Friday, November 8, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's NO MORE PARADES

Where the Great War was just a trace element of Some Do Not, the first volume of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy, in the second, No More Parades, it's the main event, the setting. From its first pages we are plunged into the tumult and confusion of Christopher "Chrissie" Tietjen's efforts to get a brand new draft of over 2000 Canadian soldiers ready for their posting -- and they've turned up with their uniforms and nothing else. All part of a day's work for Chrissie, pulling tin hats and identification discs and soldiers' wills out of thin air all because some military bureaucrats back in Blighty are earning themselves knighthoods by cutting corners and saving the taxpayers' money.*

Interestingly, for the first several chapters of the novel I found a certain ambiguity as to where these events fit chronologically with those of Some Do Not. From that first novel, we know that Chrissie has gone to the Front at least twice: which time is being depicted here? The ambiguity adds an extra intensity to Chrissie's struggles to outfit soldiers, survive a German air attack, not think about his wife, Sylvia, or about "his girl" (who is not named for quite some time but whom we know is Valentine, but... does he know that? Has he sustained his traumatic brain injury and come through it or is that in his future?) and to write a sonnet in two and a half minutes.** Which his fellow captain is then to render as Latin hexameters in the same amount of time as a sort of friendly competition to divert them a bit from the pressure and the horror. Good God I love this book!

But mere scenes of war and chaos are never enough for writers like Ford Madox Ford, who (quite properly) cannot resist messing with things by introducing his other brilliantly vivid characters into the mix at the worst possible times for them to be introduced. Enter Sylvia Tietjens, beautiful and bored and cruel like a neglected cat, who as a high society beauty, a lady of fashion, a veritable queen in her own right, can pull all sorts of strings (an image that recurs towards the end of No More Parades when Chrissie phrases her actions in terms of her having "pulled the string of a shower-bath", meaning her thinks of them as pranks and nothing worse) and manages to barge in on Tietjen's commanding officer demanding to see her husband.

Oh, Sylvia! I feel for her even more after the second half of this novel, which is mostly told from her point of view. Her respect and admiration for Chrisse have only grown together with a strong sexual desire for him that makes her "tremble" and "vibrate" even when discussing him with the man she once eloped on him with (who is in every way Chrissie's inferior and who, we learned, bored Sylvia to tears almost before they made landfall in France back in 1912 in Some Do Not). Nothing she has managed to do from home seems to have gotten a rise out of her husband, so she'll do her best to achieve that in person, war and duty be damned. This is selfish of her, of course, but the reader has already decided that the surname "Tietjens" is probably the word for "the most stubborn person like ever" in some obscure dialect of medieval Dutch; Chrissie is stubborn in his clinging to his rationality and his outmoded ideals (he tells his C.O. at one point that he took all his public school education on morals and conduct seriously, never outgrew it, and seems to be the only member of his generation so afflicted); Chrissie's brother Mark was stubborn, last novel, in believing the worst of his little brother and in determining to bring Chrissie's imagined shortcomings to their father's attention whatever the cost, and, in this novel, in making all of that up to Chrissie in well-intentioned but unworkable ways that only wind up making things worse for Chrissie; Sylvia is only a Tietjens by marriage but is just as stubborn as the born Tietjens about how her marriage was supposed to be and how she must settle for nothing less than exactly what she wanted, which was a loving and passionate life-long twosome with the most brilliant and capable man she has ever known: her husband.

Sylvia's desires are natural and understandable; her "villainy" if such it must be called lies in her limitations: she is a wealthy, well-born Lady of Fashion; men fall at her feet; her job is simply to keep herself beautiful because her purpose in life is decorative, is as an object of desire. She's more than doing her job, but the rest of society is not living up to the bargain she has always understood to have been struck since someone first noticed she was pretty. The rapt adoration and constant attendance on her of her chosen consort is her due! But having never had to be anything but pretty and fashionable and socially adroit, she's never learned how to actually deserve said adoration and attendance. It's tragic, really.

As is the way things are left at novel's end, which leaves Chrissie with no choice but to go to the front and probably be killed. His marriage is his undoing in every way: the lies he allowed to be spread to protect Sylvia the consequences of her earliest tantrums, the malice and jealousy exercised upon him by her other admirers, and, yes, the feelings he's allowed himself to develop for "the girl" who is his true match -- feelings he's not acted upon, but is believed to have done so by everybody, including his wife, which is what set her on her trajectory to pull the string of the shower bath. Oh, if only what had doused Chrissie had really only been water!

*This puts the current war's ongoing controversy over body armor and lack of toiletries into a certain perspective, doesn't it? Except of course the modern counterparts to Tietjen's faceless adversaries don't get knighthoods; they just get to keep their jobs.

**Of course I love this bit above all others, though I find his methods differ strongly from my own. My own record for speed sonnetry before witnesses is two minutes and about ten seconds, on October 8, 2009 at Chicago's Argo Tea House. But I was among friends only and no one was bleeding out at the time.

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