This is a big book, a big modernist quartet of four texts that were once considered separate novels (Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up–, and The Last Post) and are now [mostly] published together as one text: Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford.
Ford is a writer whose work I’ve never read before (despite his important position in the modernist circles of London, Paris and elsewhere in the first few decades of the twentieth century) and I’m glad I finally have. Parade’s End is a huge, dense, small print, 836-page modernist tome, but it’s a glorious, impressive and important read.
Ford Madox Ford (originally named Ford Hermann Hueffer but he name-changed to sound less German) wrote collaborative novels with Joseph Conrad, he wrote a once-acclaimed trilogy about Henry VIII (which I’d never heard of before reading Julian Barnes’ introduction to this book), he wrote the well-known war book The Good Soldier, and he wrote this massive thing. Did he write much else? Yes, he was prolific, he was also an editor and advocate of numerous other writers who would go on to be majorly canonical. Ford was Important.
Ford is someone whose name is known and who wrote a handful of famous books, but he isn’t someone who’s widely read. While reading this, for example, my lover asked if I’d seen the BBC adaptation of it, which I hadn’t known existed. Ford and his books are even MORE famous than I’d thought.
I studied lots of modernism at university (and have read lots in the decade since) but never Ford, and having had several conversations about him over the 10-14 days it took me to read this, I don’t think I’m alone in that situation. Ford Madox Ford is a “famous writer” who is famous AS a famous writer, rather than as a writer who lots of people read. This is somehow both – in my opinion – quite sad but also quite impressive.
Ford has the reputation of being “difficult” and I think that is, in relation to Parade’s End, both unfair and not. It took me a few days to get used to his style, but once I did I raced through the rest. There are numerous, very modernist, shifts between close third-person perspectives that can sometimes be hard to keep up with. These shifts of consciousness sometimes happen in the middle of a conversation, sometimes only for a short paragraph or a couple of sentences in a chapter otherwise entirely focused on another character.
Initially, I found this jarring, but after one or two hundred pages, I became comfortable navigating the movements, minds and mentalities of Ford’s novel and accepting that any ambiguity was likely deliberate. A lack of clarity is thematically important to Parade’s End, for it is about psychology, repression, mortality, regret, shame and pride. It is about the first world war.
Although initially Parade’s End seems like it will focus on Christopher Tietjens (a poshboy civil servant who becomes an officer), the book expands to be a truly ensemble work as it goes on. By the end, Ford has sited his narratorial voice just outside the consciousnesses of maybe thirty plus people: recurring are Christopher and his brother, the wives and lovers of both these men, their friends, their rivals, people from across the social scale who they interact with (and lots of working class voices during wartime). Though the use of phonetic speech for non-RP characters feels a tad patronising, the ways in which Ford humanises and dramatises these individuals is much more subtle and true than a classist literary device of the time might imply.
It is very long, but it’s thoroughly engaging, and the way in which the ensemble pushes different characters to and from the centre is often surprising and as such quite satisfying. Christopher Tietjens – the ostensible protagonist – doesn’t appear in the final volume of the novel until its penultimate page, and though this may feel literarily strange, it is appropriate to this text which is all about the collapse of society as a result of all the war and death and (physical and psychological) maiming of those who survive it.
It’s a novel about the erosion of traditional, conservative, modes of living and thought, about the changing of laws and taboos related to sex and marriage, about the erosion of privilege and the expansion of education, opportunity and healthcare to parts of the population who would never have had these before. It is about war as waste, about withdrawal, about the damaging effects of repression and about the possibility for happiness that can be found in romantic love slash domesticity.
It is also, too, about the ambiguous opinions of the aristocracy about the changes wrought by industrialisation and the knock-on effects that had. It was written across the 1920s, when Ford was in his fifties, and it’s a complex, articulate, moving and thoughtful text.
Modernism is a style of literature that – as any quick glance through my blog will show you – I return to with a near-masochistic frequency. I do so because when it works – when this style and its thought-laden writing works – I think there is nothing better. I think when the style of writing matches the topic in question it can produce glorious, essential writing. I mean by this the best ofVirginia Woolf, I mean Under the Volcano, and I mean the bits ofJames Joyce that make sense. Thoughtful exploration of thought works when it is about fucked-uped-ness, and as Parade’s End is about society being torn apart by the trenches (and the other factors that led to it), it makes sense for the text to be discursive, digressive, sometimes confusing but tightly loose: likewise, Mrs Dalloway works for the same reasons because it, too, is about societal collapse and the damage to the social fabric wrought by changes in political representation, by improvements in education and healthcare etc, and Under the Volcano works as a high/late modernist masterpiece because its obtuseness is there because the writing is about psychological unravelling, it contains a protagonist who has sunk and spun within himself and his ability to express himself to others and himself is thwarted by his alcohol-fuelled psychological collapse. This is why I find a lot of James Joyce fucking pointless: he sets his writing before the war, and it is often about people who are (mostly) fine it seeks to evoke the psychology of erudition, which is not something expressed messily. When Joyce works [imo] it is when he uses his modernistic flare to describe the significance of the mundane: the thoughts of Molly Bloom in that final, incredible, last chapter of Ulysses, but so too is that book impressive when it explores its other characters thoughts when they are at their most extreme. Modernism is a form of literary extremism: by demanding attention be paid to subtlety, by decrying the importance of every sentence, every phrase, every word, modernism demands a reader treat the text as sacred: modernist texts require and demand attention, they claim they deserve it and it is owed to them: one doesn’t write something that is (to varying extents) “difficult” to read without the belief that said difficulty is “worthwhile” for at least one potential fantasy reader. Who is that reader? I don’t know. Who is the reader I’m thinking of when I write this blog, I sometimes wonder. Sometimes it is just me, in a few years’ time; sometimes it is writers whose work I enjoy who I know read this; sometimes it is my lover; sometimes it is my lover’s family, who I know are aware this exists, and sometimes it is my own family and friends who are now an ocean away, but mainly, yes, I’m writing for myself. What I’ve done here, actually, is made myself realise that James Joyce was maybe not arrogant, just self-involved. Actually, no, I don’t think that’s true: this blog isn’t a book, and nor would it make sense if presented as a novel but the real difference between me and James Joyce is that – though I’ll happily take donations via the paypal link at the bottom of each post – I don’t refuse to do degrading work (and the work I habitually do is degrading) with the expectation that literary types or the arts budgets of various governments should be paying my rent or whatever.
Sorry, this is rambling, confusing. I’m pretty depressed at the moment: the summer is ending and I’m having nasty flashbacks to the previous Winter I spent in Canada and I’m not certain I want to make it to December to live within it. Still, I’ve been getting a few poems published recently and-
I need to walk Cubby then go and do some more demeaning work. I need a proper job. I need something in the future to look forward to. I have a lot of great books to read. But is that enough? Maybe it is enough. It will have to be enough, for now. I booked a course of Spanish classes, I ordered a midi keyboard so I can try and bully myself into doing Solid Bald live. I am trying to fake optimism. I’m not optimistic.
Scott Manley Hadley was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2019.
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