Tuesday, June 20, 2017

`You Have Again No Sense of Reading'

What follows is a paragraph I wish I had written:

“The writer was once presented with a verbal picture that has for many years been one of his most treasured possessions. It is that of an elderlyish, comfortable gentleman, seated in an old-fashioned first-class railway carriage, his feet up on the cushions of the opposite seat, the brim of his hat well down, shading his eyes. He has provided his nephew who is travelling with him with a bath bun, some acidulated drops and a copy of The Boys’ Own Paper.”

The “elderlyish, comfortable gentleman” in question is Anthony Trollope, occupied with finishing The Last Chronicles of Barset (1867). The prose is crystalline but may require annotation, especially for American readers. A “bath [or Bath] bun” is an English sweet roll made from yeasty dough with sugar sprinkled on top or a lump baked into it. Jane Austen reported an aunt in 1801 “disordering my stomach with Bath Bunns.” “Acidulated drops” (also “acid drops”) is not a hallucinogenic substance but, the OED reports, “a kind of boiled sweet flavoured with tartaric acid and having a sharp, sour taste.” In Sketches by Boz (1836), Dickens writes, “Ma, in the openness of her heart, offered the governess an acidulated drop,” which suggests Ma was less than enamored of the governess. The Boys’ Own Paper, published in England from 1879 to 1967, was a tabloid-format newspaper aimed at young men and boys – adventure stories, games, puzzles. In its pages, Lord Baden-Powell urged readers to live “clean, manly and Christian lives.”

The author of the passage cited above is Ford Madox Ford in the last of the more than eighty books he published during his lifetime, The March of Literature (1938). Nominally a history of world literature (subtitled From Confucius to Modern Times) written by a self-described “old man mad about writing,” the volume is one of those extravagant grab bags, like Montaigne’s Essays and The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which almost any scrap of learning might find a home. A reader can open it to any page and idle away an hour or two. Ford works in many forms, from traditional close reading to reimagined scenes from literary history. Even when silly or outrageous, Ford’s opinions are interesting, a rare quality among writers. One page before Trollope he writes: “Jane Austen stands alone—with Christina Rossetti—as being the one consummate artist that the English nineteenth century produced.” (George Eliot?)

Ford’s imaginative portrait of Trollope at work in the railway car inevitably recalls the great opening scene in Some Do Not . . . (1924), the first novel in his Great War tetralogy Parade’s End:

“The two young men — they were of the English public official class — sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage. The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne.”

The effect those sentences and all that follow have on the attentive reader is described by Ford later in The March of Literature, when he writes of his friend Joseph Conrad’s “Youth”: “The language is again so low-keyed, so of the vernacular, so just, so fluid that when you read you have again no sense of reading.”

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