Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance
Ford Madox Ford’s Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (1924) is an account of Ford’s collaboration and friendship with Joseph Conrad over the decades before the death of the latter. It is also a manifesto for Ford’s ideas on literary impressionism, and it attempts to mark out places where, according to Ford, he and Conrad agreed and disagreed about writing. Ford also attempts to demonstrate his aesthetic principles in the form of the work, juxtaposing widely spaced points of time and the immediate with the retrospective.
Much of Ford’s analysis of Conrad cannot be taken with complete credulity. For instance, he consistently downplays Conrad’s political feelings, subsuming them into a general aesthetic devotion: “All revolutions are an interruption of the processes of thought and of the discovery of a New Form . . . for the novel.” Conrad’s complicated feelings on the subject of revolutions, on the contrary, sprung from much more personal sources—in particular his father’s revolutionary career and his general Polish background. In addition, in such essays as “Autocracy and War” (1905) and “Poland Revisited” (1915), he criticizes the activities of revolutionaries and assassins as futile and corrupt—not as an inconvenience to literary progress. “He desired a stable world in which you could think and develop the New Form” (62), Ford says, ignoring the many other reasons Conrad wanted a stable world. Throughout the work, Ford asserts the primacy of the novel in Conrad’s life and thought: “We agreed that the novel is absolutely the only vehicle for the thought of our day” (208).
Ford’s emphasis on the literary in Conrad’s life is expressed in the organization of his book. The most consistent structuring narrative of the work is the history of the writing of Romance, their 1904 collaboration; Ford wheels to and fro over and outside this history just as he does in novels such as The Good Soldier, where chronology is subordinated to the associative logic of a narrating mind. For instance, Part III is a long excursus on Conrad’s (and Ford’s) general approach to writing; Part IV opens, “With the turn of the century we took up again Romance” (219). The reference to the chronological marker foregrounds the novel’s refusal to follow temporal development; this is moment is not so much a shift forward in time, as a sentence like this would be in a 19th-century novel, but a temporary drop into a particular fragment of time from a broader perspective outside it. This movement back and forth occurs throughout. Ford will relate a brief and humorous argument about saffron in one paragraph, and in the next comment: “In all our ten thousand conversations down the years we had only these two themes over which we quarreled: as to the taste of saffron and as to whether one sheep is distinguishable from another” (30). The work is constantly shifting between an overarching, absolute perspective and a pose of immediacy with recollected moments; every paragraph brings a new vignette or a new perspective on a previous vignette.
This back and forth, not just across time, but between temporal specificity and generality, reflects an important feature of the impressionistic method Ford is announcing. Ford’s impressionism does not take lived experience as its frame and have memories and abstract musings intrude upon it, the way authors like Joyce and Woolf do. Instead, recollection and musing are the frame within which experiences are sifted and presented. This distinction is important, and it is one Ford never quite makes explicit. In introducing his long case-study of narrative (how to tell of Mr. Slack’s greenhouse), he in fact obscures it:
We agreed that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind. A novel must therefore not be a narration, a report. Life does not say to you: In 1914 my next door neighbour, Mr. Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminium paint. . . . If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr. Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. (180-181)The phrase “the general effect that life makes on mankind” avoids treating the distinction between the immediate and the retrospective; Ford’s “various unordered pictures” are not unordered because experience seems chaotic, but because the vagaries of memory deprive them of order. In this he does illuminate a clear formal similarity and a philosophical difference between himself and Conrad: memory, and chronological disorder, are central to both of them; however, to Ford, memory is itself an agent of disorder; for Conrad, it tends to be the means of finding order in an original experience otherwise incomprehensible: “I had jumped,” says Jim, “It seems.”
Ford draws numerous distinctions between himself and Conrad, but this is not among them. From the outset his book announces a continuity between its own form and that of Conrad’s fiction. Its opening paragraphs announce their affinities to famous Conradian openings.
He was small rather than large in height; very broad in the shoulder and long in the arm; dark in complexion with black hair and a clipped black beard. (Opening of Joseph Conrad) He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. (Opening of Lord Jim) In the Pent Farm, beneath the South Downs, there was a great kitchen with a wavy brick floor. On this floor sat a great many cats: they were needed to keep down rats and they got some milk of a morning. (Opening of second paragraph of Joseph Conrad) In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. (Opening of Nostromo)Though the second parallel is less obvious, Ford’s paragraph goes on to describe the way “Every morning a wild robin … would hop, not fly, across the floor of the kitchen between the waiting cats” (11). This journey over the “wavy” floor echoes the way Conrad’s first chapter goes on to describe the perilous journey of ships deprived of ocean breezes across the Golfo Placido to Sulaco at dawn.
The two echoes here—one apparently without irony, a straight description of a first impression made by Conrad; the other a gentle deflation of Conrad’s invented country to the space of a kitchen—express both the affinities between Ford’s book and its subject and the ultimate divergences in their methods. The details Ford gives to the setting of the kitchen mock the reader’s expectation that any lengthy scene might unfold here; whereas Conrad’s chapter sets up both themes and geographical features which will prove crucial to the plot and themes of the novel as a whole, Ford’s kitchen is picked up and dropped with the randomness of the details associated with Mr. Slack’s greenhouse. Vivid first impressions abound in the worlds of both novelists, but whereas Conrad saw retrospection as holding out the—possibly illusory—opportunity for re-ordering, Ford’s “New Form” finds the fragmentation of memory an agent for deflating the significance of reality.