Sunday, December 01, 2019

'The Extreme Vital, if Not Literary, Test'

I’m still unaccustomed to well-lit, dust-free, intelligently organized bookstores. The shops of my youth in which I honed my foraging skills teetered on chaos and filth. Riverby Books in Fredericksburg, Va. might as well be a shoe store. It is “user-friendly,” a complement to one’s “lifestyle,” flanked by a Mexican restaurant and another that has served “Feel Good Food Since 1981.” I don’t mean to patronize it. It passes the ultimate test: It stocks a few good books.
My son found a copy of Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (1999) by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. I read it when the book was published and it quickly came to mind on 9/11. As soon as I entered the store I claimed a pristine hard cover of Ford Madox Ford’s War Prose (2004), a book I will no longer have to borrow from the library. After a little browsing I claimed a first edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Spinoza of Market Street (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962). The title story is on my short list of the greatest stories ever written. I felt again that old and familiar sense of happy serendipity that only a decent bookstore can supply.
“`Let me then see whether the books that during all that other life I praised and championed with my pen can here still hold me.’”

By “all that other life,” Ford means the pre-war years, pre-1914, or, more specifically, pre-1915, the year he enlisted in the British army at age forty-two and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Welch Regiment. He shipped to France in July 1916. At Rouen, Ford was attached to the 9th Battalion in time for the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest engagement in British military history. Near the end of that month, Ford was blown into the air, “concussed,” from the force of a high explosive shell. For three weeks the novelist lost his memory, even forgetting his own name. Writing in 1924, in a piece for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, collected in War Prose, that’s what Ford means by “here.”

After he recovered, Ford shipped to France from London a package containing “the books that I had always championed,” mostly fiction, including titles by Flaubert, Turgenev, Stephen Crane, W.H. Hudson, Maupassant, Anatole France, Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Ford said the volumes “stood the extreme vital, if not literary, test to which I put them, so that the valley of the Somme and the highlands behind the [Ypres] Salient even now remain for me singularly tapestried over with other landscapes and, at times, if I let my memory alone, I could not say whether at a given date I was not seeing Kensington Gardens, the scented east or the Potomac instead of Albert, the wood of Bécordel-Bécourt or the landscape that stretched below Kemmel Hill.”

Ford describes the experience of reading What Maisie Knew: "I had been detailed to march some men to the baths in Albert and, as this was a duty that took time I had taken What Maisie Knew with me in my pocket. The doubling of vision that resulted is one of the most bewildering of my memories.”

No comments: