A Man Could Stand Up — (Parade’s End III)

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.

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11 Responses to A Man Could Stand Up — (Parade’s End III)

  1. Dwight says:

    Ah, thanks for correcting me on the timing–it was Part Two of this book I was thinking about. Powerful stuff. I know I’m repeating things from my posts, but they are what stuck with me. Even though it is only a few years after the start of the series…we’re a long way from that train ride, aren’t we?

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, not correcting you! These novels flow together intentionally. And I stole your helping hand about the land swallowing Tietjens! I’m in the middle of The Last Post right now, and it’s the same with the Groby Tree and the well. Tremendous.

  2. Lisa says:

    I was just today reading another “Downton Abbey withdrawal” articles – this one a list of books & films, and it includes Parade’s End – so Ford may indeed be up for a major re-evaluation, particularly with the upcoming HBO/BBC production. Clearly you are ahead of the curve :)

    • Jenny says:

      Of course, of course. :) I admit I cannot see Benedict Cumberbatch as Tietjens; he doesn’t have the physical bulk. But I will certainly watch it with pleasure. Tom Stoppard ahoy!

  3. not Bridget says:

    Last time I read A Man Could Stand Up (not long ago at all), I was struck by Valentine’s growing joy in the first chapter–even though she’d received troubling news. By the way–it’s Lady Macmaster, not Mrs Macmaster. Some readers have likened Sylvia to Lady Macbeth (for the evil) but I think Edith Ethel is a much better match; she only wants to support her husband’s career! Once, Valentine even thought of her “Lady Mac.” And there’s the Scottish connection….

    Communication problems have been a theme since the first book. Valentine told Edith Ethel how Christopher’s father had saved her mother from poverty, referring to “a name like Tea-tray.” In the second book, McKechnie is called Mackenzie until Tietjens learns his real name.

    The Ford Madox Ford society was founded in 1997 & has been promoting his work ever since. Coming to London this September: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/fordmadoxford-society/otherevents.html

    From my childhood, I remember Clifton Fadiman as a tame intellectual wheeled out for various middle-brow TV shows. Kenneth Rexroth included Parade’s End in More Classics Revisited; here’s a link: http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/cr/10.htm#Parade’s End As a quick rule of thumb, compare their Wikipedia entries: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifton_Fadiman versus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Rexroth

    Once you’ve entered the world of Parade’s End, it’s hard to escape. Here’s Tom Stoppard’s view: http://blog.mipworld.com/2011/10/interview-tom-stoppard-and-david-parfitt-on-parades-end/

    I could go on…. (Oh, watch those ellipses & dashes; FMF uses them & they are contagious.)

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for all those lovely links! And you reassure me about Clifton Fadiman, though I’m sorry to hear it; I like Anne Fadiman’s books so much that I regret hearing anything limp about her father, even on oh-so-reliable Wikipedia.

      I mentioned the communication problems in the first two books, though not the precise examples you adduce (those are terrific, especially the name like Tea-tray.) Words fail, until in The Last Post, which I’m reading now, Mark is reduced to complete silence.

      And you are quite right about Lady Mac!

      • not Bridget says:

        I don’t mean to say bad things about Mr Fadiman! I remember him fondly–since he appeared on those shows that meant TV was more than a “vast wasteland.” (This was very long ago–TV has gotten vaster but I don’t know if the percentage of waste has changed.)

        But searching for information about Parade’s End & FMF introduced me to Kenneth Rexroth & I’ve fallen in love with him, a bit. He was sometimes called a precursor to the Beats; in certain ways he was, but here’s a clip from his essay on the Satyricon:
        “…..Encolpius and his friends are all bohemians — unemployable, overeducated, miseducated members of the lumpen intelligentsia. They are the first of their kind in literature, but from Petronius’ day to this they will be the common characters of all picaresque romance. Kerouac’s On the Road differs vastly from The Satyricon in lack of insight, irony, and literary skill, but its characters are all drawn from the same unchanged class.”
        http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/cr/3.htm#Petronius, The Satyricon

        Rexroth’s essays on The Classics have made me thirsty to read more challenging books–because they are enjoyable, not as class assignments or because they are “good for me.”

        Blame it on Ford! The Alan Judd biography is especially good at recommending which more obscure books from his vast output to try next. He analyzes The Good Soldier & Parade’s End a bit, but mostly recommends we read them. Or read them again….

      • Jenny says:

        I so much appreciate the introduction to Rexroth! I feel the same about Randall Jarrell, whom I believe I’d follow around in a Ford van if he were still alive. And I’ll take you up on the Judd biography, as well.

  4. Colyngbourne says:

    I am another Parade’s End addict (for the last three years or so), and I can’t help but love every one of the four parts – and keep re-reading them all. The Last Post *is* different but it’s full of love and tension of a different kind and really ends on the most beautiful and moving note: I do hope you enjoy it (and have a hanky at hand for the end).

    Whilst I hope and imagine they’re going to do a good job of adapting it with Benedict Cumberbatch (who is lovely!), I’m sure he won’t be quite the meal-sack elephant I imagine.

    I also recommend the Alan Judd biography of Ford.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for the recommendation of the Judd biography. I will certainly put it on my list, since I think I am now really and truly hooked. And no fear: I adored The Last Post as much as the others. I can see why people would question its belonging to the quartet, but I think it does.

  5. One of the authors I look out for. I get your point on the list-making issue and how people sometimes judge other writers. It’s difficult to define who an excellent writer is: is it the one that is discovered and read by many? or What? I know less about FMF but at least I know he is an author I’ve to read at a point in time.

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