The life of Ford Madox Ford

Ford's biographer Max Saunders explores the life of one of the most mercurial, protean figures in literary history.

This year’s television adaptation of Parade’s End has led to an extraordinary surge of interest in Ford Madox Ford. The ingenious adaptation by Sir Tom Stoppard; the stellar cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Alan Howard, Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson, Roger Allam; the flawlessly intelligent direction by award-winning Susanna White, have not only created a critical success, but reached Ford’s widest audience for perhaps fifty years. BBC2 drama doubled its share of the viewing figures. Reviewers have repeatedly described Parade’s End as a masterpiece and Ford as a neglected Modernist master. Those involved in the production found him a ‘revelation’, and White and Hall are reported as saying that they were embarrassed that their Oxbridge educations had left them unaware of Ford’s work. After this autumn, fewer people interested in literature and modernism and the First World War are likely to ask the question posed by the title of Alan Yentob’s ‘Culture Show’ investigation into Ford’s life and work on September 1st: “Who on Earth was Ford Madox Ford?”

Sylvia and Christopher Tietjens, played by Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC2 adaptation of Parade's End.

It’s a good question, though. Ford has to be one of the most mercurial, protean figures in literary history, capable of producing violent reactions of love, admiration, ridicule or anger in those who knew him, and also in those who read him. Many of those who knew him were themselves writers — often writers he’d helped, which made some (like Graham Greene) grateful, and others (like Hemingway) resentful, and some (like Jean Rhys) both. So they all felt the need to write about him — whether in their memoirs, or by including Fordian characters in their fiction. Ford himself thought that Henry James had based a character on him when young (Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove). Joseph Conrad too, who collaborated with Ford for a decade, is thought to have based several characters and traits on him.

I’d spent several years trying to work out an answer that satisfied me to the question of who on earth Ford was. The earlier, fairly factual biographies by Douglas Goldring and Frank MacShane had been supplanted by more psycho-analytic studies by Arthur Mizener and Thomas C. Moser. Mizener took the subtitle of Ford’s best-known novel, The Good Soldier, as the title of his biography: The Saddest Story. He presented Ford as a damaged psyche whose fiction-writing stemmed from a sad inability to face the realities of his own nature. Of course all fiction has an autobiographical dimension. A novelist’s best way of understanding characters is to look into his or her own self. But there is an element of absurdity in diagnosing an author’s obtuseness from the problems of fictional characters. This is because if writers can make us see what’s wrong with their characters, that means they understand not only those characters, but themselves (or at least the traits they share with those characters). John Dowell, the narrator of The Good Soldier, appears at times hopelessly inept at understanding his predicament. His friend, the good soldier of the title, Edward Ashburnham, is a hopeless philanderer. If Ford saw elements of himself in both types, he had to be more knowing than them in order to show them to us. And anyway, they’re diametrically opposed as types.

Ford’s psychology needs to be approached from a different angle. Rather than seeing his fiction as displaying symptoms that give him away, what if it is diagnostic? What if, rather than projecting wishful fabrications of himself, he turns the spotlight on that process of fabrication itself — on the processes of fantasy that are inseparable from our subjectivities? To answer the question of who Ford was, we have to look at the ways his work explores how we understand ourselves through stories: the stories that are told to us, the stories we tell ourselves; the myths and histories and anecdotes that populate our imaginations. Where Moser had concentrated on what he called The Life in the Fiction of Ford Madox Ford — trying to identify biographical markers in episodes in novels — I found myself in quest of ‘the fiction in the life’.

Compared to some of the canonical modernists like Joyce or Eliot, Ford is unusual in writing so much about his own life — a whole series of books of reminiscences. They’re full of marvelous stories. Take the one with which he ends his book celebrating Provence. He describes how, when he earned a sum of money during the Depression, he and Janice Biala decided it was safer to cash it all rather than trust to failing banks. They visit one of Ford’s favourite towns, Tarascon on the Rhone. Ford has entrusted the banknotes to Biala. “I am constitutionally incapable of not losing money,” said Ford. But as they cross the bridge, the legendary mistral starts blowing:

And leaning back on the wind as if on an upended couch I clutched my béret and roared with laughter… We were just under the great wall that keeps out the intolerably swift Rhone… Our treasurer’s cap was flying in the air… Over, into the Rhone… What glorious fun… The mistral sure is the wine of life… Our treasurer’s wallet was flying from under an armpit beyond reach of a clutching hand… Incredible humour; unparalleled buffoonery of a wind… The air was full of little, capricious squares, floating black against the light over the river… Like a swarm of bees: thick… Good fellows, bees….

