The Last Post

I’m not sure it’s ever a good sign to begin a review by disagreeing with Graham Greene, but here goes: when Greene published his Bodley Head edition of Parade’s End, he published it as a trilogy, including only Some Do Not…, No More Parades, and A Man Could Stand Up. It seems he thought that The Last Post was an afterthought, and not worthy of inclusion. I disagree. Wars don’t end with the truce, and The Last Post (named for the bugle call that brings the military day to an end, and is played at British Army funerals, serving the same function as the American call Taps) gives us one last sight of Christopher Tietjens in a postwar world, still struggling between the disappearing old ways and the new ways that are still under construction.

The Last Post takes place over a few hours in the late 1920s. Christopher Tietjens and a pregnant Valentine Wannop live in a cottage in the south of England, and Mark Tietjens, Christopher’s older brother, and his wife Marie-Léonie, live with them. Most of the novel takes place in Mark’s mind. Mark is silent and immobile, and Ford leaves it ambiguous whether this is his choice — a vow he has taken, never to speak again, because of his rage that the Allies are not pursuing the Germans onto their own soil — or whether it is the result of a stroke. Either way, the communication that has slowly been breaking down during the last three books is at its final and logical conclusion: total silence; or rather, one-way communication only. When Christopher’s son comes to the cottage and speaks to Mark, he finds it “rather severe” that Mark will not respond. Once again, assumptions do their damage.

Christopher himself is absent for most of the book. He has taken an airplane (a far cry from the new, gleaming train of Some Do Not…!) for his work. The novel is therefore a work of reconstruction, just as the postwar years are a work of reconstruction. Who is Tietjens? We have Mark’s thoughts about England, about transport and racing horses and Groby and his stubborn brother. We have Marie-Léonie, who stands for the land, bottling cider and caring for chickens, and the model of loyalty. We have Valentine, who bears within her the hope of continuation: there can be no confusion about her child’s paternity, unlike Sylvia’s son’s. (I think that is the reason about the confusion regarding the son’s name, incidentally. Is it Tommie? Mark? Michael? Well, he doesn’t have a name [i.e. proper paternity], so he doesn’t have a name.) Tietjens is pieced together from these other characters’ thoughts, as a shattered England begins to piece itself together. If “Christ is a sort of Englishman,” than Christopher, the Christ-bearer, is England.

Ah. Sylvia. One reason for this final volume must have been to wrap Sylvia up a little more neatly than A Man Could Stand Up– had time to. In this volume, Sylvia is showing wear: she’s “pulling the strings of shower-baths,” but she’s doing it recklessly, without strategy, and without the smooth, serene indifference she showed in the first couple of volumes. She’s become vulgar, as Father Consett predicted. All that I could have accepted, including her humiliation at her own recognition of the fact; I pitied her for that. But her sentimentality at Valentine’s pregnancy? Never. Where did that come from? The Sylvia I know would smother a baby rabbit or torture a dog; why would she balk at another woman’s child? I found it unconvincing, and I found myself rooting for her to have a change of heart for some other reason, one that was true to her nature.

Still, the ending of the novel was darkly ambiguous enough. It’s clear that while Ford values Tietjens for his old-fashioned morals and principles, a world that can sustain a man like Tietjens is long gone. Yet a new world, a world that would uphold and glorify a woman like the American tenant of Groby, Mrs. de Bray Pape, is not yet in place: when she cuts down Groby Great Tree, half the wall comes down with it, and the old nursery too. (Ford’s symbolism, that can sometimes be whisper-light, is a little ham-fisted here.) Valentine’s anguished question, “How are we to live? How are we ever to live?” goes unanswered, except for Mark’s final breath: kindness. Be kind to him.

My commenter not Bridget pointed me to a critical essay about Parade’s End by Kenneth Rexroth. He points out that Tietjens goes through a terrible saga, with the

…deadly impetus, the inertia of doom, riding on hate, that drives through the greatest of the sagas. There is the same tireless weaving and reweaving of the tiniest threads of the consequences of grasping and malevolence, the chittering of the looms of corruption, that sickens the heart in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The reader of either novel, or the saga, emerges wrung dry. The difference in Ford’s book is compassion. The poetry is in the pity, as Wilfred Owen said of the same war.

In the end, that is what emerges. There is no certainty that all will be well for Christopher and Valentine, shadowed as they are by poverty, death, and rancor. It is Dover Beach for them and for everyone. But there is Tietjens’s goodness and compassion, and Valentine’s loyalty, and Mark’s last breath of kindness, and the repeated phrase: joy never kills. Hate, yes, but joy, never.

Reading these books has been a long, strange, marvelous experience. I look forward to re-reading them, perhaps with an annotated version that will let me get in deeper to some of the most grown-up novels I’ve ever read.

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8 Responses to The Last Post

  1. Jenny says:

    When I saw the title of this post I thought it meant that you were retiring from the world of blogging, Proper Jenny! I was going to be very very sad, and was relieved to see it was only this.

    • Teresa says:

      You would not have been as sad as me, Other Jenny!

      And I’m really starting to think I need to reread The Good Soldier. I hate that it fell right out of my head after I read it because I know I liked it–and that’s all I know about it, besides the saddest story line, which was what convinced me to read it in the first place.

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, Teresa, you MUST re-read The Good Soldier. It’s a book I keep wanting to put in our book swap, because it is exactly the kind of novel you love, only I know you’ve already read it. Dark and twisty and unreliable right up to the end. It’s Barbara Vine, only far better prose. Gorgeous.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! I actually thought about starting the post with saying that it wasn’t MY last post, but that seemed kind of egotistical, since obviously I’ve been reviewing Parade’s End and this is the final one. But that did occur to me! And in order for me to retire, I would have to either stop reading or stop liking to talk about books. No fear, as the Pevensies say.

  2. Well, I knew the source of the title, so I thought the joke was pretty good. The what! Wait a minute –

    • Jenny says:

      Ha, yes, no one is getting rid of me (or Ford) so easily. But what a quartet! I asked for Parade’s End for Christmas and had only the dimmest sense of what I was getting into. Glory, glory.

  3. not Bridget says:

    I disagree with Graham Greene, too. The last volume is very different from the previous ones but necessary to complete the story–or point us to a direction in which the story will continue.

    One possible reason for the failure to show more of Christopher & Valentine’s romance: when he wrote this, Ford’s relationship with Australian painter Stella Bowen was disintegrating. She was an influence on the way he wrote Valentine Wannop–although it’s a mistake to consider anybody a “model” for one of his characters; he created them from his own experiences, people he knew, stories he’d heard & his own artistic alchemy. Violet West, his previous major lover, stalked him & Bowen and refused to let him go–rather like Sylvia; however, Sylvia did not have tertiary syphilis as an excuse! Bowen eventually left him–mostly because of his continuing infidelities–but they had a civilized, rather friendly relationship thereafter.

    As much as I appreciate this book–which I am now rereading–I do hope that Tom Stoppard’s adaptation does not leave Christopher out of the last hour. I miss him!

    Unsurprisingly, I may be back with more to say….

    • Jenny says:

      I wouldn’t be so sure that Sylvia didn’t have syphilis. That might be the explanation for her lack of strategy and care! And — wait, I just thought of this — basic mental illness could also explain her sentimentality, which otherwise I simply don’t get.

      I missed Christopher, too, but I understand the strategy: Tietjens reconstructed, renewed, redux. And you have to go down 360 feet to Groby well in order to go up to the tree.

      Glad you came back for more!

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