Moveable Feast (Chapter 6)
Ford Madox Ford and the Devil’s Disciple
The Closerie des Lilas was the nearest good café when we lived in the flat over the sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and it was one of the best cafés in Paris. It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was very fine outside with the tables under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard. Two of the waiters were our good friends. People from the Dôme and the Rotonde never came to the Lilas. There was no one there they knew, and no one would have stared at them if they came. In those days many people went to the cafés at the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail to be seen publicly and in a way such places anticipated the columnists as the daily substitutes for immortality.
The Closerie des Lilas had once been a café where poets met more or less regularly and the last principal poet had been Paul Fort whom I had never read. But the only poet I ever saw there was Blaise Cendrars, with his broken boxer’s face and his pinned-up empty sleeve, rolling a cigarette with his one good hand. He was a good companion until he drank too much and, at that time, when he was lying, he was more interesting than many men telling a story truly. But he was the only poet who came to the Lilas then and I only saw him there once. Most of the clients were elderly bearded men in well worn clothes who came with their wives or their mistresses and wore or did not wear thin red Legion of Honor ribbons in their lapels. We thought of them all hopefully as scientists or savants and they sat almost as long over an apéritif as the men in shabbier clothes who sat with their wives or mistresses over a café crème and wore the purple ribbon of the Palms of the Academy, which had nothing to do with the French Academy, and meant, we thought, that they were professors or instructors.
These people made it a comfortable café since they were all interested in each other and in their drinks or coffees, or infusions, and in the papers and periodicals which were fastened to rods, and no one was on exhibition.
There were other people too who lived in the quarter and came to the Lilas, and some of them wore Croix de Guerre ribbons in their lapels and others also had the yellow and green of the Médaille Militaire, and I watched how well they were overcoming the handicap of the loss of limbs, and saw the quality of their artificial eyes and the degree of skill with which their faces had been reconstructed. There was always an almost iridescent shiny cast about the considerably reconstructed face, rather like that of a well packed ski run, and we respected these clients more than we did the savants or the professors, although the latter might well have done their military service too without experiencing mutilation.
In those days we did not trust anyone who had not been in the war, but we did not completely trust anyone, and there was a strong feeling that Cendrars might well be a little less flashy about his vanished arm. I was glad he had been in the Lilas early in the afternoon before the regular clients had arrived.
On this evening I was sitting at a table outside of the Lilas watching the light change on the trees and the buildings and the passage of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards. The door of the café opened behind me and to my right, and a man came out and walked to my table.
“Oh here you are,” he said.
It was Ford Madox Ford, as he called himself then, and he was breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and holding himself as upright as an ambulatory, well clothed, up-ended hogshead.
“May I sit with you?” he asked, sitting down, and his eyes which were a washed-out blue under colorless lids and eyebrows looked out at the boulevard.
“I spent good years of my life that those beasts should be slaughtered humanely,” he said.
“You told me,” I said.
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m quite sure.”
“Very odd. I’ve never told anyone in my life.”
“Will you have a drink?”
The waiter stood there and Ford told him he would have a Chambéry Cassis. The waiter, who was tall and thin and bald on the top of his head with hair slicked over and who wore a heavy old-style dragoon mustache, repeated the order.
“No. Make it a fine à l’eau,” Ford said.
“A fine à l’eau for Monsieur,” the waiter confirmed the order.
I had always avoided looking at Ford when I could and I always held my breath when I was near him in a closed room, but this was the open air and the fallen leaves blew along the sidewalks from my side of the table past his, so I took a good look at him, repented, and looked across the boulevard. The light was changed again and I had missed the change. I took a drink to see if his coming had fouled it, but it still tasted good.
“You’re very glum,” he said.
“Yes you are. You need to get out more. I stopped by to ask you to the little evenings we’re giving in that amusing Bal Musette near the Place Contrescarpe on the rue Cardinal Lemoine.”
“I lived above it for two years before you came to Paris this last time.”
“How odd. Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sure. The man who owned it had a taxi and when I had to get a plane he’d take me out to the field, and we’d stop at the zinc bar of the Bal and drink a glass of white wine in the dark before we’d start for the airfield.”
“I’ve never cared for flying,” Ford said. “You and your wife plan to come to the Bal Musette Saturday night. It’s quite gay. I’ll draw you a map so you can find it. I stumbled on it quite by chance.”
“It’s under 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine,” I said. “I lived on the third floor.”
“There’s no number,” Ford said. “But you’ll be able to find it if you can find the Place Contrescarpe.”
I took another long drink. The waiter had brought Ford’s drink and Ford was correcting him. “It wasn’t a brandy and soda,” he said helpfully but severely. “I ordered a Chambéry vermouth and Cassis.”
“It’s all right, Jean,” I said. “I’ll take the fine. Bring Monsieur what he orders now.”
“What I ordered,” corrected Ford.
