The view from a baize door

The author of The Good Soldier is revived by a sympathetic biography.
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The Independent Culture
Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Vol II by Max Saunders, Oxford, pounds 35

Nobody who cares about fiction can afford to ignore the elaborate, imaginative, mould-breaking writings of Ford Madox Ford, or the extent of his benevolent influence on younger writers - Hemingway, Graham Greene and D.H. Lawrence were among the scores of novelists whose careers benefited from Ford's shrewd advice.

Ford was rescued from near obscurity when Alan Judd read The Good Soldier and decided to write a biography which would undo some of the harm done to Ford by garrulous memoir-writers and by Arthur Mizener, who believed them. Warm, fluent and perceptive, Judd's book is a generous reappraisal of an exceptional man. Saunders has produced a fine critical life which will be invaluable for all students of Ford's work and influence.

Saunders's greatest achievement is to demonstrate the shallowness of Ford's reputation as a liar whose novels and autobiographical works are feeble exercises in self-deception. Ford's tall stories were part and parcel of his sense that life and fiction were interchangeable. He was never malicious. Ford's protean reinventions of himself in prose are presented, convincingly, as an innovative writer's experiments in the art of imagining.

This second volume opens with Ford's departure for France in 1916. Ford has been ridiculed for exaggerating his war experiences; Saunders follows Judd in showing him to have been eager for action and courageous under pressure. Fear proved beneficial, enabling Ford to take a more robust and adventurous approach to fiction in his post-war work.

Living in France in the Twenties, Ford repeated the success of his earlier editorship of The English Review in which he was the first to publish D.H. Lawrence. The transatlantic review became a testimony to Ford's commitment and near-faultless literary judgement. A single issue might combine the art of Picasso, Gwen John and Man Ray with poems by cummings and stories by Joyce, Hemingway and Ezra Pound. Ford was at his happiest when lending money, although he was always hard-up and arranging jolly dancing evenings for new contributors among whom, like a large and gentle elephant, he cheerfully plodded. Describing himself with only a hint of chagrin as a sort of green baize door that everyone kicks both on entering and leaving, he allowed Hemingway, to mock him in the pages of his own magazine. Ford never hit back. It was not in his nature.

Max Saunders has little to add to Judd's analysis of Ford's affair with Jean Rhys in the Paris years. He does, however, provide a detailed account of a hitherto unknown relationship with a young American woman, Elizabeth Cheatham. Judd believed that Ford's sudden eagerness in 1929 for a divorce - his Roman Catholic wife, although long estranged, refused to comply - stemmed from his wish to marry Rene Wright. Cheatham, it is now clear, was the true reason. The relationship was short-lived, but she remembered it as having been the best affair of her life. Judd once astutely suggested that Hemingway's hostility to his mentor might have had something to do with the fact that Ford, fat, middle-aged and physically unappealing though he was, remained extraordinarily attractive to women.

I am not wholly persuaded by the high claims Saunders makes for some of Ford's minor novels. But he has done a magnificent service to his subject in his thoughtful analysis of Ford's great tetralogy, Parade's End, and in his account of Ford's generous services to literature as a discoverer and husbander of new talent. "I wish people would not write better than I do," he once wrote, but regret never stopped him from using his influence to help younger authors.

Age did not lessen Ford's passionate commitment to literature. At Olivet, the American college at which he taught from 1937-39 when he was in his mid-sixties, he gave courses on contemporary writing, then a brand-new subject. His discoveries included Edward Dahlberg, Eudora Welty and Jean Stafford. He organised an unofficial literary academy whose members included Auden, Isherwood, cummings, Marianne Moore and Henry Miller. Even in the last months of his life, Ford was working his way through a pile of some 200 manuscripts from young writers seeking his advice. The story told by another Ford protege, Robert Lowell, of an inaudible old man lecturing to an almost empty room is overturned by Saunders's presentation of Ford's last years as vigorous and successful.

Gaps remain. I would have liked some discussion of the likely influence of French on Ford's stylistic inventiveness. French exercised a transforming influence on Joyce and Beckett; it must, surely, have affected such a responsive logophile as Ford? But Saunders has produced a valuable academic work. Thoughtful, lucid and scrupulously objective, he restores Ford to us as a brilliant, much-maligned man - and a major literary figure.