FORD MADOX FORD ON PARADE’S END

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Ford Madox Ford, still from a home movie, c.1929

Much has been written about the BBC’s Parade’s End (brilliantly adapted by Tom Stoppard) in recent weeks. Happily the series has also focussed attention on the novels themselves, which had been all but forgotten by the reading public. What has been missing, however, is Ford Madox Ford’s own perspective on his tetralogy. 

When the four volumes were first published by Duckworth between 1924 and 1928, Ford (somewhat reluctantly) provided prefaces to three of them. In the first he wrote: ‘I have always held . . . that a novel should have no preface.’ Despite his misgivings, these ‘Dedicatory Letters’, as he preferred to call them, give important insights into Ford’s mixing of fact and fiction in the depiction of the First World War (in which he served on the front line) and of his hero, Christopher Tietjens, ‘the re-creation of a friend I had’.

The prefaces can be read in full in an excellent edition of the author’s War Prose. Here is an extract from the preface to the second volume in the series, No More Parades, published in 1925:

As far as I am privately concerned these books, like all my others, constitute an attempt simply to reflect – not in the least to reflect on – our own times.

Nevertheless as far as this particular book is concerned I find myself ready to admit to certain public aims. That is to say that, in it, I have been trying to say to as much of humanity as I can reach, and, in particular to such members of the public as, because of age or for other reasons did not experience the shocks and anxieties of the late struggle:

This is what the late war was like: this is how modern fighting of the organised, scientific type affects the mind. If, for reasons of gain or, as is still more likely out of dislike for collective types other than your own, you choose to permit your rulers to embark on another war, this – or something very accentuated along similar lines – is what you will have to put up with!

I hope, in fact, that this series of books, for what it is worth, may make war seem undesirable. But in spite of that hope I have not exaggerated either the physical horrors or the mental distresses of that period. On the contrary I have selected for treatment less horrible episodes than I might well have rendered and I have rendered them with more equanimity than might well have been displayed. You see here the end of the war of attrition through the eyes of a fairly stolid, fairly well-instructed man. I should like to add that, like all of us, he in neither unprejudiced not infallible. And you have here his mental reactions and his reflections – which are not, not, NOT presented as those of the author.

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PARADE’S END REVISITED

Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and John Quinn in Paris, 1923

It was Graham Greene who contended that ‘There is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.’ This prediction didn’t quite come to pass, and Ford’s popularity has never matched that of his near contemporary Evelyn Waugh, for example.

Ford is set to experience a new lease of life, however, with the announcement of a forthcoming television adaptation of his four-volume First World War masterpiece, Parade’s End. This seems an ideal time to discover or revisit the first book in the series, Some Do Not . . . (published in 1924) which the philosopher John Gray recently described as ‘possibly the greatest twentieth-century novel in English‘.

Some Do Not . . . introduces the major themes and characters of Parade’s End, which traces the trauma of the Great War as if affects Christopher Tietjens and the two women in his life: his socialite wife, Sylvia, and Valentine Wannop, the suffragette with whom he falls in love.

We have become used to seeing depictions of the First World War on our screens of late (in the likes of War Horse, Downton Abbey and Birdsong), and can no doubt expect to see more in the run-up to the 2014 centenary. Ford’s work stands apart in being based on his own direct experiences at the Front, and being motivated by a strong anti-war stance. In that at least, Ford’s novel is as resonant as ever today. As he explained in 1934, when he’d completed Parade’s End:

I have always had the greatest contempt for novels writtten with a purpose . . . But when I sat down to write that series of volumes I sinned against my gods to the extent of saying that I was going — to the level of the light vouchsafed me — to write a work that should have for its purpose the obviating of all future wars.

UPDATE (August 2012)

The complete Parade’s End tetralogy is now available from Swift Editions, either as individual novels or in a single-volume edition.

ESTHER WATERS AND THE DOWNTON ABBEY EFFECT

Dirk Bogarde and Mary Clare in the 1948 film of Esther Waters

One of the most striking aspects of the success of Downton Abbey is its huge popularity in the States, although as it is essentially a spin-off from an American movie (Robert Altman’s Gosford Park), perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised at this. As the New York Times reports, publishers have been jumping on the bandwagon.

The television series hasn’t been without its critics in the US, however, with the Wall Street Journal recently taking issue with its ‘soft focus’ portrayal of domestic service. Novelist Elizabeth Lowry recommended instead some more authentic fictional depictions of the ‘long-vanished world of masters and servants’, including, I was pleased to see, Esther Waters by George Moore.

