Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's A MAN COULD STAND UP

I read most of A Man Could Stand Up, the third volume of Ford Madox' Ford's Parade's End, on Armistice Day, which lent a certain extra poignancy to the central image evoked by the title, of a man being able safely to stand up to his full height, above ground, without worrying about thereby meeting instant and violent death. The experiences of trench warfare as evoked in the book's middle third reduce pretty much everybody there to longing for a world in which that simple act, which nearly everyone who has ever lived has probably never even thought about, so ordinary is it, would again be possible.

That the other two thirds of the book take place on Armistice Day itself, the very first one, was interesting too, in a way, but like those sections themselves that fact paled in comparison to the thought of thousands of Tommies dreaming of the day when they could stand up again.

In a similar way, the focus of Parade's End has also narrowed to something simple, elemental, and boring, its core as an (admittedly unconventional) love story. While the newly introduced and the already known subordinate characters -- the Head of the girls' school where Valentine Wannop has spent the war as a games mistress (aka gym teacher), the subalterns and brother officers and members of the battalion over which Christopher Tietjens assumes command -- are all fully realized and get their moments to shine, this book is really all about Valentine and Chrissie. This makes it a leaner and sharper (and yes, shorter) read than Some Do Not or No More Parades, but also, surprisingly for a story that contains all of the tension and drama and horror of the fighting in France during the Great War, rather a pallid one.

I attribute this mostly to its most glaring absence: Sylvia Tietjens. We do not know for certain that she has ceded the field to Valentine, but she is, at any rate, not on it at all; she is barely even mentioned except in passing. We feel her most strongly in another absence: all of the furniture is gone from the flat she shared with Chrissie in London, a plot point on which a lot of Valentine's story turns as Lady MacMaster, once Valentine's close friend but now "siding" with Sylvia out of hatred for the man who kept her husband financially afloat and supplied the idea that got MacMaster his knighthood (it has been observed before that sometimes there is no more hateful figure in one's life than one's benefactor) seizes on it as a way, perhaps, to manipulate Chrissie via Valentine into forgetting that MacMaster owes him pretty much everything. Look at to what a sad state of affairs Chrissie has come home, Lady MacMaster says, none too subtly hinting that Valentine owes it to everyone to be his reward. Ugly stuff, this.

But of course, Valentine doesn't care about the ugliness, even though the possibility looms that the gossip that this news has started could cost her her job. Though there has been no contact at all between Valentine and Chrissie since he returned to France at the end of Some Do Not, though they've never spoken of feelings for each other and have barely even admitted to themselves that they even have feelings, Valentine's thoughts go immediately to the notion that she shall live with Chrissie now that the war is over.*

That Chrissie's thoughts have gone in much the same direction is pretty much just conveniently coincidental. These are neither of them people who air out their feelings to their closest chums or analyze them or think about romance at all; indeed, the way in which they are actually very well matched is that both cherish an idea about couplehood that is very much outside the norm: that domestic and (presumably) sexual intimacy is merely the means to the end of getting to talk to each other whenever they want, to have the kind of long and deeply involved conversations that are impossible to have in public, where any old idiotic acquaintance can interrupt them, where any old busybody can half overhear and misinterpret and blow into a scandal or a misunderstanding with ridiculous consequences (as is pretty much the very nature of the overall story of Parade's End!), where closing time or the end of a party or a car crashing into the horse pulling their cart can put a premature end to things.

Of course, Sylvia might very much have liked to have that, too. As we learned in No More Parades, Chrissie is the only man she's ever talked to who didn't bore her to death. And he was hers by law. But she'd gone about accomplishing this all wrong: Chrissie was probably the only man left in England for whom the first move of jumping his bones in a railway carriage was the worst way to begin the relationship. Had she let her brains show first instead -- and Sylvia, though perhaps not a great Latinist, is no dumb blonde -- she might have gotten all she could wish for. But how was she to know that, in Edwardian England?

Yeah, I'm still Team Sylvia, even though I also find myself kind of happy for Valentine as she stands shyly next to her man, holding his hand for the first time as he toasts the very first Eleven Eleven toast with his army buddies. I missed Mrs. Tietjens terribly, this novel, and hope against hope to see her again in the last volume, The Last Post.

Otherwise, I'm not sure there's any point to finishing this. Hmph.

*Though she does entertain some thoughts against making a move toward him, and they're very good thoughts:  "What was the coming together that was offered her? Nothing... but being dragged again into that man's intolerable worries as machinists are dragged into wheels by belts..." I read that and punched the air, but alas, Valentine gave herself very good advice and didn't follow it. Le sigh.

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