Friday, February 15, 2008

`Write as Simply as You Can'

An exchange of e-mails with Bryan Appleyard set me to thinking again about “Fordie” -- Ford Madox Ford, a writer for whom I feel immense fondness. James Joyce was a greater writer, one of the greatest, but I admire him more than I love him. What I feel for Ford corresponds to “avuncular,” but from the nephew’s perspective (does a single-word synonym exist?). He wrote with the fluency of an angel, collaborated on fiction with Joseph Conrad, edited with genius and rare generosity, served in World War I (he joined the British Army at age 43), was a notoriously unreliable storyteller (I refuse to call him a “liar”) and hopelessly successful (and unsuccessful) with women. The Fifth Queen, The Good Soldier and the Parade’s End tetralogy are glories of modern fiction and accessible to common readers. Ford never wrote for the academy.

An ambitious editor might assemble a hefty and useful anthology of Ford’s insights into writing, books and reading. He wrote about these matters from experience: Ford published more than 80 books, the first (The Brown Owl) in 1891, the last (The March of Literature) in 1939, the year of his death. In 1929 he published The English Novel: From the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad. Such surveys are customarily dull affairs but Ford is almost never dull, and his text is salted with such practical notions as this:

“You must therefore write as simply as you can – with the extreme of the simplicity that is granted to you, and you must write of subjects that spring at your throat. But why subjects appeal to you you have no means of knowing. The appeal of the subject is nevertheless the only thing that is open to your native genius – the only thing as to which you can say: `I cannot help it: that is what appealed to me!’ You must never, after that, say: `I write like this because I want to,’ but you must say: `I write like this because I hope it is what the unspoiled reader likes!’”

Without being flashy about it, Ford had a gift for deploying unexpectedly effective words. Here, it is “unspoiled,” which possesses at least two meanings, both pertinent: not rotting and not pampered. Here’s what Ford wrote on the subject in Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance:

“We used to say that a passage of good style began with a fresh, usual [Note: not “unusual”] word, and continued with fresh, usual words to the end: there was nothing more to it. When we felt that we had really got hold of the reader, with a great deal of caution we would introduce a word not common to a very limited vernacular, but that only very occasionally. Very occasionally indeed: practically never. Yet it is in that way that a language grows and keeps alive. People get tired of hearing the same words over and over again … [Ford’s ellipsis] It is again a matter for compromise.”

Conrad and Ford met in 1898, and collaborated on The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (1924) -- not the finest work by either writer. Ford also took dictation from Conrad on at least six other works, including Nostromo, and may have contributed a chapter to that novel, Conrad’s greatest. In 1924, the year of Conrad’s death, Ford published Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, an exceedingly eccentric book. The narrative consists of brief passages arranged without obvious connective tissue. The fragments sometimes follow logically one to another. More often, they float impressionistically in ether. Here’s more Ford on Conrad, writing as the literary offspring of Flaubert:

“We used to say: the first lesson that an author has to learn is that of humility. Blessed are the humble because they do not get between the reader’s legs. Before everything the author must learn to suppress himself: he must learn that the first thing he has to consider is his story and the last thing that he has to consider is his story, and in between that he will consider his story.”

And one more from Joseph Conrad. The abundant sense of confidence in his medium expressed in this passage is touching:

“We agreed that the novel is absolutely the only vehicle for the thought of our day. With the novel you can do anything; you can inquire into every department of life, you can explore every department of the world of thought. The one thing that you can not do is to propagandise, as author, for any cause. You must not, as author, utter any views: above all you must not fake any events. You must not, however humanitarian you may be, over-elaborate the fear felt by a coursed rabbit.”

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

Glad to have a recommendation for another Ford novel: I'm a big fan of The Good Soldier and Parade's End, but the sheer bulk of his additional output (combined with the fact that nearly all of it is now out of print) has kept me from picking up any of his other novels. I'll be sure at least to try The Fifth Queen now.