I was expecting a masterpiece; what I got was a neurotic obese windbag of a novel. VS Pritchett, always an astute critic, remarked that confusion was always Ford’s mainspring as a novelist. This novel is so hysterically confused it reads like a diary of someone chronicling his own nervous breakdown. At one point in the novel a character forms the thought that her companion is still droning on with an idea she thought they had got past. I can’t say how many times I thought this same idea while reading this novel.
I had already seen the BBC production of this before reading it and the first thing that needs to be said is what a fabulous job Tom Stoppard did in editing and extracting every last drop of what’s good in this book and weeding out all the prodigious irritating excesses, including the entire last section.
An obvious example of Stoppard’s masterful alchemy is how he hones down exchanges between characters which in the novel usually drag on for pages and pages into a handful of critical lines. Another example is how much more sympathetic he is to the character of Sylvia than Ford was. When Tolstoy began Anna Karenina he disapproved of the adulterous woman and set himself the task of dramatizing this disapproval of his. Had he continued with this irksome puritanical stance he deployed in The Kreutzer Sonata it’s likely Anna Karenina would have been a dud as a novel. However, Tolstoy came to love Anna and it was the empathy he felt with her that contributed massively to the novel being a masterpiece. Ford Maddox Ford begins with a similar premise – except he doesn’t fall in love with his adulterous woman. He, like his hero, remains a puritan throughout the novel. She’s the villain, the harbinger of everything Ford doesn’t like about the new world (dis)order. At times it’s as if Ford is blaming the promiscuity of restless women for the insane mess the world has become. Not even Stoppard could alchemize this facet of the novel which is why the last two episodes of the TV adaptation fell flat for me. In the novel we’re called upon to boo Sylvia every time she enters the stage and cheer the docile schoolgirl male-honouring suffragette who is her rival for Christopher’s affections. The less said about the suffragette the better. Graham Greene refers to Sylvia as “surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel”. What a load of hogwash that statement is! Sylvia betrays a husband who shows no interest in her, a husband who is emotionally retarded. Ford’s determination to make me dislike Sylvia had the subtlety of a right-wing newspaper maligning the leader of a left-wing political party in every single editorial. Somehow and brilliantly, Stoppard alchemized Sylvia into the most credible and admirable character in the book though I’m not sure Ford would have approved of this outcome.
Ford’s ostensibly grandiose vision of Britain at the time of the first world war contains much that has become rather hackneyed. And a lot of his notions have turned out to be untrue. It wasn’t really the end of the old social order. He pokes lots of fun at the ruling classes. There’s a lot of schoolboy humour in this novel – and maybe how much you enjoy it will depend to some extent on how prone you are to giggling. Like Waugh at the end of Brideshead he seems to romantically and nostalgically lament the decline of the feudal world of the 18th century. But like Waugh he got it wrong. That world wasn’t vanishing into the mists of time. Just take a look at the members of the Tory party who were responsible for the referendum. Same old old boys club.
However, Ford does throw something more interesting into the mix – and this is his obsession with frustrated sexual feeling. Every character in this novel is sexually neurotic. It’s like Ford had just read Freud and believed obsessively but without much clarity that he was on to something. Unfortunately to a large extent Ford comes across as a latter-day Oliver Cromwell in this regard. No coincidence Sylvia is a Catholic. I didn’t understand what he was getting at with his sex obsession but at least it was interesting.
Julian Barnes praises the structure of this book and it’s true this is its most interesting element – the surface of gossip, lies and misunderstandings which defines the social order at the expense of truth. But his declaration that “Few novelists have better understood and conveyed the overworkings of the hysterical brain, the underworkings of the damaged brain (after his first spell at the front, Tietjens returns with partial memory loss), the slippings and slidings of the mind at the end of its tether, with all its breakings-in and breakings-off” is sheer hyperbole for me. Ford dramatizes a confused mind by resorting to endless spatterings of ellipses on every page, a crude, almost schoolboyish technique for creating the interruption of mental processes. (It’s worth remembering this was written long after both Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, in neither of which does Woolf resort to cheap ellipses to show a mind in turmoil.)
At the end of the day I’d say there are about a hundred pages of this novel worth reading; that leaves 800…Five stars though for Tom Stoppard who for me has proved himself to be a superior artist to Ford Maddox Ford. And perhaps Greene and Barnes’ elevated evaluation of this novel have helped explained to me why I’ve never been able to get excited by either of them as novelists.