While reading Amateur Reader's blog, Wuthering Expectations yesterday I came upon a post on the so called page 99 test devised by Ford Madox Ford. (Link above). The basic idea is you open a book to the 99th page. You then read the first purely discursive paragraph and the quality of prose there can be taken as representative of the quality of the prose of the work as a whole. This was sort of meant as a pre-read test for a novel new to you. Ford Madox Ford (1873 to 1939) had a great influence on the literature of England in the period from 1915 or so up to his death. Wikipedia sums it up well:
(By coincidence (?) I am now nearly done with The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane by Paul Mariani, a brilliant wonderful literary biography I will post on soon. It turns out that while in Paris Hart stayed for a while in the apartment of Ford through the courtesy of their mutual friend, Alan Tate.)In 1908, he founded The English Review, in which he published Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, John Galsworthy and William Butler Yeats, and gave debuts to Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. In 1924, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal with great influence on modern literature. Staying with the artistic community in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France, he made friends with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Jean Rhys, all of whom he would publish (Ford is the model for the character Braddocks in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises). Known in his role as critic for the statement "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." In a later sojourn in the United States, he was involved with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Lowell (who was then a student). Despite his deep Victorian roots, Ford was always a champion of new literature and literary experimentation. He had an affair with Jean Rhys, which ended bitterly
I am attempting to host a read along on Parade's End, a tetralogy set in dealing with WWI and the immediate after years starting on April 1, 2010. I am very happy that some have shown an interest in joining in. There will be no rigid rules, deadlines, schedules etc just like minded people reading the same book around the same time and reading and hopefully talking about each others posts.
I decided to apply the "page 99" test to Parade's End, using the Penguin Press Edition of the work.
The 99th page test of the first section, Some Do Not (I started the count not with the page numbers but with the page count) found this:
She pushes her daughter out of her seat, and moving around besides the young man, she overwhelmed him with vociferous love. As Tietjens had turned to speak to Mrs Duchemin she had recognized his aquiline profile as exactly that of her father at her own wedding breakfast. To the table that knew it by heart--though Tietjens himself didn't--she recited the story of how his father had saved her life and was her mascot. And she offered the son-for to the father she had never been allowed to make any return-her house, her purse, her time, her all.There is a way of life depicted in this short paragraph. We have to be active in reading it. What does it mean to have it declared that your father was the mascot of Mrs Duchemin? It is overwhelming in its understatement and portrays action in a wonderful way. We imagine the shock of all when Mrs Duchemin jumps up! It evokes a world where ties matter, where people talked in complete sentences, where history mattered and where a woman could quite plausibly look at a man and have the thought go through her mind that his profile was "aquiline". In the second to the last line most writers would say "To the father", where Ford's use of "For to" does make the reader see this had become in the mind of Mrs Duchemin and those in her immediate circle a kind of personal epic tale. "For to the father" is from an epic or at the very least a fairy tale brought to life in the retelling over and over. In a way, the paragraph is about a dying empire in the form of a legacy that will never be passed on.
In reading The Good Soldier I learned that you must keep your wits fully about you in reading Ford. The seeming meaning of a line on page 22 may be quite undercut by a revelation 100 pages further in. There are layers of irony and feints to delight and prose as refined as it comes to savor while on a verandah contemplating what drink you wish to be brought to you while trying to forget about the war to end all wars.
In my own mind I have a test for greatness in a literary work. (I have several but this is one I developed while reading the work of the great early 20th century Japanese novelists Natsume Soseki)-I call it the "Soseki test":
The pleasure we gain from a Noh play springs not from any skill at presenting the raw human feeling of the everyday world but from clothing feeling as it is in layer upon layer of art, and in a kind of slowed serenity of deportment not found in the real world.(I have read a number of the great Japanese novelists in the last six months. The Good Soldier reminds me of the work of Junichiro Tanizaki in that the smallest line may seemingly destroy our understanding of all we have read and if we are not careful we will miss the point. In my opinion, one of the uses of literary art is to teach us to see that there is no quite fixed social reality, it is all interwoven tales. I will be, among other things, applying The Soseki test to Parade's End.
I invite all interested parties to read along with us starting April 1. Read at your own pace. All I really ask is that one place at least a comment on my blog when you post or have some thoughts on the work so we can all join in. This is my first time attempting such a project. I hope, of course, lots of readers will join in or at least read the posts. (I promise not to write a long commentary on every paragraph!)