Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's SOME DO NOT

The first volume of Ford Madox Ford's brilliant tetrology later called Parade's End*, Some Do Not is the story of a deeply rational man living in deeply irrational times and the consequences of his irrational clinging to outmoded standards for proper conduct far more than it is, as generally marketed, that of a love triangle.**

Christopher Tietjens, youngest son of "the" Tietjens, a family who originally came over with William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution, is an unprepossessing figure of a man, fair, doughy, of a "good old family" but otherwise of no real consequence except for that some freak of heredity has left him a mathematical genius. As the novel opens, he is wrestling with the issue of whether it would be correct of him to accede to fudging some numbers for the government that employs him to be a brilliant but pliable mathematician. Which "Chrissie" is not, even when it is in his very best interests possible to be so.

For this is also a guy married to a seriously beautiful woman, the gorgeous and careless Sylvia, who was already pregnant when she jumped his bones in a railway carriage and thereby convinced him to throw in his lot with her for good or ill. When a child is born not quite enough months after the wedding, he claims it anyway and fiercely refuses to care that it might not be his, because that is not rational and it would create unseemly drama were he to do otherwise (and, actually, he loves the boy). Avoiding drama is his highest priority, making him a deeply relate-able figure for this reader.

And so later on when a bored Sylvia, who would, thank you very much, have preferred a row over the child's parentage as a sign that the man she married actually gave a damn about her and their life together, not only cuckholds him but runs off to France with a guy, he is so drama- and gossip-phobic that he lets it be generally believed that he is the cheater and Sylvia recovering from her being so very ill-used on the Continent. Better, he reasons, that the Public thinks him as just another philandering jerk like all the other philandering jerks out there, than for that same Public to regard his wife as a whore.

This pattern of behavior is very much his stock-in-trade, even though it never comes out well (his careless generosity with his inheritance, for example, earns him far more hatred than gratitude; far better, it would seem, if he'd just blown it on whores and coke women and the ponies like a proper entitled douchebalrog). The seeds thus planted bear wicked mutant fruit and flower; once the Public thinks of him as just another philandering idiot, everybody's ready to believe the worst of him in every encounter. Whether it's being caught comforting his best friend's mistress in a train cabin not unlike the one in which Sylvia thrust herself into his life, or driving a young woman home through the fog and having their horse and cart smashed up by an idiot in a motorcar, circumstances always conspire to make Chrissie look like a jackass.

All of this would be drama -- and comedy, for sometimes the piling on of woes and misunderstandings evokes the work of P.G. Wodehouse -- enough, but there's oh so much more going on. Such as the young woman he was driving home when her horse got nearly killed by a car, one Valentine Wannop, whose name gossip has linked with Chrissie's already because Chrissie's father was close friends with Valentine's and has basically supported Valentine and her novelist mother since Professor Wannop died (so naturally some of the gossip is that Valentine could be Chrissie's half-sister). The plot here reminds me a lot of that of Robertson Davies' Leaven of Malice, in which false and malicious rumors of a young woman's engagement have similar results; towards the end of Some Do Not Valentine compares their situation to having been caught in a vice and forced together. It's an apt comparison. But there is, apparently one thing you must never, ever put in a trap vice, and that is Christopher Tietjens, a Good Soldier even before he becomes one.

Where Some Do Not excels the most is in its little scenes -- conversations between Chrissie and Sylvia (who actually is in love with her husband), exquisitely uncomfortable breakfast parties, slow and thoughtful interludes in mid-golf game, philological arguments in a horse-drawn cart -- where the dialogue only tells a tiny bit of what is going on. The plot developments are extraordinarily subtle, revolving around things like bounced checks and the way Sylvia does or does not walk into a room.*** And the simple, ordinary prose style is glorious; if Ford Madox Ford isn't one of your literary heroes, it's gotta just be because you haven't read him.

I haven't even come to the fascinating sub-plots: the stories of Chrissie's best friend and semi-toady MacMaster and Mr. and Mrs. Duchemin; the faint background struggles over the inheritance of the Tietjens' estate since a combination of death and desultoriness bump Chrissie from youngest son to heir (once his father has died) and thus render his own-not-his-own son the heir's heir even though he's not really a Tietjens -- and a Roman Catholic to boot, like his mama, and like the original owners of the Tietjens' estate of Groby before the Glorious Revolution led to some good Protestant Dutchmen taking over the place; Sylvia's own entire life apart from her husband. Trust me: it's all fantastic, though.

Oh, and then there's the Great War.

World War I is really just a backdrop for this first novel in the quartet, but what little of it there is, explodes the plot to an extraordinary degree: Some Do Not and, presumably, its sequels, may call it "shell shock" as that was the contemporary term but what is really being dealt with is, not post-traumatic stress disorder, but traumatic brain injury, giving the whole work a chilling present-day resonance that makes me think Parade's End might be a wonderful candidate for another modern high school update the way Emma became Clueless and The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. Say, high school and the years right after, to accommodate Chrissie's going to war.

Which is to say that this book, these books, are truly timeless.

And they're on all those best ___ novels of ____ period or category or whatever for a reason.

*Yes, yes, recently adapted as a television miniseries by HBO, but I found said adaptation a disappointment about which I decline to speak further.

**Which the fact that this very phrase makes me vomit in my mind and yet I love this book to pieces should tell you something right there about marketing and how people who have only skimmed a book cock up trying to describe it to others. Hurl.

***And while we're on the subject of Sylvia, whom I suspect was maybe sort of intended as the villain of the piece but is actually the character who most captured my sympathies, Ford Madox Ford writes women extraordinarily well. By the middle of the novel, the reader understands perfectly everything that Sylvia does and feels she might have done much the same; by novel's end Valentine has gone from annoying diversion with LOVE INTEREST in neon over her head to a person whose struggles feel as real and well-realized as any heroine's ever have.

1 comment:

  1. Parade's End is my favorite. It really is so complex and wonderfully written. Great explanation of the novel. :)


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