When last we saw poor Christopher Tietjens in the final pages of Some Do Not…, his whole life was in ruins: he had already been sent home from the War once because of shellshock and concussion, he did not, after all, manage to go to bed with Valentine the night before returning to France, causing Sylvia to crash down on him with such a tidal wave of vindictiveness (she wanted him to do it) that he effectively considered their marriage done with. And then there’s the small matter of the obliteration of his reputation thanks to a few well-placed and utterly false rumours that have ruined him as a gentleman. No More Parades, the second instalment in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End quartet, has a decidedly more existentialist tone to it: there is none of the hope or the innocence of its predecessor. The story is told over a period of just two days, and is set in a hopeless base depot in Rouen that the Germans seem to enjoy using as target practice for their air raids. Christopher is charged with carrying out the orders of a shamefully disorganised War Office as regards the sending of colonial troops to the front, as well as the day-to-day management of a disorganised camp full of soldiers all acting with the recklessness of people who know that tomorrow might be their last day. Sylvia comes all the way to France to make him miserable and to determine precisely why she enjoys tormenting him so much. We spend most of the book inside the heads of both Christopher and Sylvia, both of them devastated, in their different ways, at the ugliness that has taken over society and the hell their world has become. First we’ll spend some time with Christopher, then with Sylvia, before moving on to some general writing issues.
Right at the beginning of the book, an entirely harmless Welshman called O Nine Morgan, to whom Christopher had refused leave, is killed right in front of him in his office during an air raid, spraying him with blood and then soaking his clothes in it as Christopher comforts him in his final moments. The incident itself, as well as guilt, causes the state of severe emotional repression that Christopher has been living in to bring him to the edge of a complete nervous breakdown and causes a separation between his upper and lower consciousness that is so profound that the upper will often not be aware that the lower is speaking and interacting with people. He’s also been charged with ensuring that his colleague Captain McKechnie, who’s so far along into a nervous breakdown he should be in an asylum, doesn’t do anything that would get him packed off to an asylum. So, the close proximity to another severely mentally disturbed person who insults him continually doesn’t do much to improve Christopher’s wellbeing. They make a rather horrifying pair in their varying degrees of madness, the most horrifying being the scene where Christopher becomes convinced he’ll go off his head if he doesn’t write a sonnet and demands that McKechnie supply him with the rhyming words. As Christopher dashes off a sonnet in about two minutes, McKechnie then promises to translate it into latin hexameters in the same time and is most insistent that Christopher observes the seal to be unbroken when he slides the paper into his pocket. This is a side of the War that I frankly do not remember encountering in any of the World War One greats like Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen, and seeing it represented here is a great testament to both Ford’s own experience of the war and his originality in portraying it.
I don’t know if demanding more originality in the way a conflict like this is portrayed is callous or not: all I know is that in introducing this duel of poetry-writing between Christopher and McKechnie, Ford’s vision of that conflict is different and original, perhaps because he’s dealing with cultured, upper-class characters, definitely not the standard protagonists in your average war classic. Another utterly original aspect to the War that Ford deals with in droves is the barrage of day-to-day administrative problems that cement the status of Christopher’s life as a living hell, many of these problems being plain and utter shit that makes him a martyr sacrificed on the altar of the War Office; a horrendous institution responsible for every idiocy from declaring rifles obsolete to starving entire battalions of troops to spite the generals in command of them. This lot remind me of the dreadful communication between Napoleon and his officers at the Battle of Borodino as described by Tolstoy in War and Peace: information will be sent from the field to headquarters; headquarters will send orders back, by the time the orders arrive, things have changed on the field, so officers either have to obey orders and court catastrophe or send back to HQ, where the whole bloody mess begins again. The War Office seems to change its mind every five minutes: innumerable times, troops are sent to the railway station then ordered back to camp because there’s no room, or there’s a strike, or an accident, or a wire from the War Office. Christopher also engages in a daily gladiatorial combat with this idiot institution just to get some bloody fire extinguishers; has to inspect 2000 pairs of toes and toothbrushes in one sitting and also has to deal with General O’Hara’s troops continually calling his men bloody colonial conscripts when they’re all volunteers and consequently feel justified in inflicting bloody noses and other such injuries on their tormentors. On top of this, Christopher becomes absolutely obsessed with the uselessness of war; constant meditations on the subject spiral out of control, on and on inside his head for hours and deprive him of sleep; then when he’s not thinking about that, there’s McKechnie droning on and on about nothing on the other side of their office, nightmare day dreams about mud in the trenches, German air raids every ten minutes, and a gun in the garden of the hotel that his godfather General Campion has adopted as his headquarters. The marked absence of Valentine from the novel only helps us further appreciate how Christopher is reduced to this: an intelligent man among fools always goes a little mad, but an intelligent man in these circumstances without a soothing presence to help him is doomed to find himself wandering deeper and deeper into his own head.
