Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ford Madox Ford - book

Ford Madox Ford, by Alan Judd (Harvard University Press, 1990)

He had mastered Latin and Greek, spoke English, German, and French, had four published books, was married, and just twenty years old. He went on to write 81 books, including one often considered as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, wrote hundreds of articles and essays, started and edited two of the most influential literary magazines, helped along many younger writers such as Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, Lawrence,Wyndam Lewis, Graham Greene, and more. In addition he collaborated with Joseph Conrad on three novels, lived as an English gentleman even though chronically short of money, was also, somewhat paradoxically, the epitome of an English “Bohemian,” and although still married was at one time technically a bigamist, and also lived in sin for years with at least two talented and gifted women half his age. He can easily be considered a “writer’s writer,” and is now, apart from certain literary circles, almost unknown.

Ford Madox Ford (born Ford Hermann Hueffer) became Ford Madox Ford when he changed his name because it was too German (it was not wise to be identified as German at the time) and he wanted to honor his grandfather, Ford Madox Brown, whom he adored. He was prolific almost beyond belief and, it is said, wrote everyday of his life from adolescence until his death in 1939 at the age of 66. I found this biography by Judd to be quite fascinating as I previously knew very little of Ford (he is usually found mentioned only briefly in the biographies and autobiographies of others or in books about Paris in the 30’s). This book is in a sense much more than a biography as Judd, himself a writer, discusses much of Ford’s writing and makes observations about writing in general. It is long and detailed, academic in tone, and, because this is not the reading season, took me an unusually long time to finish. It was well worth the effort.

Perhaps because writing came so easily for him, and because he wrote to earn a living, many of his books were perhaps not his best efforts, but none of his books, including even the best ones, sold well, and he lived a rather hand-to-mouth existence at times, often having to borrow from publishers or friends to survive. It was an interesting form of “poverty” in that he and his “wives” always seemed to have enough for a maid and also entertained. This seems to be true even when, after WWI, they were living in reduced circumstances in a remote and decrepit cottage, raising their own pigs, chickens, and other livestock and dreaming of self-sufficiency on their ten acres of rented land (rather like the more recent “hippies” who became “back-to-the-landers”). This was the period following the war when Ford was trying to overcome the trauma he experienced during that terrible time. Fortunately his “wife” at the time, an Australian painter, was as unconcerned as he was with their immediate surroundings and relative poverty. But they continued the same life style when later they lived in Provence in much better surroundings but with little more in the way of resources. Ford was apparently not in the least concerned with either clothing or his immediate surroundings, adapting to wherever it was he was living and largely irresponsible when it came to money. His life-style was made possible because in those days one did not borrow from banks but, rather, from relatives, publishers, and friends who did not charge interest and were flexible about being repaid (Ford did repay when he could). It is much to Judd’s credit that he resisted what might well have been a temptation to sensationalize or “romanticize” (if that being the right word) Ford’s life (which was as “Bohemian” or “romantic” as could be). This could have easily been achieved as others writing of the “lost generation” or the legendary “Paris years” have romanticized the period. Ford was certainly a Bohemian but I don’t think it would be fair to characterize him as an “English eccentric.”

Ford obviously liked women, and they obviously were attracted to him. It is clear he had several affairs but it is not clear if all of these included sex. In any case Judd spares us any lurid details and is more concerned with Ford’s dependence on them for emotional satisfaction and support. His affairs and multiple “wives” were complicated by the fact that his first wife, with whom he had two daughters, absolutely refused to divorce him so he could marry again. This did not matter much to his actual living arrangements but did create legal and monetary problems. Ford was extremely knowledgeable about writing, as well as many other things, and was also a brilliant conversationalist who could apparently hold one’s attention for hours, part of his appeal to the opposite sex. But the book is more about his writing and the history of twentieth century literature in general than it is about his life style and affairs. It has been on my biography bookshelf for almost twenty years, one of those I bought with the intention of reading it “someday.” Better late than never, I am now determined to read his masterpiece “The Good Soldier,” and an even more neglected work, “No Enemy,” said by Judd to be perhaps one of the best books on war ever written.

Ernest Hemingway, in his book about Paris, “A Moveable Feast,” has a chapter on Ford that represents one of the pettiest “cheap shots” ever. Many have commented on this and wondered why Hemingway wrote it. I cannot say I know why he did it, but I have ideas about it. Remember, it is well known that Hemingway had a “thin skin” and did not react well to any criticism. He was also known as a sometimes obnoxious bully. In addition he was also his own greatest PR man and much of his reputation rests on the “Hemingway legend” that he himself created. In all of these respects he is the opposite of Ford. I think he resented the fact that Ford knew more about literature and writing and had earlier commented on his writing. There may even have been an element of jealousy involved. Ford knew nothing of PR and never tried to inflate his own work, life, or importance, being self-effacing and modest to an extreme. He gave generously of his time and help to hundreds of aspiring authors whether successful or not and wished everyone well. I have no doubt this is part of the reason he is not now more well-known than he should be (nice guys finish last). More importantly, in spite of the dissimilarities, I think, he may well in a way actually represent Hemingway without the PR. Ford actually lived the life that Hemingway wanted people to believe he had lived, Ford had experienced war and been wounded, he lived the romantic Bohemian image of Paris in the 1920’s and 30’s, and was a serious writer, although gradually losing out to a younger generation of writers he had mentored. Not only that, Hemingway had been criticized by Spanish War veterans for writing a (frivolous) novel about the Spanish Civil War when they had expected a more serious book. Ford had written more seriously about war and had experienced it in far more important ways than Hemingway. Not only that, Ford had much healthier and successful relationships with women, even as he grew older, heavier, and unhealthier. It was not in Hemingway to praise others or to share his fame. Thus instead of commenting on Ford’s positive contributions and achievements, that were many, Hemingway chose to humiliate and denigrate him, and in so doing only managed to cheapen and denigrate himself. Obviously I could be entirely wrong about this, but in any case, Ford certainly did not deserve Hemingway’s shabby insulting digs, similar insults Hemingway gave to Gertrude Stein who had also befriended and helped him. Graham Greene said of Ford at the time, “There is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.” Perhaps there will be a resurgence of interest in Ford that will go beyond merely “The Good Soldier,” and perhaps the reputation of “The Sun Also Rises” will diminish over time. We’ll see.

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