I have found the perfect book to read during the pandemic: Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, an elegant Modernist tetralogy set during World War I. The four books, published during the 1920s, are spellbinding: Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up–, and The Last Post. I blogged about the second book here. I have just finished rereading the third book.
There is no one in life like Christopher Tietjens, the hero of Parade’s End. Although he is awkward, he is the most honorable gentleman you will ever meet. He is courteous, gallant, awkward, fat, yet attractive, seemingly has a photographic memory, is probably Aspergers, quotes Ovid in conversation, and is a brilliant statistician. His society wife, the gorgeous, evil Sylvia, is determined to ruin his life, though she herself has left him to have affairs with various men. Even her priest tells her how evil she is. On her return to England, Tietjens declines to live with Sylvia, but is too much the gentleman to divorce her because she is Catholic . He provides money for Syliva and their son (probably not his son) to live on his estate, Groby, but Sylvia ruins his reputation by claiming he is the immoral adulterer. And so he enlists in the Army, though he is over forty (as Ford Madox Ford did), because he knows he can be a good officer, and because there is no life for him in England anymore.
In the second novel, No More Parades, we see the extent of Sylvia’s depravity and viciousness: she hates Tietjens but wants him back so she can humiliate him. She even visits him at an army base in France, to spread more calumny: she lies about his politics (she says he is a socialist) and again claims that he is having an affair with a young woman Valentine Wannop, a virginal suffragette. With her lies, Sylvia gives her husband a death sentence. A general who is infatuated with Sylvia’s beauty ships Tietjens to the front, believing and hoping he will die there.
In the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up– (which I have just finished), Tietjens waits for the war to end so “a man could stand up.” He is tired of crouching in the trenches, but standing up can get people killed. The account of a day in the trenches is harrowing. He is first in command by default, much loved by the men, but he has shell-shock and is afraid of going mad. But he wants to keep the command for the money.
…Damn it, he was going to make two hundred and fifty quid towards living with Valentine Wannop–when you really could stand up on a hill…anywhere!
Tietjens was in love with Valentine Wannop, but he would not make love to her before the war, because she was the daughter of his father’s oldest friend.
A Man Could Stand Up begins in Valentine’s consciousness, and ends by alternating her point-of-view with Tietjens’. On Armistice Day Valentine hears from Lady MacMaster, a woman who is indebted to Tietjens and says Tietjens is back in London, mad from the war and asking for Valentine.
And so Valentine thinks about her relationship with Tietjens.
She had never–even when they had known each other–called him anything other than Mr. So and So… She could not bring herself to let her mental lips frame his name…. She had never used anything but his surname to this gray thing, familiar object of her mother’s study, seen frequently at tea-parties…. Once she had been out with it for a whole night in a dogcart! Think of that!… And they had spouted Tibullus one to another in moonlit mist. And she had certainly wanted it to kiss her–in the moon-lit mists a practicality, a really completely strange bear!
A Man Could Stand Up– is a remarkable, harrowing novel about love and war. In a different, modernist style, Ford’s book is as moving as War and Peace.
Ford considered himself an Impressionist writer, according an article by Max Saunders, Ford’s biographer, in The New Statesman (Sept. 7, 2012). There is action, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness punctuated with dashes, ellipses, and exclamation points.
A very fast read! And you don’t have to read the entire tetralogy at once.