Moore’s novel of the life of a ‘fallen woman’ was a bestseller in Victorian England, and probably as talked about as Downton Abbey is today; its sexual frankness even led to attempts to have it banned. It’s been rather forgotten in recent years, apart from a glowing endorsement on BBC Radio 4 by Colm Toibin, who chose it as his favourite neglected classic: ‘You will not forget Esther Waters. You grow to love her and want her to thrive . . . You can’t put it down . . . once you’re halfway through it, you really don’t want to be doing anything else.’

Esther Waters has been filmed twice, notably in 1948, when it gave Dirk Bogarde his first starring role, and was adapted as a television series in the 1960s. Perhaps in the wake of Downton‘s success  and Glenn Close’s new film of Moore’s short story ‘Albert Nobbs’ – the time is right for a new version . . . and for readers to discover the original.

REJOYCE

The expiry of EU copyright in the works of James Joyce will lead to a profusion of new publications and adaptations of the great writer’s oeuvre in the course of this year. Major new editions of Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubiners are in preparation, while the James Joyce Archive in Dublin is to publish a special edition of Joyce’s most celebrated short story, ‘The Dead’

There is surprisingly little talk of plans to publish Joyce’s works as enhanced ebooks, a format ideally suited to exploring his densely layered fictions. One looks forward to seeing them adapted with as much skill and creativity as has gone into the iPad app for T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

In the meantime, Swift is making its own modest contribution to Joyceana with the publication of a new digital edition of ‘The Dead’. There’s nothing particularly high-tech about it, just the text presented as close as possible to the way the author intended, with a few embedded notes and  perhaps most importantly  dashes in place of the ‘perverted commas’ he detested.

PAT HOBBY’S CHRISTMAS WISH

It was Christmas Eve in the studio. By eleven o’clock in the morning, Santa Claus had called on most of the huge population according to each one’s deserts.

Sumptuous gifts from producers to stars, and from agents to producers arrived at offices and studio bungalows; on every stage one heard of the roguish gifts of casts to directors or directors to casts; champagne had gone out from publicity office to the press. And tips of fifties, tens and fives from producers, directors and writers fell like manna upon the white collar class.

In this sort of transaction there were exceptions. Pat Hobby, for example, who knew the game from twenty years’ experience, had had the idea of getting rid of his secretary the day before. They were sending over a new one any minute but she would scarcely expect a present the first day . . .

The opening story in The Complete Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald is ‘Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish’, so this seems an appropriate moment to discover or revisit this cautionary seasonal tale of a Hollywood hack with blackmail on his mind. Even better, you can read it as part of a free sample of Swift’s new digital edition here. Just click on ‘Send sample now’ to route the full story to your Kindle or PC.

DISCOVERING ALBERT NOBBS

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I first came across the name Albert Nobbs when I read a newspaper report in late 2010 about Glenn Close shooting a film in Dublin with that title. The fleeting mention of the film being based on a short story by George Moore led me to seek out a copy, which I eventually located in this excellent collection edited by William Trevor. Now I must confess that depite having studied English literature I had avoided Moore’s work, having decided for some reason that it was old hat. Evidently this is a prejudice that has been around for some time; it was Ford Madox Ford who commented: “In an infinite number of reviews and comptes rendus of the literature of the world that I have read  and written  George Moore is almost invariably forgotten.”

After reading “Albert Nobbs” I realised how mistaken I had been about Moore. While his style is more traditional than that of James Joyce in Dubliners (published three years earlier, in 1914), there is nothing conventional about his subject-matter. This is the story of a woman in nineteenth-century Dublin who reinvents herself as a man so that she can secure a job as a hotel waiter. Her ambition is to start her own business and settle down; however complications ensue when she sets her heart on marriage, as her intended is a chambermaid called Helen Dawes.

To say more about the plot would risk spoiling the effect of reading this very singular, novella-length tale. The novelist John Banville, who collaborated with Glenn Close on the screenplay of the film, rightly describes it as “a very strange, very peculiar story” in this recent RTE radio documentary about Moore, but goes on to say that “it’s terribly moving, terribly affecting, not sentimental in any way”. Elsewhere Adrian Frazier, Moore’s biographer, has described it as “a little-known masterpiece of the short story”.

I am pleased to have discovered Moore’s work at last, and to have had the opportunity to make ‘Albert Nobbs’ available to readers in digital form for the first time. This is just the start for Swift Editions, and there may be another offering from George Moore in due course.