Thursday, November 07, 2019

'At Once Very Common and Strangely Pathetic'

From 1907 to 1910, Ford Madox Ford was writing weekly reviews for the Daily Mail and The Tribune. During those same years he was completing his Fifth Queen trilogy and A Call, his eleventh novel and his most Jamesian. For the Tribune, Ford reviewed new books by Galsworthy, Gorky, his friend Conrad (The Secret Agent) and the unfairly forgotten Charles Doughty. On Dec. 28, 1907, he published a brief and curious bit of impressionistic prose that is only obliquely critical. It’s certainly not a review. It starts as the description of a trip by bus “just outside the Tottenham Court Road tube station” in the Fitzrovia district of London:

“Before us was a blazing haze of golden light, on each side the golden faces of innumerable people, lit up by the light that streamed from shop-windows, and up along the house fronts the great shafts of light streamed heavenwards. And the gloom, the glamour, the cheerfulness, the exhilarating cold, the suggestion of terror, of light and of life . . .”

The ellipsis is Ford’s. Where is this going? We expect a revelation. Are we being manipulated? Is Ford indulging in a cheap crescendo of melodrama? His next paragraph:

“It was not Romance – it was Poetry. It was the Poetry of the normal, of the usual, the poetry of the innumerable little efforts of mankind, bound together in such a great tide that, with their hopes, their fears, and their reachings out to joy they formed a something at once majestic and tenuous, at once very common and strangely pathetic.”

He skirts sentimentality but I think Ford pulls it off. In a phrase, he lays out the “human condition,” for which Ford has great sympathy. I’m not sure he could have written that way after July 1916, when he was sent to the Somme and thrown into the air by the detonation of a German shell. Later that year he was hospitalized again with lung problems exacerbated by exposure to poison gas. He closes the 1907 piece: “But of that I find little in the work of living novelists, and less or nothing in the work of living poets.” One sense the birth of something, perhaps Ford’s version of Modernism. Those final sentences recall the letter Phillip Larkin wrote in 1965 to Charles Monteith, an editor at Faber and Faber, lobbying for publication of Barbara Pym’s novels:

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful or lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness & even humour, that is in fact what the critics wd call the moral tone of the book.”

[Ford’s Tribune articles can be found in Critical Essays (Carcanet, 2002), edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang.]

1 comment:

Faze said...

Ford Madox Ford's paragraphs quoted here are similar in tone to the essays in "Christopher Morely's New York", a collection of brief urban sketches from the 1920s, some of which are quite good.