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.