back looking as long as a book, and the book at the front looming as big as a house, Mr. Mizener’s new opus, The Saddest Story, the story of Ford Madox Ford, is to be approached with a trepidation only slightly eased by the fact that we are here plainly in the tradition of one-volume giganticism exemplified by Mark Schorer (on Sinclair Lewis), rather than the tradition of multivolume elephantiasis exemplified by George Painter (on Proust) and Leon Edel (on Henry James). As it turns out, the span of the average train strike is just sufficient to get the book read. This feat accomplished, the immediate temptation is to hail a masterpiece. The Saddest Story is in fact something less than that, but it is still very good. Arthur Mizener has taken time (years) and pains (infinite) to root out every possible fact about Ford Madox Ford, a job complicated severely by Ford’s inability to tell the truth about anything for more than two minutes running. If Ford has talked about crossing the Channel on a certain boat, Mr. Mizener checks up in the shipping records to see if Ford has got the boat right: invariably Ford has got it wrong. As with The Far Side of Paradise, the research data are interpreted with admirable level-headedness and written up in a flat style that does little to draw you forward. ‘It is one of the sad ironies of Ford’s life that, with all his scorn of businessmen and his belief that as an artist he had risen above the vulgar pressures of money, he was constantly at the mercy of his need for money.’ The best you can say of a sentence like that is that it limps in a straight line. Nevertheless the book bubbles and sings. Ford Madox Ford — novelist’s novelist, editor of editors, fascinator of gifted women, seer, saint and arch-twit — is here given. It’s a fantastic show.

Even when the actuality was more than good enough to get by on, Ford was compelled to improve the truth: he was a walking credibility gap. Mr. Mizener does not attempt to trace the trauma but he does a thorough job of tracing the results — a job that would have been devastating if he had not managed to hold fast to his correct estimate of Ford’s quality as a creative mind. Carlos Baker’s admiration of Hemingway trembled on its base as the facts came out; Lawrance Thompson’s admiration of Frost was destroyed by them; Mizener’s admiration of Ford seems to go on climbing as the buffoonery mounts beyond farce into the empyrean. It’s a valuable corrective to Hemingway’s mean-spirited estimate of Ford in A Movable Feast. With the single important exception of his neglectful bad faith with abandoned loves, Ford was titanically generous in everything: even his paranoid dealings with agents and publishers were on too wildly impractical a scale ever to appear less than prodigal. An opulently charming nutter who wound up as a bore, an eccentric who lived to be pathetic, he did everything he could to dissipate his marvellous talent, but on at least two occasions things defeated him by going right: The Good Soldier and the Tietjens tetralogy are two clear white spaces in a copy-book consisting almost entirely of blots, permanently valuable hiatuses in a literary life that swept inexorably towards the evanescent.

Brought up among Pre-Raphaelites, Ford suffered agonies of humiliation as the frightful Rossetti children outshone him in parlour pageants: little Arthur Rossetti starred as Theseus while Ford wilted. From that day until the end of his life, Ford favoured a medievalism purged of aestheticism: the remembered image of Rossetti in a dressing-gown conducting sexual intrigues amidst litter and cold bacon fat haunted Ford through a long life of dressing-gowns, sexual intrigues, litter and cold bacon fat. He dreamed an ideal of plain dealing while living a chaotic actuality of tortuous evasiveness. He went to a school run by a man called Praetorius: later on he called it Westminster. He put it about that he had a golf handicap of three. He said that W. E. Henley had called him the finest living stylist in the English language: what Henley had actually said was: ‘Who the hell are you?’ Ford’s war record was sound enough for a man 42 years old who didn’t need to go — he really was blown up by a shell at Bécourt-Bécordel — but he made it all incredible by promoting himself from the support lines to the trenches and claiming that the Government had plotted against him to suppress his ideas for the peace terms. Ford needed fantasy the way he needed sexual adventure. Both needs are characteristic of mother’s boys, and one could wish that Mr. Mizener had explored this question further.

