Ford’s masterly story of destruction and regeneration follows the progress of Christopher Tietjens as his world is shattered by the Great War.
In four volumes (Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up— and The Last Post), Parade’s End traces the psychological damage inflicted by battle, the collapse of England’s secure Edwardian values and the new age, embodied by Tietjens’s beautiful, selfish wife, Sylvia. It is an elegy for the war dead and the passing of a way of life, and a work of amazing subtlety and profundity
I’ve deliberated extensively about how I want to do this review. I’ve decided to review as a whole rather than each book individually, as much of what I have to say would get repetitive over time.
I’d been really putting off the reading of this book, because it terrified me so badly. I felt like there was no way I was going too be smart enough to read it. I felt like I was going to get it all wrong, and everyone would discover that I’m some kind of fraud and kick me out of academia.
Well… none of those things happened. I’m actually not even using the book for my research anymore, so the whole pressure drama for me is entirely gone, so I’ve wasted a whole lot of angst over the whole deal. It happens!
Well… my reading experience ranged from:
To this, when I realised I actually understood what was going on (most of the time):
I did understand it! Even better, when I forgot that I was under pressure, I began to enjoy it enough to start getting enthusiastic about what was happening in the book, which was a little bit astounding!
I liked the character of Tietjens. I couldn’t help but feel vastly sorry for him, but also incredibly frustrated by his total inability to stand up for himself. Half of the series could have been avoided if he’d just told people that he didn’t do what they accused him of and that his wife was a raging sociopath!
Sylvia was one of the most detestable literary characters I’ve ever come across. Every time I thought she might be showing a redeeming feature, she did something even worse, so I couldn’t feel sorry for her or even begin to like her. As an antagonist, she’s great, but as a person? Avoid at all costs. I’m so glad I don’t know anyone half as nasty as her.
Valentine was a bit on the meh side, but I did love her relationship with Christopher. I felt that she read slightly older than her supposed age, which I actually preferred, as it made the age gap between them more palatable for me.
The various side characters, like Macmaster, General Campion, Mrs Wannop and Mrs Duchemin range from disgusting to amusing in fair turns. Sometimes they surprise you with an action that makes you want to jump into the book and punch them in the teeth. Other times you find them really hilarious. I suppose that’s what Ford was getting at- every human is so changeable: we have so many different sides depending on motive, perspective and situation.
“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 and first impressions act a little, but very little, before quick reflection.”
As for the writing style…. oh dear. I don’t even know where to begin.
It truly was one of the most challenging novels I’ve ever read. I’ve been reading a ton of Modernist literature recently, so I’m feeling really quite confident with their style, but this novel was hard going. I got through No More Parades in one 10 hour marathon session. It felt like I should have read triple the amount in that time, especially because I had no distractions at all and I’m a really fast reader.
The reason it took so long?
It’s SO damn dense. So dense. It’s like trying to swim through porridge.
That being said, I enjoyed that book the most out of the four. It had a far more coherent storyline for a longer period of time than the others did, and the things it was dealing with were far more interesting than Some Do Not…
If you’re wondering about the elipses in titles, it’s meant to be there. Ford is the absolute king of the elipses. I just went and performed a highly scientific experiment, by flipping to a random page and counting. I have 17 elipses on the two pages that make up a conversational paragraph. SEVENTEEN. Ford uses them to represent thought processes: the pauses between thoughts, the changing moment before the mind runs elsewhere, then snaps back to the original focus. It’s an interesting method, which does make sense once you get used to it, but won’t be many people’s cup of tea.
This is a fair example of how much it can be used, but it isn’t like this the whole way through.
“The room where they were dancing was very dark…. It was queer to be in his arms…. She had known better dancers…. He had looked ill…. Perhaps he was…. Oh, poor Valentine-Elisabeth…. What a funny position!…. The good gramophone played…. Destiny!…. You see, father! … In his arms! Of course, dancing is not really…. But so near the real thing! So near!… ‘Good luck to the special intention!…’ She had almost kissed him on the lips … All but!… Effleurer, the French call it…. But she was not as humble…. He had pressed her tighter…. All these months without…. My lord did me honour…. Good for Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre…. He knew she had almost kissed him on the lips…. And that his lips had almost responded…. The civilian, the novelist, had turned out the last light…. Tietjens said, ‘Hadn’t we better talk?…’ She said: ‘In my room, then! I’m dog-tired…. I haven’t slept for six nights…. In spite of drugs…’ He said: ‘Yes. Of course! Where else?….”
You can see the way Ford has arranged thought patterns and rendered them strangely coherent, yet at the same time very confusing. At this point in the book, Valentine is really confused, so the patterns become more disjointed to show this. The point of focus shifts around and around, sometimes in a whirl wind of words, that somehow make sense (or near sense, anyway). Ford throws the timeline of this novel in and out of the past, present and future, so there are points that you aren’t even entirely sure where in the timeline you are.
Each of the titles are worked more than once into their respective novels, which I think is a nice touch. I liked finding them, it became a bit of a game for me to count how many times I came across them!
If I didn’t have to read this, I would have likely just read up to No More Parades… and given up (and in fact, I did for a time). I think Ford faltered at that point, before finally careering to a halt. It doesn’t help that you get more Sylvia and less Christopher in A Man Could Stand Up-. This book is a weird, weird book and can really be taken in chunks, as long as you can keep all the facts straight in your head. There’s not a huge number of characters, but there’s an enormous amount of detail for all of them.
If you’d like to read it, I’d recommend beginning with Some Do Not, then moving on to No More Parades… and unless you’re really into it, stopping there. You’ve done enough at that point to pat yourself on the back. Then, you can go and watch the BBC production to find out what happens at the end, because I felt far more satisfied with watching it happen than reading it, which is a huge shame.
I can’t honestly say that I love this book. I can, however, say that I really respect what Ford was doing. I prefer his method of stream of consciousness to that of Woolf, but it took quite a while to get into it and it devolved a bit after he peaked in No More Parades.
If you’re interested in Modernist writing, like kooky war fiction, family sagas or the early 1900’s, do give this a try, but keep in mind that this is a challenging read. It repays the effort though, so don’t be too afraid to give it a shot. Even if you try the first two books, then move on, you’ll have achieved more than most people!