At that moment a rather gaunt man wearing a cape passed on the sidewalk. He was with a tall woman and he glanced at our table and then away and went on his way down the boulevard.
“Did you see me cut him?” Ford said. “Did you see me cut him?”
“No. Who did you cut?”
“Belloc,” Ford said. “Did I cut him!”
“I didn’t see it,” I said. “Why did you cut him?”
“For every good reason in the world,” Ford said. “Did I cut him though!”
He was thoroughly and completely happy. I had never seen Belloc and I did not believe he had seen us. He looked like a man who had been thinking of something and had glanced at the table almost automatically. I felt badly that Ford had been rude to him, as, being a young man who was commencing his education, I had a high regard for him as an older writer. This is not understandable now but in those days it was a common occurrence.
I thought it would have been pleasant if Belloc had stopped at the table and I might have met him. The afternoon had been spoiled by seeing Ford but I thought Belloc might have made it better.
“What are you drinking brandy for?” Ford asked me. “Don’t you know it’s fatal for a young writer to start drinking brandy?”
“I don’t drink it very often,” I said. I was trying to remember what Ezra Pound had told me about Ford, that I must never be rude to him, that I must remember that he only lied when he was very tired, that he was really a good writer and that he had been through very bad domestic troubles. I tried hard to think of these things but the heavy, wheezing, ignoble presence of Ford himself, only touching-distance away, made it difficult. But I tried.
“Tell me why one cuts people,” I asked. Until then I had thought it was something only done in novels by Ouida. I had never been able to read a novel by Ouida, not even at some skiing place in Switzerland where reading matter had run out when the wet south wind had come and there were only the left-behind Tauchnitz editions of before the war. But I was sure, by some sixth sense, that people cut one another in her novels.
“A gentleman,” Ford explained, “will always cut a cad.”
I took a quick drink of brandy.
“Would he cut a bounder?” I asked.
“It would be impossible for a gentleman to know a bounder.”
“Then you can only cut someone you have known on terms of equality?” I pursued.
“How would one ever meet a cad?”
“You might not know it, or the fellow could have become a cad.”
“What is a cad?” I asked. “Isn’t he someone that one has to thrash within an inch of his life?”
“Not necessarily,” Ford said.
“Is Ezra a gentleman?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Ford said. “He’s an American.”
“Can’t an American be a gentleman?”
“Perhaps John Quinn,” Ford explained. “Certain of your ambassadors.”
“Myron T. Herrick?”
“Was Henry James a gentleman?”
“Are you a gentleman?”
“Naturally. I have held His Majesty’s commission.”
“It’s very complicated,” I said. “Am I a gentleman?”
“Absolutely not,” Ford said.
“Then why are you drinking with me?”
“I’m drinking with you as a promising young writer. As a fellow writer in fact.”
“Good of you,” I said.
“You might be considered a gentleman in Italy,” Ford said magnanimously.
“But I’m not a cad?”
“Of course not, dear boy. Who ever said such a thing?”
“I might become one,” I said sadly. “Drinking brandy and all. That was what did for Lord Harry Hotspur in Trollope. Tell me, was Trollope a gentleman?”
“Of course not.”
“There might be two opinions. But not in mine.”
“Was Fielding? He was a judge.”
“Of course not.”
“He was a parson.”
“It’s fascinating,” I said.
“I’m glad you’re interested,” Ford said. “I’ll have a brandy and water with you before I go.”
After Ford left it was dark and I walked over to the kiosque and bought a Paris-Sport Complet, the final edition of the afternoon racing paper with the results at Auteuil, and the line on the next day’s meeting at Enghien. The waiter Emile, who had replaced Jean on duty, came to the table to see the results of the last race at Auteuil. A great friend of mine who rarely came to the Lilas came over to the table and sat down, and just then as my friend was ordering a drink from Emile the gaunt man in the cape with the tall woman passed us on the sidewalk. His glance drifted toward the table and then away.
“That’s Hilaire Belloc,” I said to my friend. “Ford was here this afternoon and cut him dead.”
“Don’t be a silly ass,” my friend said. “That’s Aleister Crowley, the diabolist. He’s supposed to be the wickedest man in the world.”
“Sorry,” I said.
Birth of a New School
The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit’s foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.
Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake. A pencil-lead might break off in the conical nose of the pencil sharpener and you would use the small blade of the pen knife to clear it or else sharpen the pencil carefully with the sharp blade and then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack strap to lift the pack again, get the other arm through and feel the weight settle on your back and feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake.
Then you would hear someone say, “Hi, Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?”
Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook. This was the worst thing that could happen. If you could keep your temper it would be better but I was not good at keeping mine then and said, “You rotten son of a bitch what are you doing in here off your filthy beat?”
“Don’t be insulting just because you want to act like an eccentric.”
“Take your dirty camping mouth out of here.”
“It’s a public café. I’ve just as much right here as you have.”
“Why don’t you go up to the Petite Chaumière where you belong?”
