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Why Write, Part II

Ford Madox Ford

None of the many novels Ford Madox Ford wrote before The Good Soldier, which appeared in 1915, are read today; few people even know he wrote them. Although he wrote a trilogy of novels about Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, for instance, they were rarely if ever mentioned in the recent flurry of interest in Tudor England. In his introduction to a recent edition of The Good Soldier, J.M. Coetzee ask why that is, and proposes three explanations, leaving aside the obvious one that they just weren’t very good. One, that Ford was constantly short of money and wrote too quickly; two, that he thought himself too great a genius to write anything that was actually bad; and three, that it wasn’t until The Good Soldier that he finally found his theme, one that allowed him to “plumb the obscurer, more personal sources of his urge to write.”

All three are answers to the question, Why write? You need the money, you think you’re brilliant, and you have something important to say. But only the third bears weight for a serious writer, and beneath the prolixity and bluster, Ford was a serious writer. 

Ford himself has the novel’s narrator, John Dowell, suggest two other answers: “You may well ask me why I write,” writes Dowell, who is telling his sad story about the relationship between himself and his wife Florence and their friends, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. “And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight of it out of their heads.”

What, then, did Ford pull up from those personal depths, what city had he seen sacked, that compelled him to write A Good Soldier? Something, Coetzee suggests, that had to do with “the remembered anguish of his own marital crisis.”

It’s hard to know which of his several marital crises caused the anguish. Ford had married his childhood sweetheart, Elsie Martindale, in 1894, and they lived in Winchelsea, England, for ten years, until Ford, believed to have been conducting an affair with Elsie’s sister, Mary Martindale, suffered a “severe agoraphobic breakdown” and, leaving his wife and two children behind, travelled to Germany to recover from it. When he returned to England, it was neither to Elsie nor to Mary, but eventually to live with Violet Hunt, a novelist he’d encountered thanks to his increasing literary success: he’d met and idolized Joseph Conrad and was soon to become close friends with Ezra Pound, and his novels were finally selling. Falsely claiming to have divorced Elsie (who, as a devout Catholic, would not grant him a divorce), he stayed with Hunt until 1918, when he left her to take up with Stella Bowen, an Australian visual artist studying in London. He remained with Bowen until 1928 (during which time he had a brief affair with Jean Rhys), when he moved into an apartment in Paris with the American painter, Janice Baila. He died in 1939.

In The Good Soldier, Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham appear to be happily, perhaps even ideally, married, but as the novel progresses we quickly learn that that appearance is false. Ashburnham indulges in serial philandering; Leonora would take a lover if she could arouse the passion for it, but can’t quite go through with it. When it gradually becomes clear to Dowell that Ashburnham’s principle long-term affair has been with Dowell’s own wife, Florence, the novel becomes a lengthy disquisition on a single, tortured theme: how could he, Dowell, not have known? At that level, the novel is an exploration of the lengths to which we to avoid unpleasant truths. But on a deeper, societal level, Ford invokes the tension that ensues when the strict mores of Edwardian society conflict with the instinctual urges of an individual’s psyche, as seems to have been the case with Ford. It’s no accident that Coetzee calls the novel “an exploration of civilization and its discontents,” the reference being to Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930), in which Freud posits that the disconnect between the imposed mores of civilization and the demands of the individual libido lead to a discontent that can cause a ‘psychotic break’ or neurosis – such as, for example, a severe agoraphobic breakdown. Ford, of course, hadn’t read Freud, but Freud must certainly have read Ford.

And so we have a possible answer to why Ford Madox Ford wrote, or at least wrote A Good Soldier, about a sterile marriage on the eve of the First World War. Was he not showing his Edwardian readers that it was the British public’s collective neurosis, brought on by decades of suppressed instincts, that was responsible for millions of British soldiers becoming involved in the Great War? That “doing the decent thing” might not mean sticking it out in a loveless marriage and acting out one’s frustrations on a battlefield in France, but rather having the decency to release an unhappy partner from his or her vows, so that they, like him, may eventually find happiness and fulfilment elsewhere? 