You often find yourself stopping and shaking your head as to how Christopher’s life became such a mess. Severe infection with the disease of ‘not talking about it’ is definitely an answer: there are several points in the book when ‘talking about it’ would absolve him of all blame in a situation, but he’d much rather take the blame, either because he believes it to be right or because fighting would be too much trouble. Sylvia accuses him at one point of trying to be Jesus Christ, and if you look at his behaviour, she seems to have got it right for once. He will give away large sums of money to get his superior officer Levin out of ten minutes of embarrassment; he disobeys the doctor’s expressed orders to live in a hotel because of his chest and lives in the camp amongst his men; he’ll go to an immense amount of trouble to help some tiny, troublesome soldier he’s never met before and will probably never see again. He has no army experience, but he’s an excellent officer who is worshipped by his men for his compassion, his intelligence and his continual allergic reactions to any kind of bullshit. So what the hell is his problem?
Christopher honestly doesn’t care what toes he steps on or whom he insults: he has complete faith in his own intelligence and above all, his own convictions – ‘parade,’ the outmoded code of conduct he clings to. He takes the blame for all Sylvia’s misadventures because he believes it’s his duty to her and to his son. He’d rather insult somebody important than support what he believes to be unjust or wrong. Telling him to act otherwise is to tell him that his beliefs no longer exist – this unfortunate task falls to General Campion, and it devastates Christopher. Nevertheless, if he has to stamp on toes in the army (and he stamps on many) to do what is right, then he’ll do it, even if it gets him sent back to his battalion. He is a truly good man – and that’s what makes people believe that he’s a bad one. People would rather believe that Christopher is discredited and debauched because to believe otherwise would be to believe he’s right: then there’d be no more mask of pretty clothes, speeches and tea parties to hide behind and they’d have to see that their world is a cruel, horrifying fraud.
A delightful blogger once referred to Rebecca Hall’s performance as Sylvia in the BBC miniseries as ‘a hot, hot mess.’ While this describes Hall’s performance perfectly, I’m still in two minds as to whether or not I would classify book Sylvia in this way. She’s definitely a mess: a compulsive narcissist with mild schizophrenic tendencies, she’s possessed by a real desire to harm her husband, or any man, in any way she can short of having him executed. And she’s definitely hot: men make fools of themselves everywhere she goes. But she’s not exactly likeable. And, unlike most literary women who like hurting men, from the Marquise to Merteuil right down to Cersei Lannister, Sylvia doesn’t seem to have avenging her sex in mind when engaging in said hurting; she doesn’t even seem to enjoy it much (she reminds me a bit of Baudelaire – saying dreadful things she doesn’t truly want to). We soon discover, along with her surprised self, that her animosity towards Christopher is in fact sexual tension: this makes her even more vindictive towards him and makes her want to hurt him more. She’s at constant war with herself and frequently seeks relief in conversations with the Virgin Mary and her mother’s deceased spiritual advisor, Father Consett. She hates the way the war has made the world: ugly, suspicious, difficult. She’s hysteria and destruction on wheels. Personally, she would have driven me to distraction long before the novel’s close had General Campion not obligingly told Christopher that when a woman is unfaithful, you either divorce her or live with her; doing neither is going to drive her mad. So, we could say that Sylvia’s behaviour doesn’t avenge her sex, but herself: she believes that Christopher’s most basic character traits are tools set up to harm or torture her. As she asserts in the smoking hot inserted scene which I most urgently recommend you to watch along with plenty of cold water and blood pressure pills and which is only hinted at in the book, ‘to scream blue murder and throw me out would have been a kindness compared to five years under your roof banished from your comfort.’
Ford demonstrates a masterful control of inner monologue and stream of consciousness that helps us understand why these two days seem like an eternity. Christopher and Sylvia go off to their own places for what seems like forever, before coming back to reality, Christopher realising he’s been talking, even conversing, Sylvia realising that her derisive expression hasn’t stopped whichever idiot is talking from talking. The sheer scope of the inner landscape creates its own parallel universe of unlimited dreadfulness that possesses the characters, and even though we can’t understand fully, the very least we can do is see the fragmentary state that their day to day lives have been reduced to: nothing is straight anymore, everything is upside down. The imagery is confusing and at times impossible to understand, particularly when dealing with Christopher – this is extremely effective in setting the scene and helping us get inside the confusion that reigns in his mad but savagely organised head. The interaction between Christopher and Sylvia leaves so much to be determined by the reader; there is so much that repels us and that brings us closer to realising that these two impossible people are attracted to each other and have spent ages doing the utmost to ruin each other’s lives, whether consciously or not. Worst of all, there’s nothing sexy about it, as Hollywood would have us believe: it’s a tragedy. It’s cemented the different paths they were always treading and ruined the one thing that might have brought them together.
Though a much harder read than Some Do Not…, No More Parades fleshes out many of the issues of that particular novel, namely Sylvia and Christopher’s personalities and the wider impact they may have on each other’s lives. It is a challenging, rather nightmarish read and its effectiveness in bringing across the characters’ emotions can make one feel as exasperated or repressed as they do. It is nevertheless an original and utterly hopeless take on World War One that calls the reader back for more punishment every time it’s put to one side.