Perfect Reading for the Pandemic: Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End”

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.

The Ovid-Quoting Contest: Tietjens vs. Miss Wannop in “Parade’s End”

In one of my notebooks, I scribble down references to Ovid I chance to find in novels. There are a surprising number of novels in which characters quote Ovid, or, conversely, in which Ovid himself appears.  Two of the best are about Ovid’s exile, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life and the Austrian novelist Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World.  These classics seem entirely forgotten.  But my book club so far has voted me down every time I suggest them.

I have been smitten with Ovid for years. Reading his epic poem Metamorphoses, a collection of myths of transformation, was transformative.  And  Ovid’s Amores (love poems) might well be adapted as a Netflix film about the problems of modern couples. In one of the poems, Ovid mockingly consoles his girlfriend Corinna when her hair falls out after a bad dye job; in a diptych, he fumes and fulminates about Corinna’s abortion, which he learns about only after she almost dies.  

So who is my favorite Ovidian in a novel?  One of my favorite characters is Christopher Tietjens, the statistician-gentleman-soldier-linguist hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, a Modernist tetralogy set in England and Europe during World War I.  In the first novel, which has the unpromising title Some Do Not…, he argues with Miss Wannop, a suffragette and classicist, about the wording of some lines from Ovid’s Fasti.  

Tietjens is a true gentleman, of the kind we never meet in real life. Let us say that Ovid would not have believed in him.  When Miss Wannop and a suffragette friend appear on a golf course to shout their slogans and the friend falls down, Tietjens courteously helps them get away.   And he and Miss Wannop (Valentine), a daughter of an old friend, turn out to have much in common.  Both are bookish–well, intellectuals really–and not at all snobbish.  Tietjens, a genius, unfortunately irritates many people with the breadth of his knowledge.

And so he is not at all upset when Miss Wannop turns out to know more Latin than he does.  “Upon my soul!” Tietjens said to himself, “that girl… is the  only intelligent living soul I’ve met for years.”

Even if you don’t know Latin, you’ll feel the sexual tension.

And I admire Miss Wannop’s stubborn bluestocking style:  she does not resort to flirtatious self-denigration, which is still a problem in women’s discourse.  She proves her familiarity with the vocabulary of Ovid, who really does use certain words more than others, and points out alliteration and matters of the ear.  

She says, “The reason why I’m unconcerned about your rudeness about my Latin is that I know I’m a much better Latinist than you.  You can’t quote a few lines of Ovid without sprinkling howlers in….  It’s vastum, not longum….  Terra tribus scopulis vastum procurrit“… It’s alto, not coelo  Uvidus ex alto desilientis…”  How could Ovid have written ex coelo?  The “c” after the “x” sets your teeth on edge.” 

Adelaide Clemens as Miss Wannop and Benedict Cumberbatch as Tietjens in “Parade’s End”

Tietjens’ world is peopled by characters who know poetry.  In the second novel, No More Parades, Tietjens is an officer in the army, but even when he  has just been splattered by the blood of a man blown up by a bomb, he finds an opportunity to write a sonnet.  While scribbling some paper work for men who are about to go to the front, he declares he will write a sonnet in under two and a half minutes if Captain Mackenzie provides him with end rhymes.  Captain Mackenzie agrees to do so, and adds, “If you do I’ll turn it into Latin hexameters in three.  In under three minutes.”

Just so you’ll know Tietjens has real problems, let me tell you that his wife Sylvia, a beautiful adulterous villain, hates him so much that she slanders him and ruins his reputation.  And it seems she won’t stop till she kills him.  You’ll never believe what she tells the colonel.

Parade’s End is one of the best books (well, quartets) I’ve ever read.