A Man Could Stand Up – resembles a slight but moving intermezzo leading up to a grand conclusion. Ford Madox Ford thankfully relieves us of spending more time with the exhausting Sylvia Tietjens in constructing a book in three parts in which Christopher and Valentine gradually move so much closer together, intellectually and spiritually, that they become like threads embroidered at opposite ends of the same, slowly closing fan, only coming face to face right at the very end. In part one and part three, our minds are touched and relieved by seeing things mostly from Valentine’s perspective, her innocence and her readiness to sacrifice it somehow calming us, great as her doubts might be. In part two, we follow Christopher to the trenches in Belgium, a place that pries his clinging fingers away from who he was and helps him to embrace who he knows he has become.
As absurd as it sounds, trench life is good for Christopher. Having arrived as a second in command with nothing to do but sit around all day, he’s now taken over command of the unit due to its colonel’s being an administrative nightmare, in constant dispute with the M.O. over the taking of a pill and quite possibly mad as well. The trenches transform Christopher – he’s much healthier than the last time we saw him at the base depot in Rouen, and though he still cultivates an intense inner life, he no longer suffers that agonizing split between his upper and lower consciousness. He also discovers a deep desire within himself to command his men and to lead them, a wish that is completely new to him, but one that he relishes – he knows he is capable of command and does not deny to himself that that is what he wants. Despite his own belief to the contrary, he also maintains a superb camaraderie with the men under his command, despite that idiot McKechnie’s constant attempts to waste his time with insults and general lunacy.
That’s not to say that Christopher becomes a happy chappy – he is in a constant, near-obsessive struggle to keep control of his mind and not go mad; the conflict puts the trench he commands into a permanent state of destruction and disarray, and he has to ensure that he puts men to repairing the damage without getting them killed at the same time. There is constant dread of German snipers, and a hideous improvised statue in the middle of No Man’s Land consisting of three men torn to shreds inside a cage of barbed wire that our unfortunate hero has to contemplate each day. Christopher thinks of Valentine constantly, even taking a liking to a young corporal because he reminds him of her. He agonises over whether or not he should write her a letter, considers that she must think him a swine for not having done so in over two years, and comes to realise that his sole aim in life has become ‘to stand up on a hill with Valentine Wannop’ without getting shot, in the trenches by the Germans, later on by society. Christopher finds himself turning away from the convictions that have so profoundly defined him before – after all he has endured, all he wants is simply to be able to finish his conversations with Valentine, a prominent theme in the novel that is explored in depth by Valentine, who feels the same way. Both of them want to spend their lives together, to be with each other all the time, because they don’t know when both of them will be ready to have the ultimate conversation. This reminds us of the intense intellectual attachment that characterized their relationship in Some Do Not… and tells us that their intellectual life remains an important part of the love they share. It is truly incredible that it takes a war to make people realise that conversation and togetherness are more important than anything to do with what society might think – for someone like Christopher, it’s a true revelation.
It’s in this book that we come to realise what a truly great creation Christopher Tietjens is. He’s not merely brilliant, bumbling and old-fashioned in a truly selfless way, traits that earn him both the respect and the affection of the reader and contribute substantially to his originality as a character: he is also capable of changing, of becoming a leader, of all things, and of choosing love over a life of miserable duty and principle that, two books ago, he would have chosen without hesitation. He’s the unlikeliest person for these things to happen to, but they do and we understand why.
Ford’s brilliant skill with character doesn’t stop with Christopher, however, and in part one and part three, we are genuinely conscious of being inside the mind of a very young woman that flits about from one emotion to the other like a little bird: the jubilation Valentine feels at Christopher’s return seems to amplify everything else she feels; her willingness to drop everything and be his mistress, her fear of being rejected, her fear that Christopher has come back mad, and her determination to nurse him if that is the case. And then of course there’s the masterful third part of the book, in which we see things mostly from her perspective, but Ford arranges it so that we see everything Christopher is feeling too, so that their emotions are linked together, as in the beautiful moment when both realise that now, they can look at each other, and the conversation can begin.
Most of the book being told from Valentine’s perspective has the literary effect of opening a window and letting in the light, and this is indeed what this book appears to be: a turning towards the light and away from the past. The intermezzo feel of it is, however, rendered somewhat disturbing by the finality of the part three, when we know there is still one more book to go, plunging the reader into an uncomfortable sort of limbo that is reinforced by the very structure of the book resembling a romance cut in half by conflict.
One of the most memorable statements Ford makes in this book is that the First World War was a war of mental illness more than anything else, and this is particularly clear in his writing. We don’t sit through pages and pages of ‘this one did this, this one did that’ battles: the engagement with the fighting that takes place does so inside Christopher’s head and is written in a reflective rather than a descriptive style. Ford engages more with the mental than with the physical, embodying the very nature of the war in the way he writes. This is yet another example of an originality that makes him different from other war writers and is something that has made the tetralogy so consistently good, both in terms of style and characterization. I’m looking forward to seeing how it ends!