PAGE 99: Literary Analysis Quick and Dirty (Part I): A discussion of writers Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway and David Morrell

My fellow international thriller writer David Morrell remarked to me a few days ago that the early 20th century British writer Ford Madox Ford’s THE GOOD SOLDIER [1]contained one of the greatest first sentences in literature:  “This is the saddest story I ever heard.”   

Ford Madox Ford (left) with James Joyce and Ezra Pound

Ford was not only a novelist but the founder and editor of The English Review before the First World War and The Transatlantic Review in Paris after the conflict ended.  An early supporter of Ernest Hemingway and many other modern writers in Paris, he became the model for the character Braddocks in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  He might have also served as the paradigm for the oft-heard cynical conclusion that “no good deed goes unpunished.”  For not only did Ford financially support Hemingway in Paris, he took him on as a staffer at the Transatlantic and allowed him space to print his own work, only to have the great American heroic writer turn on him with ever increasing bitterness.[2]

In a letter Hemingway wrote to Ezra Pound in the spring of 1924, Hemingway said: “I like Ford.  It ain’t personal.  It’s literature.”[3]  A line that reappeared decades later in a slightly altered form when it was uttered by Al Pacino in The Godfather.  Plagiarism? Or merely theft?  You be the judge.

Ford was also a noted literary critic in his time and is equally famous for his pronouncement “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” 

A technique that undoubtedly sends legions of literary professors into frothy spasms of tweed staining outrage.  Nevertheless, I found this suggestion quite interesting and since I possess parchments that merely proclaim degrees in modern history and law and I have long outgrown the one tweed jacket I owned, I decided to take up the challenge and look at the page ninety-nines of some of my fellow members of the International Thriller Writers.

Yet before doing that, in homage to Hemingway, I picked up my well-worn copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls[4] and turned to its Page 99.  Bravo, Ford Madox Ford!  You were spot on in your critical suggestion.  For on that page 99 the story within the story begins. And all done in some of the finest dialogue Hemingway ever wrote.  In the first sentence of the page Robert Jordan asks “And what happened?”  And in the last sentence of the page: “It was early in the morning when the civiles surrendered at the barracks,” Pilar said.  In the dialogue between those lines readers learn much about Jordan, the man, and Maria, the young woman, and the interplay between them, as well as leading to a backstory that unfolds over the next twenty-five pages. A backstory that is one of the most horrifying yet riveting tales of war and revolution I have ever read.  I won’t discuss this, only suggest that those of you who have read For Whom the Bell Tolls open up to page 99 and reread the passage.  For those of you who haven’t yet read it, shame on you.  Get thee hence to a bookstore or library and do so! 

Ernest Hemingway-Paris 1924

But what about The Sun Also Rises?[5]  After all it was in this dangerously autobiographical novel with its thinly-veiled characters that Hemingway fictionalized Ford and Ford’s lover in unflattering portraits.  In Page 99, narrator Jake Barnes is travelling through the western Pyrenees to Pamplona. The combination of action and description that Hemingway would use throughout his writing is already well-developed on this page, which also sets up the reader for the oncoming conflict between Jake and Robert Cohn over the attentions of the forever promiscuous Lady Brett:

I was up in front with the driver and I turned around.  Robert Cohn was asleep, but Bill looked and nodded his head.

Hemingway shows the reader the beauty of the mountainous Basque country as enjoyed by Jake (himself) and his best friend Bill (Bill Smith, a real life friend).  Then with this simple sentence, Cohn ( real-life romantic rival Harold Loeb) is insinuated to be someone who could never enjoy natural beauty whether the outdoors or Lady Brett.  Only Jake (Hemingway) is manly and at the same time aesthetic enough to fill that role.

Sadly, this literary juxtaposition on Page 99 –the alert heroic Jake versus the sleeping boorish Cohn—is also a clue to the then incubating virus that would spread wider and wider through Hemingway’s brain over the years, infecting his relationships with his friends and fellow writers until finally it completely enveloped him; a suicidal madness that felled him like one of the old rogue elephants he had claimed to have once hunted. 

And since this blog was semi-inspired by David Morrell, I went next to my bookshelves and took a look at some of David’s earlier writing. 

David Morrell and Stan Trybulski at ThrillerFest 2011

In First Blood,[6] which non-Morellians often mistakenly call Rambo, Page 99 drops the reader into the middle of the chase of Rambo by Sheriff Will Teasle and his posse of rubes. The first paragraph sets the reader for what will be coming throughout the rest of this extraordinarily fast-paced story:

Abruptly Orval surged farther ahead, and Teasle could not match his speed anymore.  His legs grew heavy.  The good feeling drained from him.

“Slow down, Orval!”

But Orval stayed right on going with the dogs.

This is an excellent example of how Morrell uses both dialogue and action to propel the story forward and stoking the reader’s interest further at the same time.  Who doesn’t want to know what happens to Orval, the surrogate father who ignored his surrogate son sheriff’s command and kept on going with the dogs? And is it as autobiographical as The Sun Also Rises?  Morrell has never hesitated to speak of the difficulties of his own home life and his relationship with his stepfather.[7]

In Morrell’s next novel, Testament,[8] a nightmarish plunge into the cesspool of America’s racist psychopathology, Page 99 is the beginning of the novel’s second part.  It describes a gentle walk in the forest by the protagonist Reuben Bourne and his wife and daughter, who are being hunted by white supremacists bent on killing them.

“IS THAT IT, daddy?”

“No sweetheart.  Our place is just around the bend up here.”

  The reader, like the Bourne family, is presented with the feeling that they are finally safe, yet knowing that they can never be safe.  A hallmark of the Morrellian thriller.  For can a good man ever be safe when he is relentlessly pursued by evil?  One has to read Testament to find out.

In his big two-hearted international thriller, The Brotherhood of the Rose,[9] page 99 serves as a microcosm of the relationship between the éminence grise Eliot and the two orphan brothers Chris and Saul, whom Eliot trained from childhood to be assassins.  After discussing the merits and rigors of creating rare roses, Eliot tells Chris:

“You and Saul—you’re my hybrids.”

Conclusion: At least for Hemingway and Morrell, Ford Madox Ford’s suggestion of critical analysis works…and for the good.

In the upcoming Part 2 of Page 99: A Quick Method, I will look at the works of some other fellow international thriller writers to see how they fare under Ford Madox Ford’s suggestion.

[1] “One of the finest French novels written in English; Ford like Pound, took Flaubert for his true Penelope.” Michael Reynolds, HEMINGWAY, THE PARIS YEARS, p. 170; W.W. Norton & Co, 1999.

[2] For more on the Ford-Hemingway relationship, read the chapter Transatlantic Passage in Hemingway, The Paris Years, Reynolds; also Arthur Mizener, THE SADDEST STORY, World Publishing, 1971.

[3] Carlos Baker, ERNEST HEMINGWAY, SELECTED LETTERS, Scribners, 1981.

[4] Ernest Hemingway, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, Scribner Library Books.

[5] Hemingway, THE SUN ALSO RISES, Scribner Paperback Fiction.

[6] David Morrell, FIRST BLOOD, Grand Central Publishing paperback, 2000.

[7] Morrell, THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, p. 7, Sourcebooks, Inc., 2008.

[8] Morrell, TESTAMENT, Warner Books, 2003.

[9] Morrell, THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE, Ballantine Books Trade Paperback.


  1. Great blog, cool stuff! s.d.trybulski.

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