Parade’s End Book 3 Review: A Man Could Stand Up –

Cover of the Vintage edition.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.

1780758-low_res-parades-endAs 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.

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Christopher and Valentine meet for the first time after the war.

Christopher and Valentine meet for the first time after the war.

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.

Christopher and Valentine have their first conversation that they're allowed to finish. Instead of talking, they dance.

Christopher and Valentine have their first conversation that they’re allowed to finish. Instead of talking, they dance.

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!

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Parade’s End Book 2 Review: No More Parades

Cover of the Vintage edition.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.

Christopher as O Nine Morgan dies

Christopher as O Nine Morgan dies

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.

Sylvia contemplates hitting Christophe on the head with a blunt object

Sylvia contemplates hitting Christophe on the head with a blunt object

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.’ So is all of Sylvia’s conduct simply down to sexual tension? Personally, I don’t believe it. It could be boredom, or a naturally vindictive personality. Whoever she is, she’s fascinating.

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.

Parade’s End Book 1 Review: Some Do Not…

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The best thing about pretty much anything set in the World War I period, be it books, movies or TV programs, is what you might call ‘the set’, or ‘the world’ the characters inhabit. Breakfast rooms and drawing rooms and dining rooms with shiny wooden paneling, fashionable wallpaper, chandeliers and gilt mirrors, Chippendale armchairs, fresh lilies, trips to the theatre, trips to the Opera, trips to the country, servants answering doors, servants bringing the car out, servants serving three different varieties of tea at breakfast. Yet it’s in these surroundings that the most brutal human drama is played out; people so frustrated and angry and hopeless that they feel like their emotions are going to burst out of their chest at any moment, people being slowly suffocated and sometimes killed by their most basic feelings being unable to escape through buttoned-up, meticulously starched shirt fronts, high collars, cravats, corsets. On the rare occasions that hate, or love, or anger is conveyed, it’s through a single glance, or a politely-spoken word: no noise, no fuss. It’s a world populated by people who want to scream, but can’t. It’s a recipe for great storytelling.

Hence my decision to embark on a readathon of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy after being utterly seduced by the epic BBC adaptation that nobody, most recently the Hollywood Foreign Press, seems to be paying the slightest attention to.

Many sources credit Ford Madox Ford with being one of the pioneers of the Modern novel. Apart from its somewhat hilarious insistence on censoring the word ‘bloody’, Some Do Not… is a very modern novel indeed, not just in its themes but in the way the story is told. Ford loves starting a chapter at the end and telling it backwards; his characters are frequently struck by powerful flashbacks in the middle of a conversation and some of the book’s most intense emotional moments are played out in a beautifully disorienting stream of consciousness narrative in which it is not just the immediate past and the present that intermingle, but various concrete, yet uncertain, dimensions of a single moment in time that are conveyed to us. Even from the first page, one can’t help feeling that Ford was seriously anti-Romanticism, and nothing makes this clearer than his protagonist, a tall, thick-set, rather overweight employee of the Imperial Department of Statistics called Christopher Tietjens who thinks Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s language resembles congealed bacon fat. Let’s start with him, and see where else we end up.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the 2012 BBC miniseries. (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbnalpfE0Z1qb2jedo5_1280.jpg)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the 2012 BBC miniseries. (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbnalpfE0Z1qb2jedo5_1280.jpg)

Christopher can be reasonably confident of being the smartest person in whichever room he walks into and is consequently incapable of tolerating any form of idiocy that might present itself: he’s not afraid to be rude, and often finds himself not much caring whether he is or not. Christopher cleaves to an idealistic form of Toryism that stresses a stringent sense of duty to society and to family life: ‘monogamy’, ‘chastity’ and above all, ‘not talking about it’, these latter characteristics all being grouped under the broad heading of what he calls ‘Parade.’ This admirable if old-fashioned philosophy being incompatible with a changing world is a central theme in the novel and leads to the first of many disasters in Christopher’s life, namely his wife Sylvia, whom he finds himself chained to for life after a rather uncharacteristic (for him, not her) sexual encounter on a train leads to a pregnancy. Thanks to his persistent belief in Parade, Christopher is quite content to act the gentleman and marry Sylvia despite the possibility (well, probability) of the child not being his at all, not to mention her vindictiveness, lack of education, neuroticism and worst of all, Catholicism (gasp!). Each makes the other absolutely miserable, Sylvia with her screaming, Christopher with his steadfast belief that screaming back would constitute ungentlemanly conduct. Sylvia leaves him, he refuses to divorce her. She gets bored, she asks him to take her back, he does. It’s one big misery business from start to finish.

