Sunday, October 18, 2015

`The Extreme Vital, If Not Literary, Test'

“`Let me then see whether the books that during all that other life I praised and championed with my pen can here still hold me.’” 

By “all that other life” Ford Madox Ford means the pre-war years, pre-1914, or, more specifically, pre-1915, the year he enlisted in the British army at age forty-two and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Welch Regiment. He shipped to France in July 1916. At Rouen, Ford was attached to the 9th Battalion in time for the Battle of the Somme, the fiercest engagement in British military history. Near the end of that month, Ford was blown into the air, “concussed,” from the force of a high explosive shell. For three weeks the novelist lost his memory, even forgetting his own name. Writing in 1924, in a piece for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (collected in War Prose, ed. Max Saunders, Carcanet, 1999), that’s what Ford means by “here.” 

After he recovered, Ford tells us he had shipped to France from London a package containing “the books that I had always championed,” mostly fiction, including titles by Flaubert, Turgenev, Stephen Crane, W.H. Hudson, Maupassant, Anatole France, Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Ford said the volumes “stood the extreme vital, if not literary, test to which I put them, so that the valley of the Somme and the highlands behind the [Ypres] Salient even now remain for me singularly tapestried over with other landscape and, at times, if I let my memory alone, I could not say whether at a given date I was not seeing Kensington Gardens, the scented east or the Potomac instead of Albert, the wood of Bécordel-Bécourt or the landscape that stretched below Kemmel Hill.” 

Even those of us without military experience, who have read and reread persistently for decades, will recognize Ford’s layered, “tapestried-over” blurring of bookish and real memories (today we would add movies and television). Parts of Ulysses are set in Bowling Green, Ohio, and several of Borges’ Buenos Aires stories in Paris. Our most amusing, consoling and tormenting capacity is memory. Ford’s memory is imprinted in particular with impressions from The Red Badge of Courage, What Maisie Knew, Youth and Heart of Darkness. About James' short novel he writes: 

“I had been detailed to march some men to the baths in Albert and, as this was a duty that took time I had taken What Maisie Knew with me in my pocket. The doubling of vision that resulted is one of the most bewildering of my memories.” 

He goes on to describe the effect the best fiction can have on us, the displacement elsewhere, the self-forgetting, the intense identification with another. “I wish I could put it more fuzzily than that,” Ford writes, "more with blurred edges because the memory does not come back very clearly, but more than anything with the memory of being in an awkward and embarrassing affair—the affair of Maisie’s parents.”

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