Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"The March of Literature" by Ford Madox Ford

The March of Literature by Ford Madox Ford (1938,  878 pages)

I have been reading The March of Literature by Ford Madox Ford (1873 to 1939-UK) for about four months now.    Ford wrote some 80 books including The Good Soldier and the tetrology Parade's End.    The Good Soldier is the most read of his works.      Parade's End is a long demanding work but most of those who have read it, including me, come away from it in awe.    Ford, from a very cultured family, was incredibly well read and seems to have possessed amazing memory.       He read the classics and more in at least six languages.    He was not, except for a year or two, an academic but he spent 1937 and 1938 lecturing at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan, USA.    He had made the acquaintanceship of the president of the university and he offered him a position.   

The March of Literature is a very ambitious book.    It means to tell the story of the development literature world wide (including Asia) from the very first literary works up to the works written in the 1930s.   Ford also discusses the cultural contexts in which the works of literature arose.    It is not a "balanced" text book kind of a work.   No sane professor would attempt to teach a course based on it today.    Ford will spend twenty pages discussing the relative merits of 14th century German poets but not even mention Tolstoy.    The standard of the prose is high.     It is at times repetitive and does ramble a bit.    I was at times tempted to fast forward through sections of the book devoted to writers or eras that I have no familiarity with but I am glad I resisted the temptation.   I will probably never read any epics by medieval Scandinavian authors but at least now I know there are such a things.   Some of his literary value judgments may seem idiosyncratic (such as not regarding Tolstoy as worth mentioning, calling Stephen Crane  the first "real American" writer, and suggesting one cannot consider oneself an Anglo-Saxon unless you have read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).     His English bests writers are Trollope, Austin, Thackeray and with some end notes, Dickens.  In American, it is Henry James when all the rhetoric settles.    In France he sees, as do most, two works of Flaubert, Stendhal's The  Red and the Black and "one or two by Balzac" (he does not tell us which ones) as the best European literature of the 19th century.

Who should read this book?    My quick answer would be any one who wants to read an account of literature by a genius (who added to the great literature of the world himself) of the reading life.   To qualify it, if you are already interested in the subject of the book I think you will be amazed by the breadth and depth of Ford's knowledge.   His prose styling is impeccable.    Personally as I read it I was thinking it was a shame Ford was never able to read in the 20th century Japanese novel.   At one point he says America first began to really produce work of the highest literary merit when American writers began to read Flaubert and Stendhal.
I have come to the conclusion that the Japanese novel came into existence when a small number of young men attending elite schools began to read Flaubert and Stendhal (a very powerful influence on 20th century Japanese literature) and married the French forms to Japanese classical traditions.    Perhaps scholars (of which I am not) may dismiss this as off the wall.

The March of Literature is a serious book that those who want to know more about the history of literature and get tons of reading ideas  should read.   I read it slowly as it is a densely written book.   I will use it as a reference book from now on.    I am very glad I read it and I think, as only those who love quality literature will read it,  that any one who reads this book will be delighted they did.    There are just so many great reading suggestions in this book!    Ford is hard on academics in his book and at times seems patronizing to Americans but maybe that was just a humorous jibe   He suggests that much literary analysis is the work of people who perhaps once loved to read but now see it just as a job.

I admit I was very happy  when he mentioned Katherine Mansfield as one of the writers in whom he saw the seeds of a great new wave of literature.    He appears to have met neither Mansfield or Virginia Woolf.

I will be reading soon, I hope, his trilogy of historical novels on Katherine Howard, starting with The Fifth Queen.    

Mel u


Suko said...

Another perfect choice for The Reading Life! Ford Madox Ford read the classics and more in at least six languages?! Interesting post, Mel.

I cannot believe all your KM posts, but then again, you have a KM reading project extraordinaire.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I'm glad - although not surprised - you got so much from this book. I love it, digressions and prejudices and odd judgments and all.

It's a model, isn't it? Something to which the reader can aspire. We should read widely and cultivate our own odd judgments!

Mel u said...

Suko-FMF is pretty awesome in his range of reading-he was a super busy person in all aspects of his life-

Amateur Reader-the book is all the more amazing as it had to have been written from near memory-no internet to check facts etc!