June 2012

Josh Zajdman

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Parade's End

Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End is a tough but worthwhile journey. And journey it is. By the time you've turned that final page, you feel it. In fact, a curious thing happens. Your relief at finishing it is almost instantly pushed aside by a sense of accomplishment. There is so much stuffed, some of it artfully and some of it less so, into this novel that exhalation is the first order after completion. Let me explain. Like other modernist novels, that one about the guy in Dublin for example, Parade's End, taking World War I as its fulcrum, tries to capture all of British life before it irrevocably changed, as it changes, and how it's rebuilt. As if carved into bits of shrapnel, the view is often painful and fragmented, but necessary and unavoidable. While it is a perfect fit for this column, and deserves to be rediscovered, as it were, my recommendation to read it, and soon, isn't free of caveats.

After reading it, one will have a better understanding as to why it's only rarely mentioned in conversation and yet often on those "best-of" lists. Don't let that scare you. In fact, it's worth noting at the outset that it's the sum of its parts that elevate Parade's End to greatness. Again, that isn't meant to be off-putting. I merely suggest that one's understanding of the book, and subsequent appreciation of its structure, is far more heightened after its completion. Though that may seem like an obvious statement, the necessity of patience for a reader interested in getting to said completion is less obvious. There are confusing elements and chronological manipulation that may not be resolved for hundreds of pages. One must be okay with that. After all, these are four novels written over as many years, and covering more, within their 906 pages. They are bound together by shared characters and events, but assembled in such a way that the connections often sneak up on you instead of allowing a clear line of relationship. Speaking of characters, there are really only three major characters and a slew of others regularly walking in and out of the picture, buzzily chatting around it, or making only brief appearances. However, they're significant in their own ways. There are no Bulkingtons in this tome. Now that you've been properly briefed, let's get into what works about the book and what doesn't.

Few seem to have heard about Parade's End. Nobody asking what I was reading or commenting on the title had any familiarity with the book or Ford. In fact, most often people would glaze over with an explanation until the mention of the upcoming HBO-BBC miniseries spectacular, adapted by Tom Stoppard, premiering sometime this fall. Or they'd make an inane comment regarding the double nominal presence of Ford. In any event, HBO and one other pop culture phenomenon will probably contribute most to resurgence, however fleeting, of Parade's End. Vintage's recently published paperback edition, only slightly kinder to the wrists than the Modern Library hardcover, owes its existence to two very popular words: Downton Abbey. In a feverish swell of World War I books and films inspired by the smash series, Ford's epic consideration of Britain's striated class system before, during, and after the conflict has ridden the wave and landed back in the cultural Crock-Pot. We've taken a brief look at the novel's background, and my caveats have surely weeded out the pusillanimous readers out there, so now, even though I've promised once before, we will really dig in to the novel itself.

To be clear on just what Parade's End is about, I have to invoke a tired reference, and one I briefly alluded to earlier. Parade's End is about World War I in the same way that Moby-Dick is about a whale. There, it's said and out of the way. The war is there, yes, obviously but the ever-diminishing striations of class distinctions are there on each page. It's not about the war. There is an almost anthropological consideration of varied social classes and types of life living in fear of the international sea change, which occurs in 1914. It's an encyclopedic look at British life at its most pivotal point in the barely-dawned twentieth century. From a more novelistic standpoint, there is no shortage of romance, wit, and a staggering amount of conscious thought. This is where things get really interesting. Consciousness, interiority, and psychological insight were such prevalent concepts and means of character illustration in the twentieth century. Christopher Tietjens is the greatest example of consciousness, disassociative or otherwise, in any twentieth century war novel. A big claim, but I stand by it. In fact, the closest relative to the consciousness grappled with in Parade's End is oddly nonfiction, and dealing with an entirely different conflict: Michael Herr's Dispatches.

There was little certain about the time our complex protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, his outrageously rendered wife, Sylvia (more on her later), and the woman he loved and she scorned, Valentine Wannop, lived in. Accordingly, the reading experience is akin to that which they lived through: haphazard, combative, full of flashes of danger, glimmers of beauty, and all deftly controlled by Mr. Ford. This is difficult. As mentioned, there is no throughway; one must progress through the novel and glean what's possible. However, don't lose hope, as there is an excellent reason for this disassociated way of presentation. In fact, it's not so much presentation, but thinking and understanding. It's the world seen through Tietjens's eyes -- its losses, occasional gains, privation, romance, and, ultimately, the seismic shifts that occurred in Britain almost daily during this period.

Parade's End, though formally challenging, is less of a read than a carriage ride through the ugly parts of the heart and humanity, not to mention the martial cloud perennially brewing above. Nobody behaves very well, and almost everyone does irreversible damage to one another, and often himself or herself in the process. Though it does have its difficulties and lesser points, there is many a beautiful phrase and a truly staggering display of awareness, on the behalf of Tietjens, which never crosses into self-awareness or gives a glimpse of Ford as puppet-master. For that alone, the book deserves acclaim. That's one more entreaty to be patient when you feel your irritation spike at yet another however-many-pages of military abbreviations and terminology that pushes you closer to putting the book down. Regardless, it's a travesty to avoid it or pass it up in favor of something easier. So this columnist looking to illuminate the importance of this work will do so, and recommends the novel, just not unreservedly. That should make things more interesting for any reader, though.

Of particular interest to me, as you may have gathered, was the continual display of Tietjens as a thinker, intellectual, and withdrawn man of the mind. Though the last is somewhat stereotypical, I am hard pressed to think of another character so depicted as thinking, or speculating, until the often academic or pseudo-intellectual characters of post-war authors like Bellow, Roth, and others. One of the greatest instances, and certainly one of the most interesting, of Tietjens's cognitive nature comes nearly two hundred pages into the novel. It's also a personal favorite.

His mind was at rest because there was going to be a way. From the first moment of his reading the paragraph about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand he had know that, calmly and with assurance. Had he imagined that this country would come in he would not have known a mind at rest. He loved this country for the run of its hills, the shape of its elm trees and the way the heather, running uphill to the skyline, meets the blue of the heavens.

There is Tietjens in a nutshell -- nationalistic, thoughtful, pensive, resigned, and romantic, even. If not toward his wife, one of the most courageously shrewish, bafflingly manipulative female characters ever constructed, he does feel tenderness, from various distances, for Valentine Wannop. Don't read my description of Sylvia Tietjens as rooted in anything but admiration. For a long portion of Some Do Not..., the first novel in the tetralogy, Sylvia is gone. She reenters and throws a plate at Christopher's head. It's an apt, and delightfully so, reentrance for a woman who is equal parts Machiavellian thinker, harpy, and sexual predator. Fascinating. Valentine Wannop is decidedly less so, but given the Tietjenses' relationship, if you can call it that, one can understand the appeal she holds for Christopher.

As you've no doubt picked up, this book is heavy on impression and full of little moments. It's hard to hold on to certainty, as it's fleeting. The impressions, as do the machinations of the characters, wash over you rather than declare their intentions. At points, it's difficult to make it through, but I do recommend it, in spite of its faults. To have a work of literature succeed as often as this one does, in spite of its detracting elements, is an incredible feat. By its end, your heart will have soared and fallen, your brain will have cramped, you will surely have laughed and you might have even cried. For its occasional ploddingness, all of life, love, and loss seem to be covered. To paraphrase, "some do" read Parade's End and "some do not." Make sure you fall in with the former company.