The second book of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End quartet takes place during the first World War itself, amid the noise of shelling and the whistle of bombs. Christopher Tietjens, a quartermaster now, wrestles with a nightmare bureaucracy at Base Camp, trying to get his draft ready to relieve the men at the front — something at which his mathematical mind excels. His wife Sylvia, apparently utterly unconscious that the war could ever affect people like herself, arrives to cause him the maximum pain. Between these two lies a world of unspeakable, unsayable experience, and it is all this that Ford creates in these pages.
As Some Do Not… is a novel of nouns, of the things of the pre-war years, No More Parades is a novel of the small, almost infinitely small actions of the war itself. In this book the way Ford had in Some Do Not… of creating unusual nouns with the “-ness” suffix has disappeared. Instead, he uses “exactly,” “precisely”; he is telling us carefully and with method what each expression, each verb, each metaphor does. “Hundreds of thousands of men tossed here and there in that sordid and gigantic mud-brownness of midwinter… by God, exactly as if they were nuts wilfully picked up and thrown over the shoulder by magpies… But men.” And again, “The profound misery of brooding apprehension in the line was less on his mind than, precisely, the appalling labour of the lower limbs when you live in mud to the neck.”
Exactness. Precision. Just what this army needs. Ford slowly builds a picture of Tietjens, once again the only upright man in a sea of self-interested officers and men about to be killed. Only the bureaucracy, constantly malfunctioning, can hope to keep them safe: blankets, helmets, ammunition, hot dinners, tents, regular pay, home leave (or no home leave.) Only he can hold back the tide of German guns, of low morale, of terror and pain.
To Sylvia, fresh from London, it looks like an enormous, appalling, ridiculous Old Boys’ Club:
The whole of the affair, the more she saw of it, overwhelmed her with a sense of hatred…. And of depression! She saw Christopher buried in this welter of fools, playing a schoolboy’s game of make-believe. But of a make-believe that was infinitely formidable and infinitely sinister…. The crashings of the gun and of all the instruments for making noise seemed to her so atrocious and odious because they were, for her, the silly pomp of a schoolboy-man’s game…. Campion, or some similar schoolboy, said: “Hullo! Some Germain airplanes about… That lets us out on the air-gun! Let’s have some pops!”…. As they fire guns in the park on the King’s birthday. It was sheer insolence to have a gun in the garden of an hotel where people of quality might be sleeping or wishing to converse!
She sees the same incidents — the orders, the shelling, the condition of the troops (she thinks of men as presentable or unpresentable, and almost everyone in the army is unpresentable) — from a totally different point of view. Sylvia cannot quite believe that even war, even death itself, could force itself onto Christopher Tietjens. She finds another way to get at her husband — a tiny action that will cause him great pain.
It was about at this point in the book — say, two-thirds of the way through — that I finally grasped what Ford was doing with the structure of the novel. It’s not the same, structurally, as Some Do Not…, which comes at various incidents from different points in time and different angles and then circles away again, moving around the unsayable. Instead, this novel begins at a point in time — often an unexplained or confusing point — and then slips backward in time, slowly moving back up, telling the backstory, as it were, coming back up to the original point in time. Then it jumps ahead to another point in time and does the same thing, moving back and then slowly telling forward. It does this first from Tietjens’s point of view, and then from Sylvia’s, the two antagonists, moving over the same incidents. (The whole novel takes place over only two days, barring flashbacks.) This structure, of course, mirrors the troop movements. Ford has made trench warfare — moving a little forward, a little back, taking and losing a single piece of worthless ground — an integral part of the structure of his novel. It gave me chills when I saw what he was doing. This is an incredible book.
And all around the waste of Tietjens’s marriage, and the ruin of his career, swirls dust.
And faces, two and two, in a coil round the hut… like dust, like a cloud of dust that would approach and overwhelm a landscape; every one with preposterous troubles and anxieties, eve if they did not overwhelm you personally with them… Brown dust…
Ford describes the men as dust, as dusty, as dust-colored, over and over again. Surely he is thinking of Our Mutual Friend, and the dust-heaps? Or, more significantly, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, Tietjens: and so he does. I told you that there was no chance of his catching that last train to the old heaven, and indeed he does not. More about which train he does catch in the next installment: A Man Could Stand Up —. In the mean time, I hope I’ve convinced you to seek these out. They’re all I want to do at the moment.