Younger than Conrad and James, he was immediately accepted by them as a peer before he had done major work. Conrad, who was often too sick to work, actually entrusted an installment of Nostromo to Ford, which is nearly unimaginable, given his obsessive perfectionism. He also collaborated with Ford on at other works.
Those are credentials where it counts – acceptance by the greatest English (not including the Irish Joyce) writers of his time at an early age. His greatest credential is one neither James nor Conrad can claim – an easy, natural grasp of all types of people at all social levels, and an deceptively light style in writing about them. His intelligence, too, is natural, and there’s not an uptight bone in his body of work, which is enormous. He wrote to make living, turned out a lot of stuff that James and Conrad would not have put their names to, and lived very freely, leaving a trail of lovers behind, always hoping for the best and trying to stabilize himself. Jean Rhys roasted and lambasted him well in one of her fine novels.
Ford was born a few generations ahead of himself. A certain Western perversity which has surfaced openly in the last few decades in the porn industry is no mystery to Ford. The Good Soldier, his first major work, is dark and knowing, though it starts off like innocence itself. The idle rich and their games have never been done better; it’s up there with Liaisons Dangereuses, without all the huffing and puffing.
Ford said that he wanted to put everything he knew about writing into The Good Soldier. This is a potential curse on any work of art, but Ford never falls into the trap. He writes about two couples, one English, one American, both rich. It’s a book about vicious, blind, hypocritical behavior, about turn-of-century Christianity, love, hatred and madness. All under cover of the amazing (to us – normal at the time) cloak of conventional routine mask-system still in place in Edwardian England.
Academics make a big thing about ‘the unreliable narrator’ of this book. He’s unreliable in various ways, sometime sounding stupid, sometimes with insights that are timeless. He’s an unambitious American, and he has no interest in sex whatever except to note its profound effects on others. His wife is a slut, of which he is unaware for a very long time, and she’s carrying on with the handsome not too bright soldier who seems to give the book its title. As the narrator soldiers on through thick and thin from shock to shock, the reader has to wonder how Ford meant the title.
But is it terribly significant that the narrator is ‘unreliable’? The fact is, people telling a long and complicated story speak this way, make mistakes, jump back in time to clarify something, and are inconsistent. This is a very peculiar man telling a very peculiar story, and one of the great strengths of the book is this real-world unreliability and inconsistency. Ford is bold enough to be real. Undistracted by what is so very important to the other ‘normal’ characters, he has a powerful honesty that survives the ‘unreliability’ because this is how people are, and how they speak.
James and Conrad created complex literary edifice-worlds in which this primal power is vitiated by artistic and intellectual concerns bordering on obsession. As they strive for time-impervious statements, a self-importance creeps in, and their characters are less important than the product. Modern readers sense the tour-de-force quality, and how it makes the books artificial. Ford is concerned with his art, but he’s just as concerned with his people, their human weakness and limitation. The power couple are nasty (and contemporary) despite the Edwardian conventions they’re trapped in, and the book would be lurid and cheap if it didn’t happen to be written by a man of great genius and no pretensions. The great, easy, unforced style comes from indifference to the social standards of the time. It’s not rebellious; it’s civil and genial. He simply rises above it.
No pretensions. What a relief! And human weakness… Ford knew what he was talking about, and his trail of bodies includes the excellent novelist Jean Rhys, whom he pillaged as a girl and taught a great deal, leaving yet another fine alcoholic writer.