Book Review: Parade’s End

PARADES ENDParade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. First published as a series of books, Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up–, and The Last Post, in the 1920s. I read the Vintage edition of all four stories together, published in 1950/1978.

All authors have their overused words. For Rowling in the Potter series, it was “pant.” For Rowling later on, it was all about “thick legs.” For me, it seems to be “face” or “gaze.” For Tolstoy, it was “superfluous” (at least in translation). And for Ford, well, he has a number of them, which at times he is doing on purpose. The worst one, by far, is “lachrymose.” If I have to read “lachrymose” one more time…

This book is a tetralogy. Ford, in fact, never saw it as the omnibus Parade’s End, even though he suggested the title. However, when Graham Greene did a release of it many years ago, he left off the last book, saying that Ford himself wrote The Last Post superfluously (tee hee) and that he later regretted its inclusion. I was, therefore, torn between reading it as a trilogy or in its entirety. It helped that I had a terrible time getting through it at all. I left it at the trilogy. Many Parade fans would be appalled, for even though the last book is supposedly very different, it does have its proponents. Okay, I’ll admit, I skimmed it, and nothing called out to me.

This is another one of those books listed without fail in the top one hundred best books, wherever you might find that list. It has been called the greatest war novel(s) of all time, as well as the best of the 20th century. It does not have the large base of obsessive followers as many of the other chart-toppers (Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, Don Quixote, etc.), and it is clear why. It is a difficult read. Or, in the words of some article I read months ago and can not now find, it is a dying novel. Sure, it has themes and stories that could transcend, but its language and literary devices are wearing thin.

The writing style is somewhere between stream-of-consciousness and chunky time jumps (backwards and forwards). Ford’s writing is replete with repeated words and phrases, amazingly sustained run-on sentences, and ellipses. (If ellipses vex you, I beg you not to pick up this book.) Particular moments in time are relived again and again, the whole 730 dense pages adding up to maybe a total of ten actual scenes. Points are driven into the reader’s head until it’s simply buzzing. I believe all of this comes from the stream-of-consciousness thing, and it’s a style I have a very hard time enjoying. Perhaps it’s because I don’t think in meandering tirades of words. I think in pictures. Meandering, messy, repetitive tirades of words are tiresome to me.

And yet I can appreciate many things about this novel(s). You are really able to get in to a couple of the character’s heads. The characters, in general, are extremely finely drawn. So is leftover Victorian England. So is war, or at least WWI. You’ve got this great love triangle, and an exploration of fresh topics, like one’s upbringing and theories versus their passion and circumstances. And Sylivia? She’s just one big train wreck of a personality disorder, and I heartily enjoyed reading her on tenterhooks.

But I found myself wishing, very frequently, that Ford’s writing style had been very, very different. I appreciate his care and perspective; I can’t tolerate his voice. I want to play editor, and demand that he cut the whole thing by at least half, re-order it into sequential events, and flesh out a few of the supporting characters and subplots. Plus, give us more action! Then, I’m afraid, the whole thing would be dead, a mangled, lifeless thing, the harrowing tension gone. Which is what the book is, really: a very tight winding in the distinct voice of the times.

Not a re-read for me. Can’t say I regret having read it. It took me forever. If I was forced to choose one to re-read, it would definitely be A Man Could Stand Up–, which has some achingly beautiful language and moments.

__________

PARADES END MOVIEI had decided to move this book up on my queue when I saw that the new British TV series was written by Tom Stoppard. (For Stoppard reviews, see here and here.) Of course, Cumberbatch fever helped.

I ended up watching the whole five-part series while I was on a break from reading the novel, which has confused me considerably. From what I can recall, the series is a great representation of the novel(s). It has that sort of fractured, in-his-head, finely-drawn characters feel, and it covers just about all the scenes, at least in the middle two books. There were some plot changes that I am not sure about. It could have been that I misunderstood something. It could have been that not reading the last book put me at a disadvantage. It could have been Stoppard added things for translation into movie. Plus, for a book which gathers most of its sexual steam by being definitively demure, the series was a bit too overtly sexy for itself.

Otherwise, fans of British TV and/or Cumberbatch will be happy with this series. It is true, as has been widely said, that he does a great job acting, as does Rebecca Hall. I can imagine these were two of the most difficult characters to play, of all time, which may be why Parade’s End doesn’t seem to have hit the big or small screen until now. Beautiful cinematography, fun costumes. Enjoyable, at the very least, for anyone who tolerates period films.

__________

“…the oddnesses of friendships are a frequent guarantee of their lasting texture” (p5).

“Such calamities are the will of God. A gentleman accepts them” (p12).

“Disasters come to men through drink, gambling, and women” (p14).

“…you live beside a man and notice his changes very little” (p17).

“Damn it. What’s the sense of all these attempts to justify fornication?” (p18).

“It’s the tradition, so it’s right” (p18).

(About England:) “We’re always, as it were, committing adultery–like your fellow–with the name of Heaven on our lips” (p21).

“The gods to each ascribe a differing lot: / Some enter at the portal. Some do not!” (p24).

