Parade's End, Ford Madox Ford

I stumbled across the TV miniseries adaptation of “Parade’s End” while on a “Sherlock” kick (thank you, Benedict Cumberbatch) and was enthralled. I stopped watching in order to read the original books straight through, I think in a matter of days (we ate a lot of take-out), and then went back to finish the TV adaptation.

I should explain what “Parade’s End” is, at least in my mind: Ford Madox Ford wrote three books, all with horrible titles, Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up--, which tell one extended story, so I’ll call it “the book” and refer to it collectively as “Parade’s End.” Ford also wrote a belated sequel called The Last Post. The novelist Graham Greene omitted The Last Post from the 1963 edition, arguing that it was a mistake and did not belong—I was appalled by this until I read The Last Post, (and really, at the end of A Man Could Stand Up--, it’s almost impossible not to), but it really is awful, and I hate to admit I think Greene was right.

The main story concerns Christopher Tietjens, a statistician for the Civil Service, a younger son of a very wealthy family of a Yorkshire estate. He is married to a beautiful, cruel, socialite, Sylvia, and he has the misfortune (or fortune, depending on how you look at it), to fall in love, despite his common sense, with a spunky, young woman, Valentine. There is a brilliant passage in which Ford writes:

“If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it; emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it…”

Christopher himself is a sort of bottled-up relic of aristocracy in an increasingly mercantile society: generous, chivalrous, despises affectation, very private and proud. He is a principled idealist in a world that has less and less use for his kind. The books implicitly contrast Christopher with best friend, Vincent MacMaster, who is a Scot, and not well-born, and who is much more attune to what it takes to “get ahead” in the world—a little fudging, a little flattery, knowing and making an impression on the right people. As MacMaster’s fortunes rise, Christopher’s fall, largely because he is too proud to defend himself against lies or compromise his ethics.

I have seen Christopher referred to as “cold” and even “unlikeable,” but I bonded to this character. In his interactions with other people he is dry, often a touch arrogant, and yes, cold. Christopher tends to employ his intellect in avoiding unpleasant emotions—there is a brilliant scene in which he sets himself the task of composing a difficult sonnet, simply to take his mind off the war and his situation with his wife. He is a paradox: Stoic outside, horribly sensitive within. Ford describes his reaction to receiving a letter from his estranged wife:

“He seemed to have no feelings about the matter. Certain insolent phrases in Sylvia’s letter hung in his mind. He preferred a letter like that. The brandy made no difference to his mentality, but it seemed to keep him from shivering.”

He is often surprised by his own feelings and galled that his self-control is insufficient to govern them.

Valentine, of course, turns out to be one of the disruptive forces that overrides his common sense. They are in an impossible situation: he has reconciled himself to an honorable but loveless marriage, only to discover love too late. Very little happens between these two characters, but Ford has an amazing way of describing their relationship through the physical effect they have on each other:

“It sufficed for Tietjens to approach her to make her feel as if her whole body was drawn towards him as, being near a terrible height, you are drawn to it. Great waves of blood rushed across her being as if physical forces as yet undiscovered or invented attracted the very fluid itself. The moon so draws at tides.”
“He had never realized that he had a passion for the girl till that morning; that he had a passion deep and boundless like the sea, shaking like a tremor of the whole world, an unquenchable thirst, a thing the thought of which made your bowels turn over…”

His reaction to discovering in a moment of giddiness that he wanted to kiss her is to feel physically sick. I think that describes the power of love quite well.

There is very little talk of love (Valentine recalls “as, just occasionally, using the word ‘we’—and perhaps without intention—he had let her know he loved her”), but the reader develops a cumulative impression that these two characters belong together in some very deep, inexpressible way.

So I love the characters, but more than that, I fell head-over-heels for the style of the book, which is written like an almost seamless flow of flashbacks and reminiscence from multiple points of view. Ford starts everything in medias res.

Everything. The events of Book 1, for instance, actually cover between 3-4 days, but there are all of these dislocations, time-shifts, that mean the reader is always off-balance, trying to catch up and put the pieces together. I understand this is called “delayed decoding,” in which details are presented, but the connections only revealed over time, or have to be surmised by the reader retrospectively. I adore this. It is a magnificent feat, simply from a technical standpoint, and utterly fascinating.

I wish I could “unread” Book 4. By the end of Book 3, Christopher & Valentine have endured so much that a just God (or at least a just author) would want them to be happy—because that is “the deal,” at least implied, that if you turn your back on external rewards in order to be true to yourself and what you love, presumably you will be happy. I suppose Ford is too much of a realist (or a cynic) to let Christopher & Valentine be content, but it is disheartening to watch Valentine’s growing preoccupation with the strain of continual poverty. The story is told from Christopher’s brother’s perspective, who has never been the most interesting of characters, and contains the cartoonish figure of an American lady who exists simply for Ford to mock. It is part of the genius of the earlier books that Ford gives Sylvia her own story and point of view, and that we see Christopher and her marriage through her eyes. For a well-reasoned blog post that sees value in the fourth book, please check out Shelf Love.

The 2012 TV miniseries was adapted by Tom Stoppard, who did a tremendous job with it. One of the things that Stoppard did was to put everything back, chronologically, in its right place, and condense, of course, multiple viewpoints into one third person omniscient perspective, which makes the story a lot easier to follow. He also, brilliantly, salvages what he can from the disastrous Book 4, and makes a better ending. If you are a reader who finds the time-shifts off-putting, I would suggest watching the TV series first, which will give you a roadmap to the main events. I do think one of the costs of Ford’s method is that it can at times engage the intellect at the expense of emotions – a scene witnessed in real-time is almost always more powerful than events or dialogue remembered. I found I feel the story more deeply when watching it, but then the books have so much richer, interior nuance, and this wonderful “unfolding” effect.