Ford Madox Ford published his Parade’s End as four novels (Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up —, and The Last Post) between 1924 and 1928. They are so intimately linked that I will begin my thoughts about the first of them with a quote from the second (and it’s likely that I’ll move back and forth between them pretty fluidly as I talk about them) :
In her previous transitory infidelities to Christopher she had discovered that, however presentable the man with whom she might have been having an affair, and however short the affair, even if it were only a matter of a week-end, Christopher had spoilt her for the other man. It was the most damnable of his qualities that to hear any man talk of any subject… to have to pass a week-end with any other man and hear his talk after having spent the inside of the week with Christopher, hate his ideas how you might, was the difference between listening to a grown man and, with an intense boredom, trying to entertain an inarticulate schoolboy.
And that, I’m afraid, is the effect that reading Ford Madox Ford has on me. He simply spoils me for everyone else. When I read The Good Soldier ten years ago, it took me months to get over it; other books paled in comparison. Right now, I’m sitting disconsolately, thinking that there are perhaps three authors I will ever be able to read with any satisfaction, ever again, for the sheer brilliance of sentence and structure that Ford seems to be able to sustain for book after book. Have mercy. It passed before. One hopes that as I convalesce from reading Parade’s End, I will once again be able to enjoy chicken broth and Jell-O and other authors.
Some Do Not… takes place in the years just before the first World War. Christopher Tietjens is, perhaps, the last gentleman of the old school, and Some Do Not… is a careful chronicle of how that school fails him, again and again. All the old institutions are changing, shifting, and falling away — church, marriage, bank, army, manhood suffrage, family — and Tietjens is left ravaged and alone with his principles in the midst of the devastated landscape.
This is a novel of nouns. Ford is showing us exactly how things look, the surfaces of things, the textiles, the scent. Here is the beginning of the first paragraph of the novel:
The two young men — they were of the English public official class — sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage. The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician of Cologne.
This train shows up again in No More Parades as Tietjens’s “last train to the old heaven.” He knows he has no possible chance to catch it. The new heaven is arranged on the new lines: pop music, bungalows, football, equality. He knows if he can only die before the end of the first World War, he can catch the train to the old heaven — the feudal one, with cricket on the grounds every Sunday. But that train isn’t running any longer.
Ford invents nouns that startle the eye a little: queerness, sensitiveness (not sensitivity), circumspectness (not circumspection), even Edinburghness. There are entire paragraphs of flower-names, one after the other, dizzying. He makes qualities into nouns, describing things rather than actions in this pre-war world, scenes that are impressions on the eye: sawdust streaming through a bar of light, patches of color against a curtain. These are the things of the pre-war years. He is creating nostalgia for something we have, as yet, no reason to be nostalgic about.
The structure of the novel works toward the same goal, but with an opposite technique. Instead of using thingness, exactness, precision, it slips backward and forward and sideways in time, angling here and there to catch a scene from one point of view or another. It circles around the unsayable or the unbearable, taking impressions and blanking out important moments altogether by arriving too late or too early, letting us make assumptions as everyone else makes assumptions about Christopher Tietjens. Its progression angles back, then examines a long, slow moment, allowing tension to build, revealing characters, then slips away again. The time-shift is deliberate, not uncontrolled. This is a tool, not a toy, and finally not even a tool but the fabric of the novel itself. It reveals exactly what is necessary and no more, leaving Tietjens more and more alone.
It is not only the structure of the novel that circles around the unsayable. About halfway through the book, Tietjens returns from the war with a head-wound that has caused him to forget proper names. He has always been a reserved man, private to the point of noncommunication, but now he is incapable of saying, or even knowing, those things he needs. The part of his brain that was in the war is dead, is white; it can’t help him; it can only harm him. Language, which shapes how we know and deal with the world, hinders him. For the rest of the book, there are more and more ellipses in the place of the words Tietjens, and others, cannot say. Someone, I am sure, has counted the unfinished sentences.
In one of the most striking scenes of the novel, Tietjens guides a horse (and a girl) through a neck-high sea of silver mist. He alone is above it, just enough to see the horse’s ears as it walks. He is happy, or as happy as a man in his position can be. And then a general’s car hits the horse. The horse, dreadfully injured, must be put down. The clash between the old world and the new is obvious, and so is the foreshadowing of worse injuries to come in the war.
I haven’t even scratched the surface, of course. I’ve barely mentioned Tietjens’s wife Sylvia, one of the most interesting characters in the book, or the tug-of-war between Catholics and Protestants, or the likeness to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, or any of the class issues, or the comparison between war and divorce. But there. I’ve got three books left to go. You’ll see all this again. What I can say for now is that this is an astonishing, complex novel, clever and beautiful and worth while.