It’s at this point that young suffragette Valentine Wannop enters the fray. The daughter of Professor Wannop (Christopher’s father’s late friend) and his wife, a novelist that Christopher credits with having written the only novel since the eighteenth century he hasn’t had to correct in the margins, she marches up to Christopher at a golf course and asks his help in rescuing a fellow demonstrator from some golfers intent on beating her up, before making an impressive escape based on her proficiency in long jump. Once the connection between them is established, she proves herself to be his intellectual equal and it is on this level that most of the affinity they feel for each other flourishes. Valentine is good in a fight and is not afraid to contradict Christopher or question his arguments: in his turn he gradually realises that while he finds many of her opinions to be indicative of her age, she is probably the only truly intelligent person he knows and does not automatically find himself talking down to.

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop. (http://www.benedictcumberbatch.co.uk/_Media/15965.jpg)

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop. (http://www.benedictcumberbatch.co.uk/_Media/15965.jpg)

Valentine’s passion for Christopher is impregnated with Romanticism of a rather medieval kind. Having spent a year as a domestic servant in order to support her mother following the death of her father, and having witnessed first-hand all the unsavoury occurrences that often accompanied such a position at that time, she’s come to regard sex as being a rather repulsive occurrence and sees chastity, waiting and longing as an integral part of love. Her views on the matter fluctuate as her opinion of Christopher fluctuates: when she suspects he has a mistress, she can see no objection to sleeping with him, when she finds out that he doesn’t, she resumes her former views with relief. Christopher and Valentine seem to wax and wane with each other like opposite sides of the same coin, and a key image in the book is that of their relationship resembling a carpenter’s vice: they are pushed together by an invincible force.

And then there’s the role society has to play in all this, a cruel and hypocritical beast hiding behind crystal champagne glasses and polite conversation that can, in the eyes of the public, transform a good, faithful man into a debauched maniac through the planting of a few good rumours by people with agendas as pitiful as mild jealousy or boredom. Christopher doesn’t need to be debauched for this to happen: it suffices for enough people to think he is to bring about his ruin. Yet out in the country, old, agricultural England still exists and it’s there that Christopher finds it easiest to delude himself that change hasn’t happened and probably never will. Then the war comes along, and peoples’ class or reputation doesn’t stop them from being blown to smithereens, and the beastliness continues: men sent home due to shellshock are suspected of being cowards, the symptoms of shellshock being easy to fake, and previously decent people become hard, selfish and uncompassionate. The novel is populated by an impressive cast of supporting characters that seem to stand for each kind of person you could meet during your life, but are well-constructed enough so that they don’t automatically stand out as types (though those that are meant to, do). There’s Christopher’s best (only?) friend MacMaster who’s life’s ambition is to welcome all the geniuses of the world into his home through a series of fashionable tea parties, and his beautiful mistress (later wife) Edith, who is so bent on helping him accomplish that goal that she makes an alarming but entirely realistic metamorphosis from being a modest, good sort of woman to a society bitch reminiscent of Mrs Merdle. Valentine’s mother Mrs Wannop is absolutely charming, and Christopher’s brother Mark reminds you of a spindly spider scurrying about trying to be quintessentially English.

Ford weaves his narrative against the background of all this contrasting, contradictory mess that is just as indicative of his society as it is of ours, and I believe that it’s the effect of this, all this external nonsense, that is responsible for the stream of consciousness character of his character’s thoughts. People sink deeper into their minds and into their emotions, and therefore don’t concentrate so much on externals, when they can’t express themselves, but then it’s also the other way round: when the externals force their way through, the character’s distress is increased. It is Ford’s knowledge of this kind of response on the part of human nature, and his ability to convey it in all its devastating complexity, that makes him a great writer and that makes this a phenomenal book. I did feel, however, that we spent rather too much time in Christopher and Valentine’s heads and not enough in Sylvia’s, so that when it came to the mention of Sylvia being soppily in love with her husband, I laughed till I cried. Fortunately, we’ve got three books left to go, so plenty of time. Secondly, having seen the miniseries, I think we’ll see a lot more of Sylvia in the future and come to understand, if not to sympathise with, her bullshit.

Everything is here for someone who loves books: beautiful, challenging writing, characters that actually engage with you, and above all, act like human beings, which is the highest compliment one can pay to any writer.