We are told works like War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov are the greatest novels, and even greatest works of literature period. And we are made to feel that Ivan Turgenev was sort of a junior partner in the firm of the big three nineteenth-century Russian novelists.
However, in recent years I have come to discover this may not be the case. “Fordies” may know where I am going with this. I do not know if it was Ford Madox Ford precisely who helped me with this revelation, but he certainly sealed it for me. I did not know there was a sort of intelligentsia, or perhaps “school”. This was the Turgenev/Flaubert “school”. I did not know of the significance of “Madame Bovary”; the place it held. Parenthetically, I heard a radio talk show where a science fiction author mentioned Madame Bovary in comparison to that genre. I did not know Madame Bovary was this crystalline example: Madame Bovary v “this”—Madame Bovary v “that”.
Ford lists groups of writers he is fond of in Portraits from Life: “. . . . Conrad-James-Crane-Hudson”, and elsewhere: “. . . Flaubert-Turgenev-Conrad-James.” Ford on the hyphen!! I was struck and impressed by how Ford uses the hyphen. In The March of Literature Ford lists his favorites this way: “. . . Russo-French-Paris-American”. Ford does not always use the hyphen, but I find it striking when he does. I want to emphasize, again, how neat I think it is – the way in which Ford lists these authors with the hyphen.
Was Ford alone in recognizing this latter list of authors? Was this Ford’s own tradition?
Moreover, I was stunned and impressed by how fond of Henry James Ford is! He refers to him as “the king” and the “the master”! The “king” of what? The “king” of the modern novel!! A European: speaking so highly of an American. Further, I never knew Turgenev was Henry James’ favorite author!! I do not like what I have heard about Henry James!!
And again, I was impressed by how fond of, and with what affection Ford speaks of the Constance Garnett translations of Turgenev. (See Memories and Impressions)
Furthermore, returning to Tolstoy, many of Ford’s English contemporaries were fond of Tolstoy. H.G. Wells was known to have devoured multiple volumes of Tolstoy as they appeared in translation. Maugham said that Balzac was the greatest novelist, but War and Peace the greatest novel. And, of course, John Galsworthy was very fond of Tolstoy; and he was very fond of War and Peace. That is space for a separate study: Tolstoy and Galsworthy. (Galsworthy was more Turgenev-Maupassant-Tolstoy). I saw somewhere Ford using phrases like “social reformer” in relation to authors like Tolstoy; and what type of author, apparently, Galsworthy was to become. Parenthetically, Joyce was also fond of Tolstoy.
In Memories and Impressions Ford refers to Carlyle and Tolstoy as “. . . intolerable moralists” (rather harsh). And I thought I read that he referred to them both as: “preachy”. But I could not track down the quote, which was frustrating. Allow me to digress, because I am not going to digress - Ford has some interesting and harsh, and probably controversial, words, like the above quote, for some nineteenth century figures, like Carlyle, and others from his own British isles, and some German figures. However, I am not going down that path. This would be a heavy enough subject for a graduate thesis. In ‘These Were Strong Men’, the essay appended to Portraits from Life, Ford uses phrases like: “. . . mid-Victorian . . . moralists”, “Victorian great men” or “. . . mid-Victorian Great Figure”. Let me be honest, I do not know what Ford means by “Victorian great men” or “Victorian Great Figure”, but I have a suspicion it cannot be good!!! I guess a major theme of this writing is Ford’s relationship with Tolstoy, and the other Russians.
You know that expression: “come to think of it”? Perhaps I did hear rumblings that not everyone was dazzled by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky like me! I know that many do not care for Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection. And perhaps I have heard some feel, at times, Dostoevsky resembled a Christian zealot!!
I think Ford liked Dostoevsky better than Tolstoy. Remember, interestingly and probably most significantly, Ford closes and devotes the very last page of The March of Literature to his discussion of Dostoevsky!!