“But Sister Mary of the Cross at the convent had a maxim: ‘Wear velvet gloves in family life.’ We seem to be going at it with the gloves off” (p41).

“‘What’s to stop it?’ the priest asked. “‘What in the world but the grace of our blessed Lord, which he hasn’t got and doesn’t ask for?'” (p45).

“Cats and monkeys. Monkeys and cats. All humanity is there” (p85).

“‘It’s the person who does the thing he’s afraid of who’s the real hero, isn’t it?” (p88).

“I could harangue the whole crowd when I got them together. But speak to one man in cold blood I couldn’t'” (p89).

“In every man there are two minds that work side by side, the one checking the other; thus emotion stands against reason, intellect corrects passion…” (p93).

“Who knows what sins of his own are heavily punishable in the eyes of God, for God is just?” (p129).

“I shall write in my bedroom on my knee. I’m a woman and can. You’re a man and have to have a padded chair and sanctuary…” (p132).

“It was as if for a moment destiny, which usually let him creep past somehow, had looked at him” (p147).

“Obviously he might survive; but after that tremendous physical drilling what survived would not be himself, but a man with cleaned, sand-dried bones” (p200).

“If you hunch your shoulders too long against a storm your shoulders will grow bowed…” (p201).

“He considered that, with a third of his brain in action, he was over a match for Mark, but he was tired of discussions” (p216).

“This civilization had contrived a state of things in which leaves rotted by August. Well, it was doomed!” (p232).

“No! ‘Pasteurized’ was the word! Like dead milk. Robbed of their vitamins…” (p294).

“An enormous crashing sound said things of an intolerable intimacy to each of those men, and to all of them as a body” (p315).

“The distrust of the home Cabinet, felt by then by the greater part of that army, became like physical pain” (p320).

“‘If you let yourself go,’ Tietjens said, ‘you may let yourself go a tidy sight father than you want to'” (p325).

“He used the world hell as if he had first wrapped it in eau-de-Cologned cotton-wadding” (p348).

“‘Don’t think I’m insulting you. You appear to be a very decent fellow. But very decent fellows have gone absent'” (p364).

“The man looked you straight in the eyes. But a strong passion, like that for escape–or a girl–will give you control over the muscles” (p364).

“English people of good passion consider that the basis of all marital unions or disunions, is the maxim: No scenes” (p368).

“He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book” (p368).

“…she had seemed a mere white phosphorescence…” (p370).

“You cannot force your mind to a deliberate, consecutive recollection” (p371).

“My wife must have been more aware of my feelings for Miss Wannop than was I myself” (p373).

“Obviously he was not immune from the seven deadly sins” (p377).

“One reserved the right so to do and to take the consequences” (p377).

“That whole land was to be annihilated as a sacrifice to one vanity” (p386).

“The world was foundering” (p387).

“But it’s better to go to heaven with your skin shining and master of your limbs” (p390).

“…he might be just in time for the last train to the old heaven…” (p394).

“The French were as a rule more gloomy than men and women are expected to be” (p437).

“You cannot keep up fits of emotion by the hour” (p436).

“They wanted the war won by men who would at the end be either humiliated or dead. Or both. Except, naturally, their own cousins or fiancee’s relatives” (p533).

“…the telephone began, for Valentine, to assume an aspect that, years ago it had used to have–of being part of the supernatural paraphernalia of inscrutable Destiny” (p543).

“…flee away and eat pomegranates beside an infinite washtub of Reckitt’s blue” (p546).

“You had to keep them–the Girls, the Populace, everybody!–in hand now, for once you let go there was no knowing where They, like waters parted from the seas, mightn’t carry You” (p551).

“To save three thousand, two hundred pounds, not to mention interest–which was what Vincent owed him!–Edith Ethel with the sweetest possible smile would beg the pillows off a whole hospital ward full of dying …. She was quite right. She had to save her man. You go to any depths of ignominy to save your man” (p570).

“‘I didn’t consciously want to bother you but a spirit in my feel has made me who knows how …. That’s Shelley, isn’t it?” (p571).

“Then… What should keep them apart? …. Middle Class Morality? A pretty gory carnival that had been for the last four years!” (p576).

“If people wanted your to appreciate items of sledge-hammering news they should not use long sentences” (p578).

“Thoughts menaced him as clouds threaten the heads of mountains” (p588).

“Probably because they–the painters–drew from living models or had ideas as to the human form …. But these were not limbs, muscles, torsi. Collections of tubular shapes in field-grey or mud-colour they were. Chucked about by Almighty God? As if He had dropped them from on high to make them flatten into the earth” (p594).

“How the devil had that fellow managed to get smashed into that shape? It was improbable” (p597).

“In the trench you could see nothing and noise rushed like black angels gone mad; solid noise that swept you off your feet …. Swept your brain off its feet” (p602).

“You imagined that the heavenly powers in decency suspended their activities at such moments. But there was positively lightning. They didn’t!” (p603).

“It appeared to him queer that they should be behaving like that when you could hear… oh, say, the winds of the angel of death ….” (p622).

“But Great General Staff likes to exchange these witticisms in iron. And a little blood!” (p655).

 

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