Saturday, October 17, 2015

`To Cast Light; to Make Clear'

“Let us put it as an axiom that books are written for the Reader; that books should be written for the Reader: and for the Reader and for no one else.”

Common sense? Of course, but of an uncommon sort. On Friday a friend here in Houston told me she is reading Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience and finds it hilarious. An hour earlier, a reader in Michigan wrote to say:

“I’ve been reading mostly history books; and, every once in a while, I find a good science book written for non-specialists.  For fiction, I've been mostly rereading books that I remember with pleasure . . . Mostly I like what reads well for me, although I admit that the sensation is almost visceral, and sometimes hard to defend.  I try to not be a thoughtless reader, but I've reached the point where I’m not too inclined to analyze either my motives or my books.”

He added that a recent return to Raymond Carver’s stories was not a disappointment, and now he plans a rereading of Nostromo. The passage quoted at the top was written in 1924 by Ford Madox Ford and published in the transatlantic review, the short-lived journal he edited in Paris. In its twelve issues appeared work by Joyce (early excerpts from what would become Finnegans Wake), Hemingway, Stein, Hilda Doolittle and other stalwarts of High Modernism. Ford’s thoughts on “the Reader” appeared in the April issue as part of a series of essays collectively titled “Stocktaking: Toward a Revaluation of English Literature,” under the witty pseudonym “Daniel Chaucer.” The pieces are collected in Critical Essays (eds. Max Saunders and Richard Stang, Carcanet, 2002). So soon after 1922, the high water mark of Modernism, Ford’s next sentence comes as a surprise: “It will follow then as a corollary that the existence of a large class of Intelligentsia will be a calamity for Literature; as indeed it will be for all other activities in the world.” Three paragraphs later he adds, presciently:

“The quite natural tendency of the Intelligentsia is to make of literature as unconsumable a thing as may be, so that, acting as its High Priests, they may make mediocre livings and cement their authority over an unlettered world. It is an ambition like another but more harmful than most.”

Ford diagnoses the profound provinciality of the self-satisfied avant-garde, its writers and their champions, who have flourished in the subsequent century. That same year, 1924, his old friend and collaborator Joseph Conrad died and Ford published Some Do Not . . . , the first novel in Parade’s End, his masterpiece. Helen Pinkerton wrote me this week to say she had recently reread the tetralogy, which she called “a definitive treatment of the rigors, the moral issues, the passions, the hard experiences of men and women in the first of the great wars of the last century.” When I wrote back in agreement, Helen responded:

“Just some quick support to your judgment that the Tietjens novels surpass Joyce and Proust. I can’t read Joyce at all any more, and, as it happens, I am reading Proust (translated) right now, trying hard to see what all the fuss was about in the first part of the 20th century. I think I know why there was a fuss, e.g. the pure concentration on the impressions of the youthful, sensitive mind in beautiful and expressive language. But, it is a limited world.  And I agree with you about Ford’s Parade’s End. Unforgettable and unrepeatable.”

Ford writes later in the essay from 1924: “The ambition of the writer as writer is to cast light; to make clear. His purpose is to make man, above all, clear to his fellow men: the purpose of the Intelligentsia is to suppress all such illuminations as do not conduce to rendering more attractive their own special class.”

1 comment:

George said...

I should say that Parade's End rolls up all of Ford's flaws into one handy package. And for Ford to write that way of "the Intelligentsia" is a bit like a rich politician playing populist. Without a number of persons who make it their business to publish and praise literature past and current, who in our generation would have heard of Ford Madox Ford? Intelligentsia is not a great name for these persons, but then what is? Clerisy?