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Ford Madox Ford: No Enemy
This novel had disappeared from view till it was republished by Ecco Press in their Neglected Books of the Twentieth Century series (a series which has also been neglected) and later republished by Carcanet in the UK and all power to them both for doing so. The book has virtually no plot but it is still a wonderful novel that really should be better known. It nominally tells of the reminiscences of Gringoire, an English poet. The name comes from a story by Daudet in his Lettres de Mon Moulin, in which one of the stories is addressed to a poet called Gringoire. Apparently, when Gringoire’s class were reading this at school, he was already known as a poet and his schoolfriends gave him this name as a nickname and it stuck. It is, of course, Ford’s own reminiscences. Gringoire had served in World War I and now is quite content just to grow vegetables in his garden. While we do see his idyllic, vegetable-growing life, together with Mme Sélysette (whose role is unclear), much of the book is about his experiences in World War I.
The book is divided into two – Four Landscapes and Certain Interiors – which include a number of tableaux, told most definitely with a poet’s eye. And they are told most beautifully. While the horrors are there, lurking in the background and, on occasion, coming to the fore, Gringoire/Ford’s observations are most beautifully told. They include such events as the Cricket Match, apparently originally written in French and, indeed, given in French in the afterword (or envoi as Ford calls it). This match involves the English playing a game of cricket in a landscape surrounded by death and decay. The French officer is horrified, not by the disrespect but because he believes that after fighting, one should be perfectly quiet. The story of how Gringoire scouts around on a hill for positions, while waiting for a general (who will never come) or the Swede who thinks the French have too much land and should give up some to Sweden or his comparison of the landscape of the Somme with English landscapes are all beautifully told. In the second part, we meet Henri Gaudier, the sculptor, who had gone to live in England and is arrested on returning to France for desertion and nearly shot, before he simply climbs out of the window of his prison and walks away, though he will die fighting soon after. We also meet Maisie, the young daughter of a fellow officer who had kidnapped the child from her mother in Geneva and brought her to France. Gringoire has to look after her for a while but he too is called away and has to get someone else to look after her. The matter gets quite complicated (and involves ferrets, makes a connection, of course, with What Maisie Knew, one of Gringoire’s favourite books, and Maisie’s desire to catch a tram to heaven, because that is where she has been told her mother is).
All in all, it is one of the best books on World War I, rivaled by Ford’s own Parade’s End, showing a certain beauty in ugliness but also a certain stoicism in both the English soldiers and French population (Gringoire is a major Francophile) and above all showing that, as Ford puts it, there is life after Armageddon.
First published 1929 by Macaulay, New York