Some Do Not… (Parade’s End I)

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.

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19 Responses to Some Do Not… (Parade’s End I)

  1. I know exactly what you mean about feeling ‘spoiled’ for other books – I had the same experience after reading Laxness’ Independent People last year. Everything just paled in comparison. And I was reading somewhere – in the The Guardian possibly? – a critic saying that the truly great reading experiences of our lives tend to decrease as we get older. He suggested that each book we read has to be even better than the last truly great book we read in order to impress us to the same degree. Great books spoil us for lesser books. This rings true in my own life I think. Whereas years ago I was raving about every book I read, now I seem to be increasingly difficult to impress. It makes me feel a bit sad.

    • Jenny says:

      I put Laxness on my list after that review of yours! I hope that article in the Guardian isn’t true. I think that as I’ve been blogging, my skills at filtering have gotten better, and my encounters with really good writers have gotten more frequent. I will say, though, that I have much less patience for mediocre books than I used to.

  2. litlove says:

    I have a beautiful Everyman edition of Parade’s End that I have been wanting to get to for goodness, about two years now. Thank you for bumping it up the list with your excellent review!

    • Jenny says:

      That’s the edition I’ve got, the Everyman edition. It is beautiful, though I do wish it had a few notes. But it’s such a gorgeous book, any edition really would do.

  3. Dwight says:

    It’s a wonderful read, isn’t it? I like seeing posts about it so I can enjoy it again.

    A quick question–did you read the new annotated version or an older copy?

    • Jenny says:

      A wonderful read just about begins to cover it. I haven’t got the annotated version — I know I would benefit from reading the notes, but for a first read, I’m really just making it through this by myself. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Nice to see you stopping by, by the way.

      • Dwight says:

        My pleasure. I know I missed so many references and intended meaning on my first read through the books which is why I want to revisit them using the annotated version. Even without the notes, though, it was still a moving experience. I’m looking forward to Tom Stoppard’s adaptation later this year…that may be the push I need to revisit this.

  4. Mel u says:

    It is one of the very greatest of novels-for those interested I have the annotated version and the notes are very good but alas they are so small it is painful to read them-I am sure this was a money based decision but it really ashamed-at a readable size the books would be way to expensive-not cheap now-any way this and Good Soldier are total must reads-I enjoyed your post a lot

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Mel — I got this edition for Christmas and haven’t seen the annotated one. It’s nice to hear that the notes are worth while, even if you must read them with a microscope. I’ll have to see if I can get them from my library for a re-read, because it’s clear that these books are infinitely re-readable.

  5. Lisa says:

    Oh my goodness, I have never heard of this quartet, nor read anything by Ford. Reading your review, I thought of Dunnett – not the technique or the characters, but the experience of reading that leaves one feeling ruined for any other writer.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes! Yes, that’s it — and the feeling that when you lift your head, dripping, from the river, that you just want to plunge right back in, even if you can’t breathe properly yet. Read The Good Soldier first. That one is on my top-ten desert-island list. But this quartet is turning out to be just as world-shaking.

  6. Just forget the convalescence and shore yourself up with some Nabokov or Proust or something like that. A diet of pure refined Michelin 4-star masterpieces.

    I fear one would get the literary equivalent of gout.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, and then I could write a memoir called “My Literary Left Foot,” and they could make a movie about it starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

      Wait. That’s not right.

  7. Harriet says:

    Great review which makes me long to read these. I so agree about The Good Soldier which is the only FMF I have read. And I so know what you mean about being spoiled for other books — this happened to me with a recent read of Henry Green’s Living.

  8. Joanne says:

    I’ve never read any Ford Madox Ford, but I certainly will now. Great review – thank you.

  9. not Bridget says:

    Upon hearing of the BBC/HBO production (Written by Tom Stoppard! Starring Benedict Cumberbatch!), I ordered a one-volume edition of Parade’s End & read the whole thing in a few days off work. How could I follow it? By getting the Carcanet Press critical edition in 4 volumes & reading it again. And by searching out more books by & about FMF. (Alan Judd’s biography is especially fine.)

    As you proceed through the books, you’ll discover that certain events are revisited by different characters–or the same character whose attitudes have changed. Thus your understanding of the whole thing will grow. FMF called himself an Impressionist; finishing all four books allows you to stand back from the picture & contemplate the whole. Then dive back in to enjoy the amazing brushwork!

  10. boardinginmyforties says:

    This one sound incredibly complex and full of things to ponder and discuss.

  11. jj says:

    the horse didn’t die

  12. I’ve had trouble with Ford Madox Ford–I read “The Good Soldier,” but I had to struggle my way through it. I’ve read much longer books by Henry James which seemed equally old-fashioned, but Ford left me cold. I’ve determined to give him another chance as soon as I can because the book is a favorite of a friend of mine. Also, I read a very long book by Ford over the Internet, something about a revolutionary who also ran a car dealership as a front, and who was at the same time trying to re-establish a Grand Duke on his throne, very long and complicated. Again, the friend had a favorite quote from this book, a quote which I cannot now remember, and so I tried the second Ford book of my acquaintance. Maybe the Parade’s End series is what I need to read to “get” Ford.

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