war prose himself, that I never really noticed the shelling at all except that I was covered with tins of sardines & things that had been put out for our dinner.
That was really the worst of the Front from the novelist’s point of view. One was always so busy with one’s immediate job that one had no time to notice one’s sensations or anything else that went on round one. H. G. [Wells] wd. no doubt do it very much better!7
The novelist of perplexity and displaced sensation was particularly suited to presenting this psychology of battle, in which the obtuseness and subliminal noticings of the protagonist become an index to the mental strain he is under. He told Conrad: ‘I have been for six weeks – with the exception of only 24 hours – continuously within reach of German missiles &, altho’ one gets absolutely to ignore them, consciously, I imagine that subconsciously one is suffering.’ The second letter describes his attempt to buy flypapers in a shop while a shell lands nearby, and the Tommies joke as if the noise was made by the flies. ‘No interruption, emotion, vexed at getting no flypapers,’ writes Ford: ‘Subconscious emotion, “thank God the damn thing’s burst”.’
Despite all this, he could say with strangely detached irony: ‘It is curious – but, in the evenings here, I always feel myself happier that I have ever felt in my life.’ It is indeed curious that he can say this in a letter beginning ‘I wrote these rather hurried notes yesterday because we were being shelled to hell & I did not expect to get thro’ the night.’ It was, as often, a sense of death’s imminence that made him want to go on writing: a paradox he addresses in the third letter to his former collaborator:
I wonder if it is just vanity that in these cataclysmic moments makes one desire to record. I hope it is, rather, the annalist’s wish to help the historian – or, in a humble sort of way, my desire to help you, cher maître! – if you ever wanted to do anything in ‘this line’. Of course you wd. not ever want to do anything in this line – but a pocketful of coins in a foreign country may sometimes come in handy. You might want to put a phrase into the mouth of someone in Bangkok who had been, say, to
7 Ford to Stella Bowen, 22 Nov. 1918: The Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella
Bowen, ed. Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 40.