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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era