Like many people with at least some superficial veneer of culture and erudition, the books I read when I was a child fall into two main categories. First, I read the books that were just the kind of thing that come your way if you’re a young person surrounded by people who care: Newberry winners, ALA Notables, and books about the spirited young ladies of the past, who reside in places like New Moon, Silver Bush, and The Limberlost. Next, I read the books my parents had around the house. With a talent that stays with me today, I became adept at picking out the novels from among Loeb editions and other things that boded ill for my entertainment (although my strategy was not foolproof: I still give The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony the side-eye when I see it on the shelf).
We can all map our humanity by the oddities and accidents of our youthful bookshelves (or the absence of said shelves), but that’s outside the scope of this revue. The point is that I remember being lured by The Good Soldier because of its child-friendly size and obvious fiction-ness. Skimming through it, I had no idea what was going on. Clearly, though, it was something creepy. (I believe I had the idea that “cut his throat” was an expression meaning to be really upset about something, which is not totally inaccurate.)
The next time I read the Ford Madox Ford novel was in its incarnation as The Saddest Story, in crisp pink facsimile copy of Blast prescribed in a college course on Anglo-American Modernism. I was very taken by Blast as a concept, a look, a typeface, during what might be considered my most revolutionary period, which might also be considered the least revolutionary revolutionary period ever experienced by a person. I latched on to The Good Soldier then because it was far more comprehensible to me than almost anything else we read during Anglo-American Modernism (or indeed, Blast). This text was carrying some artistic ideology, we were taught, but it was written in sentences I could understand.
The Good Soldier is probably the best book to teach in an English class that I can imagine, covering all the hot formal and contextual bases. (First of all, forget Turn of the Screw — here we have our unreliable narrator sans pareil.) Who is this man? An American. Who is his author? An Anglo-German. Where was this published? Blast? And when? Why, just before World Blast I!
What a narrator! To read him is to hear a 100-year-old joke and get it, even if the terms on which you get it are slightly out of kilter from the original. Right off the bat, Dowell, this placid American, describes for us the Ashburnhams, the male half of which will disrupt everyone’s existence with wandering heart and loins: “They were descended, as you will probably expect, from the Ashburnham who accompanied Charles I to the scaffold, and, as you must also expect with this class of English people, you would never have noticed it.”
What else does Dowell, this Quaker with pudding where his balls should be, not notice? That the Ashburnhams don’t speak to one another; that while he ferries his non-invalid invalid wife to healthful spas at Nauheim and elsewhere, Captain Ashburnham is ferrying her vigorously to Pound-town. Talk about creepy. All slices of underdone beef and quiet chats around the bridge table and a particular shade of blue tie, while coursing through it is illicit sex, death, madness, and strong religious feeling.
The Good Soldier has often been lauded as a formally perfect novel, a sentiment with which I am inclined to agree, but do not feel quite up to proving, when Julian Barnes has already done it. But I did want to revisit Blast (that “great MAGENTA cover’d opusculus,” as Ezra Pound described it, with characteristic bombast). What a strange, sad, vital text, and how curious it seemed to me that Ford’s story should be in it. Next to Wyndham Lewis’s aggressively experimental “Enemy of the Stars” and Rebecca West’s psychosexual vignette “Indissoluble Matrimony,” The Good Soldier seems formally rather bloodless and Edwardian, suddenly becoming, at its end, positively Gothic (Eunuch and Madwoman: table for two). However, while I found The Good Soldier a beacon of intelligibility among the experiments of the Vorticists, Theodore Dreiser, Ford’s contemporary, found the non-chronological narrative provocative and disorienting — bad modern Art.
Ford did not sign the manifesto part of issue 1, and his relationship with the Vorticists (the name for Lewis and the other people behind Blast) is a matter of some discussion, I gather, after reading several scholarly essays in an effort to understand the period. He was a Modernist, but also an Impressionist. He dabbled in Imagism, which is a kind of Modernism. The Vorticists disliked the Futurists. They all may have been nascent Fascists. So many currents and tributaries to movements — 100 years later, Modernism seems like a biggish tent. But really, it’s about as descriptive a term as “sandwich,” and reading the learned essays invoked, in my crude mind, a long-running argument that my friends have about what is or is not a sandwich. Is a taco a sandwich? A hotdog? It is all a darkness.