“Oh dear. Don’t be so tiresome.”
Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. There were other good cafés to work in but they were a long walk away and this was my home café. It was bad to be driven out of the Closerie des Lilas. I had to make a stand or move. It was probably wiser to move but the anger started to come and I said, “Listen. A bitch like you has plenty of places to go. Why do you have to come here and louse a decent café?”
“I just came in to have a drink. What’s wrong with that?”
“At home they’d serve you and then break the glass.”
“Where’s home? It sounds like a charming place.”
He was sitting at the next table, a tall fat young man with spectacles. He had ordered a beer. I thought I would ignore him and see if I could write. So I ignored him and wrote two sentences.
“All I did was speak to you.”
I went on and wrote another sentence. It dies hard when it is really going and you are into it.
“I suppose you’ve gotten so great nobody can speak to you.”
I wrote another sentence that ended the paragraph and read it over. It was still all right and I wrote the first sentence of the next paragraph.
“You never think about anyone else or that they may have problems too.”
I had heard complaining all my life. I found I could go on writing and that it was no worse than other noises, certainly better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon.
“Suppose you wanted to be a writer and felt it in every part of your body and it just wouldn’t come.”
I went on writing and I was beginning to have luck now as well as the other thing.
“Suppose once it had come like an irresistible torrent and then it left you mute and silent.”
Better than mute and noisy, I thought, and went on writing. He was in full cry now and the unbelievable sentences were soothing as the noise of a plank being violated in the saw-mill.
“We went to Greece,” I heard him say later. I had not heard him for some time except as noise. I was ahead now and I could leave it and go on tomorrow.
“You say you used it or you went there?”
“Don’t be vulgar,” he said. “Don’t you want me to tell you the rest?”
“No,” I said. I closed the notebook and put it in my pocket.
“Don’t you care how it came out?”
“Don’t you care about life and the suffering of a fellow human being?”
“I thought you could help me, Hem.”
“I’d be glad to shoot you.”
“No. There’s a law against it.”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Of course I would.”
“Then keep the hell away from this café. Start with that.”
I stood up and the waiter came over and I paid.
“Can I walk down to the sawmill with you, Hem?”
“Well I’ll see you some other time.”
“That’s perfectly right,” he said. “I promised.”
“What are you writing?” I made a mistake and asked.
“I’m writing the best I can. Just as you do. But it’s so terribly difficult.”
“You shouldn’t write if you can’t write. What do you have to cry about it for? Go home. Get a job. Hang yourself. Only don’t talk about it. You could never write.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Did you ever hear yourself talk?”
“It’s writing I’m talking about.”
“Then shut up.”
“You’re just cruel,” he said. “Everybody always said you were cruel and heartless and conceited. I always defended you. But not any more.”
“How can you be so cruel to a fellow human being?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Look, if you can’t write why don’t you learn to write criticism?”
“Do you think I should?”
“It would be fine,” I told him. “Then you can always write. You won’t ever have to worry about it not coming nor being mute and silent. People will read it and respect it.”
“Do you think I could be a good critic?”
“I don’t know how good. But you could be a critic. There will always be people who will help you and you can help your own people.”
“What do you mean my own people?”
“The ones you go around with.”
“Oh them. They have their critics.”
“You don’t have to criticize books,” I said. “There’s pictures, plays, ballet, the cinema—”
“You make it sound fascinating, Hem. Thank you so much. It’s so exciting. It’s creative too.”
“Creation’s probably overrated. After all, God made the world in only six days and rested on the seventh.”
“Of course there’s nothing to prevent me doing creative writing too.”
“Not a thing. Except you may set yourself impossibly high standards by your criticism.”
“They’ll be high. You can count on that.”
“I’m sure they will be.”
He was a critic already so I asked him if he would have a drink and he accepted.
“Hem,” he said, and I knew he was a critic now since, in conversation, they put your name at the beginning of a sentence rather than at the end, “I have to tell you I find your work just a little too stark.”
“Too bad,” I said.
“Hem it’s too stripped, too lean.”
“Hem too stark, too stripped, too lean, too sinewy.”
I felt the rabbit’s foot in my pocket guiltily. “I’ll try to fatten it up a little.”
“Mind, I don’t want it obese.”
“Hal,” I said, practicing speaking like a critic, “I’ll avoid that as long as I can.”
“Glad we see eye to eye,” he said manfully.
“You’ll remember about not coming here when I’m working?”
“Naturally, Hem. Of course. I’ll have my own café now.”
“You’re very kind.”
“I try to be,” he said.
It would be interesting and instructive if the young man had turned out to be a famous critic but it did not turn out that way although I had high hopes for a while.
I did not think that he would come back the next day but I did not want to take chances and I decided to give the Closerie a day’s rest. So the next morning I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining-room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake. The two of them were quiet and good company and I worked better than I had ever done. In those days you did not really need anything, not even the rabbit’s foot, but it was good to feel it in your pocket.