A quick observation I found of some interest: my husband is one of these fellows who only reads the classics. Right now, he is loosely following Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, with digressions every now and then for Terry Pratchett (a different sort of classic) when he’s had enough Plato for one month. So when he heard me murmuring extravagant praise for Parade’s End, he showed some curiosity: a classic, surely. As a matter of fact, however, Fadiman doesn’t include anything by Ford on his list. If you go to the back, there’s a section entitled “Going Further” that says,
Ford’s greatest contribution to modern literature probably came from his tireless (and often unrequited) championing of other modern writers. As editor of the short-lived Transatlantic Review in the mid-twenties, for example, he published work by Hemnigway, Joyce, Pound, Gertrude Stein, and others of their rank. His own work has gone through a long period of disesteem but may be poised for a critical re-evaluation. See for yourself. His best-known novel, and the best place to start reading his work, is The Good Soldier (1915).
To which I say, huh? I’ve rarely seen such a dismissive evaluation of such a brilliant author. I’m not a list person, myself, precisely because of this sort of thing (what do they mean, no Ogden Nash?), but does this paragraph make sense to the Ford readers out there?
Right. The book.
A Man Could Stand Up — begins with Valentine Wannop’s discovery, on Armistice Day, that Christopher Tietjens has returned from the front and is apparently mad. According to Mrs. Macmaster (who, incidentally, is another on the long list of people who hate Tietjens because of his un-modern goodness and decency), the symptoms of his madness are that he has no furniture in his house, and that he didn’t recognize the porter. Valentine is left to wrestle with the implications: must she nurse the man she loves, while everyone around her is rejoicing? Is she to be trapped, just when she might have been set free?
The middle section takes us back to the front, with Tietjens, and back to combat. For Tietjens, these novels have been a steady spiral downward, from a high-ranking government position to quartermaster to the front lines; disbelieved and socially rejected and betrayed at every turn. Now the earth itself, the land he has always loved, commits the final betrayal when he is shelled, trying to swallow him alive:
The earth sucked slowly and composedly at his feet. It assimilated his calves, his thighs. It imprisoned him above the waist. His arms being free, he resembled a man in a life-buoy. The earth moved him slowly. It was solidish.
And Tietjens himself is forced into even more degrading, untenable positions, as murderer and jailer.
In this book, communication has become almost impossible. The first twelve pages of the novel chronicle a telephone conversation that Valentine Wannop cannot hear or understand, and which, in the end, she can only make out by bringing in a great deal of personal history and context. (To make the issue perfectly clear, she breaks the telephone when she hangs up.) In the following scene, she has a conversation with the headmistress, Miss Wannocht, that is so dreadfully at cross-purposes that it is a miracle that they get anything across to each other at all; Valentine is in possession of all the information, and Miss Wannostrocht of all the assumptions.
At the front, with Tietjens, the communication is similarly broken. He has not spoken to Valentine in two years. Telegrams go awry, conversations here too are at cross-purposes, communications between companies and battalions are irreversibly erased, and for the first time, Ford uses abbreviations instead of nouns: M.O., C.O., H.E., Coy., R.T.O.. The words are shortened to the point of vanishing, something we see too in the ever-present em-dash, a symbol of Tietjens’s once-nimble mind. And of course, on almost every page, there is the italicized word strafe. This was a new word for English in 1910-1915. It comes from the German strafen, to punish, and the noise and death is truly Tietjens’s punishment. His lack of recognition (of the porter, of what has happened to him) is only part of the lack of communication in his mind.
Still, there is a strange and growing sense of optimism in A Man Could Stand Up –. There ought to be the sense that something irrevocable has been lost, but instead Ford creates the idea that the world can be rebuilt, away from the culture of war and emptiness that he has drawn with such exactness in these first three novels. Though Tietjens has been swallowed by the land, he still suggests that “A man could now stand up on a hill, so he and she could surely get into some hole together!” If that is the case — if personal (not social) happiness depends on being away from society, then getting rid of all one’s furniture and failing to know the porter is not madness, but the prerequisite to happiness. By the end of the story, the failed communication has not been fixed — there’s another halting telephone conversation, and Tietjens and Valentine don’t say more than three or four sentences to each other — but their desire for endless talk has been conveyed. They know each other. And that appears to be enough.
I understand that the final novel in this quartet, The Last Post, is something quite different, but A Man Could Stand Up — provides something of a sense of closure, and I might say of joy. In the third section, there is a long, slow arc of growing tension, and when it ends in an enormous pow! of happiness, we remember that this is Armistice Day in more than one sense. A dear, meal-sack elephant, indeed.