And then began a delirious, panicked search… For notes, for passports, for first citizenship papers that were halfway to Marseilles before it ended… An endless search… With still the feeling that one was rich… Very rich.

“I hadn’t been going to do any writing for a year,” mused Ford, recognising what an unlikely prospect it was. “But perhaps the remorseless Destiny of Provence desires thus to afflict the world with my books….” Yet for all the wry cynicism of this afterthought Biala remembered that “Ford was amused for months at the thought that some astonished housewife cleaning fish might have found a thousand-franc note in its belly.”

Ford’s stories, for all their playfulness, also earned him notoriety for the liberties they took with the facts. Indeed, Ford courted such controversy, writing in the preface to the first of them, Ancient Lights, in 1911:

This book, in short, is full of inaccuracies as to facts, but its accuracy as to impressions is absolute [....] I don’t really deal in facts, I have for facts a most profound contempt. I try to give you what I see to be the spirit of an age, of a town, of a movement. This can not be done with facts. (pp. xv-xvi)

He called his method Impressionism: an attention to what happens to the mind when it perceives the world. Ford is the most important analyst in English of Impressionism in literature, not only elaborating the techniques involved, but defining a movement. This included writers he admired like Flaubert, Maupassant and Turgenev, as well as his friends James, Conrad, and Crane. He also used the term to cover writers we now think of as Modernist, such as Rhys, Hemingway, or Joyce. Though most of these writers were resistant to the label, they wrote much about ‘impressions’ and their aesthetic aims have strong family resemblances.

One feature that sets Ford’s writing apart is his tendency to retell the same stories, but with continual variations. This creates an immediate problem for a literary biographer wanting to use the subject’s autobiographical writing to structure the narrative upon. Which version to use? Which to believe? They can’t all be true. And their sheer proliferation and multiplicity shows how he couldn’t tell a story about himself without it turning into a kind of fiction. In one particularly striking example, which Ford tells at least five times, he is taking the train with Conrad to London to take to their publisher corrected proofs of their major collaborative novel, Romance. Conrad is obsessively still making revisions, and because he’s distracted by the jolting of the train, he lies down on his stomach so he can correct the pages on the floor. As the train pulls into their London station, Ford taps Conrad on the shoulder. But Conrad is so immersed in the world of Cuban pirates, says Ford, that he springs up and grabs Ford by the throat. Ford’s details often seem too exaggerated for some readers. Would Conrad really have gone for his friend like that? Would he really have hazarded his city clothes on a train carriage floor? The fact that the details change from version to version shows how fluid they are to Ford’s imagination, but there’s at least a grain of plausible truth. Here it’s the power of literature to engross its readers, so that one could be genuinely startled when interrupted while reading minutely. So, as with many of Ford’s stories, it’s a story about writing, writers, and what Conrad called “the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see.” And perhaps one of the things Ford wants us to see in this episode is how any aggression between friends who are writers needs to be understood in that context — as motivated as much by their obsession with words, as by any personal hostilities.

That is why a writer’s life — especially the life of a writer like Ford — is a dual one. As many of them have observed, writers live simultaneously in two worlds: the social world around them, and world they are constantly constructing in their imaginations. Impressionism seemed to Ford the method that best expressed this:

I suppose that Impressionism exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass — through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.

Ford’s life was dual in another important way, though. Like many participants, he felt the First World War as an earthquake fissure between his pre-war and post-war lives. It divided his adult life into two. His decision to change his name (after the war, which he had endured with a German surname), and to change it to its curiously doubled final form, surely expresses that sense of duality. Ford was in his early forties when he volunteered for the Army — something he could easily have avoided on account not only of his age, but of the propaganda writing he was doing for the Government. His experience of concussion and shell-shock after the Battle of the Somme changed him utterly, and provided the basis for his best work afterwards. Though he wrote over eighty books, most of them with brilliance and insight, two masterpieces have stood out: The Good Soldier, which seems the culmination of his pre-war life and apprenticeship to the craft of fiction, and then the Parade’s End sequence of four novels, which drew on his own war experiences to produce one of the great fictions about the First World War, or indeed any war.

Max Saunders is Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute and Professor of English and Co-Director at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London. He is the author of Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, editor of the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Good Soldier, and editor of Some Do Not… (the first volume of Ford’s series of novels Parade’s End). This post first appeared on the OUP blog here.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens. Photograph: BBC

Max Saunders is Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute and Professor of English and Co-Director at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London. He is the author of Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, editor of the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Good Soldier, and editor of Some Do Not… (the first volume of Ford’s series of novels Parade’s End).

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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage