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October 21, 2017

Ford Madox Ford's "Saddest Story"

On this day in 1873 Ford Madox Ford was born (as Ford Hermann Hueffer); and on this day in 1913, his fortieth birthday, Ford "sat down to show what I could do -- and The Good Soldier resulted." Aware of Ford's self-mythologizing, the biographers are suspicious of the birthday-conception tale for The Good Soldier, but most critics rank it, sometimes along with Parade's End, as the best of his three dozen novels. Many critics go much further, ranking The Good Soldier with Ulysses and The Sun Also Rises for its contribution to modernism. Martin Seymour-Smith, one not known for over-praise, says "There is no more formally perfect novel in the English language," and that Ford, as "one of the dozen greatest novelists of the century," deserves "the praise that has been so willingly lavished on his contemporaries."

Various explanations are offered as to why so many, before and after Seymour-Smith, have had to plead for Fords' books. The Good Soldier is "a novelist's novel," or "the best French novel in the English language" -- something difficult, elusive, "Impressionist." "Look beneath the surface," says Michael Dirda, urging on the Washington Post Book Club, "there are ironies everywhere. Read it twice." Others are tempted to blame the author: "If ambitious novelists should all study The Good Soldier as an example of the possibilities of narrative," writes Julian Barnes in a recent New York Review of Books article, "... they would also do well to look at Ford's life as a prime example of negative career management." Ford adopted an avuncular, self-dismissive pose early, choosing to be the gentleman-raconteur, the gourmet, one content to promote the new writers and writing (he started The English Review and The Transatlantic Review) and to present himself as an "extinct volcano."

One fascinating set of anecdotes from 1913-14, related by Ford, Wyndham Lewis, Augustus John, Osbert Sitwell and others, paints a picture of this last point. Although older than Ezra Pound and Lewis, Ford was part of their Imagism-Vorticism-Futurism crowd, and would go with them to "The Cave of the Golden Calf," a basement Soho nightclub run by Frieda Strindberg (the playwright's third wife). It had been "hideously but relevantly frescoed" by Lewis, with "the heads of hawks, cats, camels" cut into pillars; patrons could dine, or just drink and dance, or watch "violent, Vorticist assaults on the drama." Some of these were written by Ford, and perhaps he too would sometimes "dance those obsolete Vorticist dances, the Turkey Trot and the Bunny Hug," but the picture he paints in his memoirs is that of one too old or old-fashioned to join in as the others "pranced and roared and blew blasts on their bugles and round them the monuments of London tottered." Ford says that he saw one of those monuments, a young Edward VIII, dancing at the Golden Calf. He also says that it was after one such evening that he went home and wrote The Good Soldier -- his "complex and ironic presentation of an Edwardian tragedy," a tale in which the world seems to crumble no matter who soldiers on or who abdicates.

Ford's biographers and women (one source calculates twenty major relationships) portray him as a complicated, puzzling, divided man -- one whose "weakness of character, unfairness, disregard of truth, and vanity must be accepted," said Stella Bowen The Saddest Story, Arthur Mizener's 1971 biography, takes its title from the opening sentence of The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Near the end of the novel the narrator throws up his hands at himself and it all:
    ...Why can't people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me. Is there then any terrestial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be whom they like and have what they like and take ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men's lives like the lives of us good people--like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords -- broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?

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