Looking back, the particulars of the day’s debates are not clear. But, set as they were against the great cataclysm of World War I, it is easy to focus on the irrelevance of a hotdog’s being a sandwich or not a sandwich, when we know now that millions of people were preparing to die in terrible circumstances. That’s the saddest story! Not some horny, deceitful woman! Even while I admired the aesthetic on the page of the Vorticists, there is a kind of awfulness in all of it, as they celebrate, in a queerly un-celebratory way, those things that will soon blast them all to pieces. (It is worth checking out the searchable PDFs on Issuu, where both numbers are available in their entirety.)
The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY-their stupidity, animalism, and dreams.
We do not want to change the appearance of the world, because we are not Naturalists, Impressionists or Futurists (the latest form of Impressionism), and do not depend on the appearance of the world for our art.
WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel it’s crude energy flowing through us.
The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius, — its appearance and its spirit. Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.
The rest of The Good Soldier/Saddest Story didn’t appear in the second and ultimate issue of Blast, the “War Issue,” because the novel had already been published by John Lane. Meanwhile, Ford Madox Ford had gone off to war, which he wrote about in a poem for this second issue. The Vorticist sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, who rebelled against classical forms, died in action, not before sending this dispatch for the new number:
I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR TWO MONTHS and I can now gauge the intensity of Life.
HUMAN MASSES teem and move, are destroyed and crop up again.
HORSES are worn out in three weeks, die by the roadside.
DOGS wander, are destroyed, and others come along.
WITH ALL THE DESTRUCTION that works around us NOTHING IS CHANGED, EVEN SUPERFICIALLY. LIFE IS THE SAME STRENGTH. THE MOVING AGENT THAT PERMITS THE SMALL INDIVIDUAL TO ASSERT HIMSELF.
THE BURSTING SHELLS, the volleys, wire entanglements, projectors, motors, the chaos of battle DO NOT ALTER IN THE LEAST, the outlines of the hill we are besieging. A company of PARTRIDGES scuttle along before our very trench.
IT WOULD BE FOLLY TO SEEK ARTISTIC EMOTIONS AMID THESE LITTLE WORKS OF OURS.
Another short book that sat on my parents’ bookshelves was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, with which I also struggled upon a youthful first read. This week, fresh off a week of reading Blast and trying to plumb its truths, I had a moment of serendipity when I went to see the play for the first time. Parallels abound. Stoppard’s play is about waging war on the styles that came before you — in this case the Romantic rejection of the Classical, with Mr. Noakes the landscape architect rejecting, like Gaudier-Brzeska, the smooth geometry of the Greeks. It’s about the great X factor that sex plays in the human enterprise. It’s about Art, Science, Math, and Machinery. It is also about looking back at the past and not totally understanding things because you are missing key documents and truths, and also see what you want to see. In one play, we cover the impulse behind the Vorticists, the root of the tragedies in The Good Soldier, and my own fumbling around for sandwich metaphors.
At the pinnacle of the play, the young heroine Thomasina laments to her tutor Septimus the wanton weakness of the “Egyptian noodle” Cleopatra, who allowed the great library of Alexandria to burn. For Thomasina, as for Dowell the American, a lady being horny and deceitful — her good soldier being such a fine, fatally weak fellow — wrecked things forever.
When Thomasina, thinking of all the lost books in the library, asks Septimus, “How can we sleep for grief?” He replies in a great moment of literature and humanity, giving us the softer side of Gaudier-Brzeska’s dispatch from the front:
By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady. You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.
Tom Stoppard wrote the dialogue for Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s other best-known work, which was lately made into an HBO miniseries. I don’t know what he thinks about The Good Soldier, Blast, or the rest of it, but he is humming on that creative frequency. The first issue of Blast asserted: “The moment a man feels or realizes himself as an artist, he ceases to belong to any milieu or time. Blast is created for this timeless fundamental Artist that exists in everybody.”
We die on the march, yes. But we have our consolations.
Et in Arcadia ego.