Sunday, December 17, 2017

`A Congenital Preoccupation with Good Writing'

“In the middle of the dog-days I had been up at five and dug till seven when I had my coffee; I had irrigated till nine . . . And after that I had written till one—which is too long—had lunched off a tomato salad, taken my siesta, set out some romaine plants—and a hell of a lot of watering they would need if they were to come to anything. . . And I will confess that very few of them have. Still, they will give us a salad or two . . . Then, having no cooking either to think of or suggest, I wrote from five to seven—which is too long . . .”

An idyllic existence, at least from this distance in time and space. Ford Madox Ford seems never to have stopped working. The result was more than eighty books published, three or four of which are surely among the finest written in the twentieth century. The passage above is from one of them, Provence, from Minstrels to the Machine (1935), and is quoted in the second installment of Tim Longville’s “The Small Producer: Gardens in the Life of Ford Madox Ford,” in the winter issue of Hortus: A Gardening Journal. I wrote about the first part, in the autumn issue, here. (Thank you, and Merry Christmas, David Jones.)

Read the Ford excerpt above with attention to rhythm. Read it aloud. Ford seems naturally to work in units of five to seven words, perhaps keyed to breathing. The ellipses are his and represent pauses, not complete stops, in the forward motion of his prose. I’m reminded of water lapping gently against a pier. With Ford, the under-oath authenticity of what he is writing is dubious. And six hours of writing is unlikely to be “too much.” The way he weaves gardening, resting, eating and writing suggests an ideal balance, something he was never able to attain. Ford wrote as a gourmet but lived as a gourmand. Longville cites a letter to Janice Biala, Ford’s paramour du jour, written by Louise Bogan after visiting them in France:

“I remember the goat cheese and the casserole full of Ford’s magnificent cooking and the Gaulois Bleus and the ducks you almost bought in the market and the Marc and your Niçois hat and the Rossetti drawing on the wall and the big magnolia flower and your painting of the [Allen] Tates and Ford’s voice and your singing in the evening, and the garden terraces, mixed with salad leaves and herbs, and Debussy and Bach on the gramophone …”

Ford was born on this date, Dec. 17, in 1873, and died June 26, 1939. Longville describes Ford’s sad decline. He was hospitalized in Deauville and buried in its cemetery. C.H. Sisson in “Ford Madox Ford: Saltavit et Placuit” (The Avoidance of Literature, 1978) writes that Ford “had what you might call a congenital preoccupation with good writing, and a preoccupation of that depth is not to be confused with a fad or a social custom. It has the psychological depth of a moral virtue, like courage. It is deeper than courage, indeed—more like truthfulness.”  

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