The women succeed each other sensationally throughout the book. Even at his youngest and trimmest Ford looked like an earless Bugs Bunny on stilts, and by his own admission he was more interested in chat than sex: nevertheless the Grade A crumpet came at him like kamikazes, crashing through his upper decks in gaudy cataracts of fire. Violet Hunt took him away from his first wife, Elsie. Violet had already gone through the contemporary literati like a flame-thrower, only Henry James escaping unsinged. She ate arsenic for her looks and already had tertiary syphilis when she got off with Ford. A woman who had somehow managed to hit the sack with Somerset Maugham was a sexual force of primal urgency. Ford was the one she settled down with, ruining her social acceptability: Ford, still called Hueffer at that stage, fantasized a German divorce and Violet was besotted enough to swallow it.

It wasn’t all she swallowed: in 1912 they were both on Adalin and went about crashed out of their skulls. After the war Ford got involved with the Australian Stella Bowen, retiring up-country to become an expert on the Sussex Large Black Pig and exercise his gifts, too long repressed, as a simple artisan: he built a rickety oaken sty in which the pig promptly caught a chill and croaked. Violet spied on them over the fence. Stella gave way to the young novelist Jean Rhys, but bore no grudge: she was intelligent enough to realize the falsity of Ford’s posturings as a gentleman, and enough of an Australian woman to give thanks for having met a gentle man, under whatever circumstances. Stella stuck with Ford through his further liaison with an American, Rene Wright, but finally lost him to America itself: the Tietjens novels were a biggish success there, making just enough money to tempt Ford into total ruin. Finally he met fiery little Janice, who loved him as they all did and helped him fight his misjudged battles. From first to last, it’s an uncanny record of female sacrifice on the part of all of them. Their only reward was his companionship, which must have been sheer magic.

Ford was a great editor, though not a practical one: his magazines were doomed from their inception, immortality being their only earnings. The first number of the English Review had Hardy, James, Galsworthy, Hudson, Wells and Conrad. Ford edited during the second house at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the only place he could be alone. Business management was carried out with the same hard-headed practicality which led him to wash his Panama hat and place it in Jessie Conrad’s oven to dry, thereby fumigating the Sunday joint. Ford’s admiration for other good writers was total: Conrad’s for his old collaborator rather less. Conrad was a calculator and therefore a concentrater: Ford helped him learn how to write English but couldn’t match what he did with it, except with The Good Soldier and Tietjens, where his fantasies about himself (the Tory radical, much put upon but never complaining) were so brilliantly realized they became the foolishness of us all. Always precisely wrong about his own character, Ford’s vaunting of his professionalism gives us the clue: he was the last amateur. He loved literature and literature will always love him. Fellini’s Guido Anselmi — similarly a liar, similarly a host of hosts — called his own life a festival. So was Ford’s. Here it is.

(Listener, 1972)


Because the praise comes where it belongs, before the blame, this piece is not much different from the way I would write it now, except for two points, one of content and one of style. The point of content is that I would now identify Mizener’s book on F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise, because I would have to: the days when everyone in the literary world could make and spot the same allusions are over, and perhaps it is no bad thing — after all, which is the better reason for writing literary journalism, to pass the parcel around a magic circle or to share it out outside? The point of style was one of my claims to ill-fame at the time, and would have made it into Pseuds’ Corner if that sottisier had kept an eye on the literary world. The Grade A crumpet kamikazes were widely seen as being a bit much. The sin of such a metaphor, however, lies not in its extravagance but in its being mixed: if vividness is the aim, then the mental pictures aroused by the various components of a conceit must all check out, or they will light each other up in the wrong way. Most aspiring stunt writers fall short not through being insufficiently fanciful but through being insufficiently scrupulous. If my most notorious metaphor now reduces me to retroactive despair, there is a redeeming sign of scrupulosity in my care to pick out the two components of the word ‘gentleman’ and refresh them both — the only kind of word play I have ever liked, because it serves meaning. On the subject of Pseuds’ Corner or any other sottisier, my view now is what it always was: such a column is a useful barometer but can’t be an arbiter. Eventually any literary journalist worthy of the name will write a sentence that the editor of Private Eye finds pretentious. The test must be your own view of what is meaningful, not someone else’s. Meanwhile it’s quite fun watching other people get caught.