Monday, June 26, 2017

`It Is a Great Pity'

“If one remembers, after eighteen years, the time, the weather and the exact place of one’s first encounter with the work of a particular writer, it is safe to say that writer produced an initial effect. If, after that time, one is still reading him with pleasure as well as admiration, it may be that the total effect has been one of those real adjustments of mind which even the most omnivorous reader can expect from only a few writers.”

C.H. Sisson’s observation, in his 1949 review of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (collected in The Avoidance of Literature, 1978), stands as a general truth despite my aversion to Pound and his work. Across a lifetime of industrious reading we encounter the words of thousands of writers. How is it that we adopt a handful as family members, discovering kinship and nurturing it for decades? We may recognize they are not the “greatest” writers, but like family we remain loyal and protective despite their failings. They answer our most private needs as readers and people – qualities we may be unable to recognize or articulate. On this brief, eccentric list, which I have no interest in defending, are Sisson, Dr. Johnson, Chekhov, Yvor Winters, Guy Davenport, A.J. Liebling, Philip Larkin and a writer much admired by Sisson, Ford Madox Ford.

I read Ford for the first time in 1971 – The Good Soldier, of course, the only Ford novel most people ever read -- in a survey class on the Modern English Novel. The instructor was an angry, fashion-conscious narcissist who went on to write too many unreadably “postmodern” novels. But I owe him Ford. It says something that the only other novel on the reading list I can recall is Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. The following summer I read Arthur Mizener’s just-published biography of Ford, The Saddest Story. Soon I added the Parade’s End tetralogy, The Fifth Queen trilogy (despite a distaste for historical fiction), Provence, The March of Literature, his remembrances of Conrad and other writers, various memoirs and travelogues. Last year I read for the first time a good novel from 1933, The Rash Act. Ford published more than eighty books. In forty-six years I’ve read about half of them.

Ford died on this date, June 26, in 1939. In The March of Literature, the last book he published during his life, Ford writes a moving tribute to Dr. Johnson, a man with whom he must have felt substantial literary and personal kinship (“an old man mad about writing”):

“But ten years’ rest and the getting into his head of a conversational rhythm and a vocabulary comprehensible to most of the cultivated men of his day had on Johnson the effect of evolving a style that was at once sufficiently learned to save his face and sufficiently actual to let us read his Lives of the Poets with pleasure even in these anti-Latinistic days. It is a work that, had there been no Boswell, must have been a resounding monument to this great man. As it is, it stands almost forgotten like an Aztec temple lost in South American [sic] undergrowths. It is a great pity.”

No comments: