Parade's Endby Ford Madox Ford, Robie MacAuley Published 01 Jun 2001
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In creating his acclaimed masterpiece Parade's End, Ford Madox Ford wanted the Novelist in fact to appear in his really proud position as historian of his own time . . . The 'subject' was the world as it culminated in the war. Published in four parts between 1924 and 1928, his extraordinary novel centers on Christopher Tietjens, an officer and gentleman- the last English Tory-and follows him from the secure, orderly world of Edwardian England into the chaotic madness of the First World War. Against the backdrop of a world at war, Ford recounts the complex sexual warfare between Tietjens and his faithless wife Sylvia. A work of truly amazing subtlety and profundity, Parade's End affirms Graham Greene's prediction: There is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.
"Parade's End" Reviews
I was expecting a masterpiece; what I got was a neurotic obese windbag of a novel. VS Pritchett, always an astute critic, remarked that confusion was always Ford’s mainspring as a novelist. This novel is so hysterically confused it reads like a diary of someone chronicling his own nervous breakdown. At one point in the novel a character forms the thought that her companion is still droning on with an idea she thought they had got past. I can’t say how many times I thought this same idea while reading this novel.
I had already seen the BBC production of this before reading it and the first thing that needs to be said is what a fabulous job Tom Stoppard did in editing and extracting every last drop of what’s good in this book and weeding out all the prodigious irritating excesses, including the entire last section.
An obvious example of Stoppard’s masterful alchemy is how he hones down exchanges between characters which in the novel usually drag on for pages and pages into a handful of critical lines. Another example is how much more sympathetic he is to the character of Sylvia than Ford was. When Tolstoy began Anna Karenina he disapproved of the adulterous woman and set himself the task of dramatizing this disapproval of his. Had he continued with this irksome puritanical stance he deployed in The Kreutzer Sonata it’s likely Anna Karenina would have been a dud as a novel. However, Tolstoy came to love Anna and it was the empathy he felt with her that contributed massively to the novel being a masterpiece. Ford Maddox Ford begins with a similar premise – except he doesn’t fall in love with his adulterous woman. He, like his hero, remains a puritan throughout the novel. She’s the villain, the harbinger of everything Ford doesn’t like about the new world (dis)order. At times it’s as if Ford is blaming the promiscuity of restless women for the insane mess the world has become. Not even Stoppard could alchemize this facet of the novel which is why the last two episodes of the TV adaptation fell flat for me. In the novel we’re called upon to boo Sylvia every time she enters the stage and cheer the docile schoolgirl male-honouring suffragette who is her rival for Christopher’s affections. The less said about the suffragette the better. Graham Greene refers to Sylvia as “surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel”. What a load of hogwash that statement is! Sylvia betrays a husband who shows no interest in her, a husband who is emotionally retarded. Ford’s determination to make me dislike Sylvia had the subtlety of a right-wing newspaper maligning the leader of a left-wing political party in every single editorial. Somehow and brilliantly, Stoppard alchemized Sylvia into the most credible and admirable character in the book though I’m not sure Ford would have approved of this outcome.
Ford’s ostensibly grandiose vision of Britain at the time of the first world war contains much that has become rather hackneyed. And a lot of his notions have turned out to be untrue. It wasn’t really the end of the old social order. He pokes lots of fun at the ruling classes. There’s a lot of schoolboy humour in this novel – and maybe how much you enjoy it will depend to some extent on how prone you are to giggling. Like Waugh at the end of Brideshead he seems to romantically and nostalgically lament the decline of the feudal world of the 18th century. But like Waugh he got it wrong. That world wasn’t vanishing into the mists of time. Just take a look at the members of the Tory party who were responsible for the referendum. Same old old boys club.
However, Ford does throw something more interesting into the mix – and this is his obsession with frustrated sexual feeling. Every character in this novel is sexually neurotic. It’s like Ford had just read Freud and believed obsessively but without much clarity that he was on to something. Unfortunately to a large extent Ford comes across as a latter-day Oliver Cromwell in this regard. No coincidence Sylvia is a Catholic. I didn’t understand what he was getting at with his sex obsession but at least it was interesting.
Julian Barnes praises the structure of this book and it’s true this is its most interesting element – the surface of gossip, lies and misunderstandings which defines the social order at the expense of truth. But his declaration that “Few novelists have better understood and conveyed the overworkings of the hysterical brain, the underworkings of the damaged brain (after his first spell at the front, Tietjens returns with partial memory loss), the slippings and slidings of the mind at the end of its tether, with all its breakings-in and breakings-off” is sheer hyperbole for me. Ford dramatizes a confused mind by resorting to endless spatterings of ellipses on every page, a crude, almost schoolboyish technique for creating the interruption of mental processes. (It’s worth remembering this was written long after both Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, in neither of which does Woolf resort to cheap ellipses to show a mind in turmoil.)
At the end of the day I’d say there are about a hundred pages of this novel worth reading; that leaves 800…Five stars though for Tom Stoppard who for me has proved himself to be a superior artist to Ford Maddox Ford. And perhaps Greene and Barnes’ elevated evaluation of this novel have helped explain to me why I’ve never been able to get excited by either of them as novelists.
I decided to start reading this great First World War novel after seeing the start of the BBC adaptation, but then became caught up by the book and fell behind with watching the TV version. It's a hard book to describe, the tale of an upper-class English family falling apart in and around the war. In particular, it is the tale of the 'Last Tory', Christopher Tietjens, the two women in his life, wife Sylvia and true love Valentine, and his struggle to stay true to his stubborn traditions as the world changes around him.
The writing is demanding, largely told in stream-of-consciousness style and jumping to and fro. By the end of book three I felt it was it was a magnificent novel - some parts are better than others, with the battlefield scenes tending to be especially strong, but the whole experience is overwhelming. However, I thought the novel (which was originally published in four parts over a number of years) falls off badly in book four, which Graham Greene hated and cut out of his edition. Another problem is that there is a lot of casual racism and in particular anti-Semitism - at first I wasn't sure if the author was satirising these attitudes, but there is no indication of him disagreeing with them. Of course, I realise that the novel was written in the 1920s and attitudes have changed, but the build-up of unthinking throwaway remarks detracts from the book's power.
I had only read 'The Good Soldier' by Madox Ford before this, which I loved - I don't think 'Parade's End' is quite as great, but it is still one of the best novels I've read in a long time, though I must knock one star off for the last book!
This is a wonderfully rewarding read, although at times the story seems impenetrable, but stay with it as the book will become a personal favourite, that repays frequent revisits.
The beguiling, irresistible and utterly compelling, Sylvia Tietjens is described, ' immensely tall, slight… reddish, very fair hair in great bandeaux right over her ears. Her very oval, regular face had an expression of virginal lack of interest such as used to be worn by fashionable Paris courtesans a decade before that time.”
A beautiful, sensual woman.
Sylvia has enjoyed a colourful past and learned the hard way that surrendering to impulse is damaging and disastrous, and knows through bitter experience the yearning of flaming passion and desire, 'that dreadful feeling' that always leads to awkwardness and unexpected repercussions. It is Sylvia's colourful story that injects the volume with mischief and unexpected twists and turns. She is the unconventional heroine of this multi layered convoluted story.
A troubled Catholic and a reckless adulteress, Sylvia was already pregnant when she married Christopher Tjetjeans and the child probably wasn’t his, but as a man of complete honesty and integrity he does the decent thing, of course. Sylvia is completely self obsessed and all knowing. for example, she 'knew she was displaying indolent and gracious beauty', as she entered the room, but she has an affected insouciance designed to deter but which has the opposite effect as men, of all ages and social classes are entranced by her beauty.
' She had purposely increased her air of scornful insolence. That was because she felt that her hold over men increased to the measure of her coldness. Someone she knew, had once said of a dangerous woman, that when she entered the room every woman kept her husband on the leash. It was Sylvia's pleasure to think that, before she went out of that room, all women in it realised with mortification - that they needn't!'
'To know everything about a person is to be bored, bored, bored,' she protests. She treats all men with disdain, ' Taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. You had not been for ten minutes in any sort of intimacy with a man before you said: "But I've read all this before."
Men are like putty in her hands entranced at first sight, captivated within moments of their first encounter,
' She could, she flattered herself, tell the amount of empressment which a man would develop about herself at the first glance - the amount and the quality too.'
Julian Barnes has written a definitive introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (2012) in which he says :
'For Graham Greene , Sylvia Tietjeans is surely the most possesssed evil character in the modern novel. A wife who is bored, promiscuous and up-to-date,tied to a husband who is omniscient, chaste and antique; there's a marriage made in hell.' Certainly Sylvia does not suffer fools gladly; she can be mean, at times sadistically cruel, with a lacerating tongue and utterly self centred.
Sylvia reluctantly admits, 'She was by that time tired of men, or imagined that she was' as the men in her acquaintance never fulfilled expectations.' So she remains filled with an inexpressible love for her emotionally repressed husband.
Parade’s End – made up of four novels published between 1924 and 1928 – explores post-Freudian female sexual desire and Sylvia Tietjens represents the unfettered, repressed, but now viewed as zany, women unleashed by the 'Boom & Bust ' decade, rationalising their intemperate, conflicting but passionate desires.
Standing naked before her husband, Sylvia darkly exclaims, “Higher than the beasts, lower than the angels: stuck between the two in our idiots’ Eden. God, I’m so bored of it all. Guarding or granting permission to a temple no decent butcher would give to his offal tray. I’d rather be a cow in a field…”
Promiscuity and serial adultery lacks the intimacy for which she is searching, and doesn't fill the aching void in her soul, revealed in her stream of consciousness admission, 'Blessed Virgin, mother of God, make him take me, before midnight...He's my husband, it is not a sin.'
Reading this (consisting of four books: "Some Do Not...", "No More Parades," "A Man Could Stand Up--," and "The Last Post), for me, was like chewing a single piece of gum for a month. It is not unreadable or incomprehensible. It's in English, originally in English (can't blame any faulty translation), and the characters are even English. But they talk differently. They act differently. Their motivations are hard to grasp. Like they're in a dream, their movements come in hazy sequences. The plot is gettable but not unforgettable: Christopher Tientjens, maybe conceived by Ford Madox Ford while looking at the mirror, never described as handsome (FMF was ugly) but only big, strong, clumsy and gray, is married to the beautiful Sylvia, a flirt who ran away with another man, they have a son but it is not certain if Christopher is really the father, fed up with her paramour Sylvia writes Christopher a note saying she wants to go back to him and he accepts her, no questions asked, then there's Valentine (described as having big feet somewhere) she's in love with Christopher who agrees when he asks her to be his mistress but didn't even kiss her and instead just goes to the trenches to fight world war one, hoping at one point to die, he's rich but renounces wealth, intelligent but does stupid things, Sylvia, finding him too perfect, wants to destroy him, ah what the heck! I found no thrill with the story. The characters did not come alive (for me). I started to worry that maybe something is now wrong with my brain after reading too much and playing chess too much, so I checked some of the reviews and see several praising the novel without even reading all four books, like they tasted one dish in a food buffet and announced all the rest as outstanding (really? Then why not finish the rest?). One said he started reading it one day, but never said he finished reading it another day. So if he's alive, in front of me, I may be yelling right now to him, asking him to answer the question if he had actually finished reading all four books and not if the novel is great as I am not asking him that question. Another hinted that he actually read all four books but then added that Parade's End is "A fabulous look into the personal experience of WW1" when it is not actually about WW1 (Christopher Tietjen's foray into the trenches is just a very small part of the entire narrative--he never even got to fire a gun, nor kill a German), but more about marital/siblings conflicts, love, hate, honor and family concerns.
“…there are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them.” ~W.H. Auden
When I was in college, I had to make a choice one semester between taking Romantic Literature or Victorian Literature. Knowing just enough about everything to get myself into trouble, I chose to take Victorian Literature. Romantic poetry did not sound like something a Montana kid grown up on Hemingway would want to read. Only much later, years and states away, would I discover how wrong I was….
The Victorian sensibility that pervades Arnold and Browning – the interest in the ordinary and common day, the moral purposefulness, the unmooring clash with science, the search for the Victorian ideal – seemed cloyingly myopic and dark. I admired much but was never able to get my sea legs.
Years later on a whim, walking through a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I picked up a copy of Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. The big paperback caught my eye because of the size and the price, $1.00.
By then, I knew a little about Ford: his relationship with Conrad, his literary influence, his reputation for untruth (though hardly a vice in a writer), his bad relationship with Hemingway. I knew of, but had not read, The Good Soldier, his most celebrated and read work. I think, but cannot be sure, that I may have read by that time some of his literary reminiscences, which (whether “embellished” or not) remain in my mind some of the best of that genre ever written.
I put the book on a shelf and carried it for a few moves. Through years of reading the once neglected Romantics, through expanding my familiarity with Irish poetry beyond Yeats. [In those days, before kids and domestic distractions, I created, as I continue to do, my own courses of study, but, of course, had much more time to concentrate and ruminate.:] Finally, one day dark winter day in my little studio on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul I picked up the big book and began to read.
Parades End has been called the last Victorian novel. And I suppose it is. So much that is Victorian is in this book, and yet… there is something of the lost generation in here also. It is in my mind a transitional novel, the last hurrah of the Victorian and a first tentative peek at the modern. Or more properly perhaps, the first description of the Modern by a Victorian: “No more hope, no more glory, not for the nation, not for the world I dare say, no more parades.”
Ford, always an admirer of Henry James, lived by the credo: why say it in 4 words when 24 will do better. His is the anti-Hemingway style. His sentences and paragraphs go on for pages… and yet, I found myself enthralled in the same way that James enthralls me. So exotic does their language usage seem that I feel I am reading another tongue altogether. A language at once more ornate and expressive and beautiful than I could even dare to imagine – the term baroque comes to mind (although unlike baroque music, James and Ford are always satisfying).
The four separate novels that make up Parade’s End (Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post) tell the story of Christopher Tietjens, a man struggling to survive personally and publicly. His wife is unfaithful to him, he is betrayed by friends and colleagues, and the modern, post-war world is changing everything he once thought he knew.
Those who have read The Good Soldier will recognize some familiar themes, but in Parade’ End will enjoy Ford at his most expansive. Why Ford has fallen so out of favor, and this novel in particular has been all but forgotten, is one of those peculiarities of taste and time.
Ford himself once said, “Only two classes of books are of universal appeal; the very best and the very worst.” It is certain that Parade’s End belongs in the former class. Certainly it will again be “rediscovered” by some generation of writers. It’s quality and execution demand it.
I found this book to be a fantastic slog. It had been so difficult for me to read, in fact, that I found myself trying to skim, and resisting, just barely.
I suppose part of the problem must have been the unmatched expectations I've had for this humongous doorstopper. I've heard of it as 'an epic tale of WWI'. But in reality, it was more involved with two people trying to outdo each other in the amount of suffering they could cause. I found the endless digging in the machinations and idiotic moves. I didn't particularly want to read a book about marital machinations and moves, I wanted to read a book about WWI.
Too, there is in me still the sense that I could never envision the main characters, Tietjens and his wife, Sylvia, as in any way real. They do what they do from reasons which, to me, are inexplicable and incomprehensible, and I don't think that's just because they're turn-of-the-century Brits. Sylvia cheats on her husband and tries to ruin his life (and hers with it, since for some reason she would not divorce him, though her Catholicism is less than nominal) because she "hates his immoral opinions". Since I never really encountered an opinion of Tietjens - not to mention a deed - that was immorally appalling, I had a hard time seeing Sylvia do what she was doing for any reason other than the author's strings, pulling at her.
The prose is abstruse and difficult to read. I found it almost prohibiting at times. It's full of elliptical sentences and unexplained utterances, and one loses the thread of what people are actually saying, and why, astonishingly quickly.
The novel (I should say novels, I read all four) does have its good moments. For instance, the scene in which Sylvia discovers that her husband was not, in fact, shamming his memory loss, is almost touching. She is repentant. Why she then proceeds to go on and continue to cause trouble for him, though, I am not sure. It's yet another enigmatic move, on the part of an utterly enigmatic author, in a completely enigmatic setting.
I guess this book was just too much of a riddle wrapped in an enigma for me. I barely finished it, though I am glad I at least did finish.