Ford seems to have thriven on conflict. Even his literary influences were in conflict with one another; it must have been hard for him, for example, to juggle allegiances to both Joseph Conrad and Ezra Pound, two writers who embraced diametrically opposed ideas about writing. Ford has been called both a traditionalist and a modernist, and The Good Soldier is a modern novel about a traditional dilemma. He must have felt drawn by one and quartered by the other. Similarly, Ford himself was half German and half English: his father, Francis Hueffer, was a German emigré and his mother, Catherine Brown, was the daughter of the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. It was to his father’s family in Germany that Ford was sent to recover from his psychological breakdown in 1904, and he wrote his first books under the name Ford Madox Hueffer, not changing it to Ford until, significantly, 1918, when it became awkward to have a German surname in England. (And also when two former wives – Elsie and Violet — were battling in court for the right to call themselves Mrs. Hueffer.)

Ford had plenty to write about. Now that our flurry of interest seems to have shifted from Tudor England to America and its allies at war, any war – The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Dunkirk, The Darkest Hour (did anyone else find it disturbingly odd that the 2018 Academy Awards presented a special tribute to American war films?) – it will be interesting to see if Ford’s final trilogy, collectively known as Parade’s End, will be less rarely mentioned than his earlier novels have been.

Writing to draw attention to the ills of one’s society is a form of protest. Fenton Johnson, in a recent article in Harper’s magazine, writes that although he was living in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic of the 1970s, and witnessed the protest marches against the national indifference to the suffering and deaths within the city’s gay community, he did not join the activists who blocked the Golden Gate Bridge. “I stayed at my desk. Words, grammar, and syntax were my tools – small, stainless-steel wedges I would use to split readers’ breastbones so that I might tenderly lift out their beating hearts and display them to themselves.”

Nadine Gordimer

Writing as protest is the subject of Nadine Gordimer’s essay, “The Essential Gesture,” included in her 1988 collection, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Place. She takes the title from Roland Barthes, who says that the writer’s “enterprise” – the work – is his or her “essential gesture as a social being.” For Gordimer, living in apartheid South Africa, writing for oneself alone was an abnegation of, or at best a prelude to, one’s responsibility “outside the Eden of creativity.” A little precious, a little self-indulgent. Oppressive countries, says Gordimer, place “a double demand” on the writer, “the first from the oppressed, to act as a spokesperson for them; the second, from the state, to take punishment for that act.”

This may be stating the answer too strongly for some otherwise committed writers. In the U.S., Ta-Nehisi Coates published a series of eight essays in The Atlantic – one after each year of Barack Obama’s presidency – in which he details historical and present-day racial outrages committed against African Americans by the government “kleptocracy.” He agrees with “the great Ishmael Reed,” who said that “writing is fighting,” but he rejects the label of “spokesperson” for America’s oppressed minorities. For Coates, to be labelled a “spokesperson” is to be cast in the role of “public intellectual,” which he thinks of as anathema for the serious writer. When “the title ‘public intellectual’ [was] attached to me,” he writes in the introduction to the sixth essay, which calls for reparations to be paid to black citizens for the 400 years of life that had been stolen from them since the first slave ship arrived in Virginia in 1609, “I saw that what came with it was not just the air of the dilettante, but the air of the solutionist.” It is not, he says, the job of the oppressed to propose solutions to the problems created by their oppression, and then wait patiently while the oppressor considers them. “That was the job of the black public intellectual – not to stimulate, not to ask the questions that kept them up at night, not even just to interpret the drums, but to interpret them in some way that promised redemption” for the oppressors. “This was not the work for writers and scholars,” he says, but for entertainers.

Nadine Gordimer was certainly no mere entertainer: her blistering delineations of the effects of apartheid, not only on its black victims but on every conscientious citizen of South Africa, were crucial to the struggle against racial violence and oppression in that country. Her novels, short stories and essays stimulated not only discussion but also action. They asked the questions that kept Gordimer up at night. They interpreted the drums, but they did not offer easy solutions. “The white writer’s task,” she writes, “is to raise the consciousness of white people, who, unlike himself, have not woken up. The white writer already has taken on [this task] if the other responsibility – to his creative integrity – keeps him scrupulous in writing about what he knows to be true, whether whites like to hear it or not.” She quotes Octavio Paz with approval: “Social criticism begins with grammar, and the re-establishment of meanings.”

In other words, writing well is the best revenge. “To transform the world by style,” she writes, “has had its possibilities and sometimes proves its validity where complacency, indifference, accidie, and not conflict, threaten the human spirit.”

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