Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford.

Parade's End is a book I've been meaning to read since 12th October 2012 when Charlotte (of Charlotte Reads Classics) wrote a very intriguing blog post about the book - The Death of the Country Gentlemen. She wrote,
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford was the most difficult book I have read in ages. Worthy, beautiful, atmospheric, a document of history – yes, but don’t forget confusing, lengthy and misleading. Now that I have finished reading it, I can look back and think about how good it was – something I definitely couldn’t envisage in the last few weeks of reading.
I bought it fairly soon after her post, but it's taken me until 2015 to read. It's not that I didn't want to read it sooner - I did, and since I read her post it's always been a book I've had at the back of my mind: every time I failed to finish it I always regretted putting it back. And then there was the Ford Curse: I swear, every time I read the first page something always interrupted me. A phone call, a noisy hen, the realisation that it was later than I thought. I've read that page more times than any other page ever written! But in February I kept seeing people mentioning it here and there and I thought I must get to it. So, this was my third true attempt (forgetting the multiple cursed attempts) and I did it, and I loved it, and I was confused by it.

Parade's End is a tetralogy and consists of Some Do Not... (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up — (1926) and Last Post (1928). The author - Ford Madox Ford, who was born Ford Hermann Hueffer; a novelist, poet, and editor of The English Review and The Transatlantic Review. Apart from Parade's End he wrote a biography of his grandfather, the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown (Ford Madox Brown : A Record of his Life and Work, 1896), The Good Soldier (1915), The Fifth Queen trilogy (1906-08), and a great many other works aside from these. In July 1915 he enlisted and was sent to France, and it is these years that inspired the modernist novels of Parade's End.

Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford (centre), and James Joyce in Paris.
It is about the 'bridge' period as it were - from the Edwardian Age to World War I. It begins in 1912 with a train journey - Christopher Tietjens (the main character) and his friend Vincent Macmaster are travelling to Rye (East Sussex) for a golfing weekend. The first page (which, yes, I've read many times) captures the spirit of the middle class of this age so well -
Their class administered the world, not merely the newly created Imperial Department of Statistics under Sir Reginald Ingleby. If they saw a policeman misbehave, railway porters lack civility, an insufficiency of street lamps, defects in public services or in foreign countries, they saw to it, either with nonchalant Balliol voices, or with letters to the Times, asking in regretful indignation: "Has the British This or That come to this?"
Tietjens is a Tory, a Tory "of the extinct type", which presumably harks back to the actual Tories, as opposed to the modern Conservatives. His wife Sylvia is ruthless, unpleasant, cruel, but beautiful and desirable to men despite her myriad of faults. At the start of the novel she has left Christopher for her lover Major Perowne, but tiring of him, she agrees to return to her husband. Her selfishness, promiscuity, and disregard for tradition and moral values could embody the new age Britain was heading towards. Christopher, though exceptionally intelligent, barely embodied his own Edwardian age; his politics, he says, disappeared in the 18th Century, there is only one writer worth reading in his own time, he says, he does not read poetry save for Byron, and he believes Gilbert White (author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1789) was the last great English writer. And, despite not being certain if he is the father of Sylvia's child, and despite falling for Valentine Wannop, a suffragette and Sylvia's 'opposite', he unhappily stays with Sylvia.

Sylvia Tietjens played by Rebecca Hall in BBC 2's Parade's End (2012).
Malcolm Bradbury described Parade's End as "a central Modernist novel of the 1920s, in which it is exemplary". With Modernism comes, at times, some confusion - the time period flicks back and forth at times - and the stream-of-conscious passages. All that said, however difficult it may be at times, it is on the whole very readable, particularly Some Do Not... which I could not put down once I got into it. Sylvia is an absolute villain, the worst I've ever come across - never has there been such a character who somehow manages to live alongside others and appear, on the whole, fairly 'normal', yet is not so deep inside most evil. And though this novel is set during World War I, and though Tietjens' life as a soldier is described in depth, I can't properly define Parade's End as a war novel. It is, but there's too much more to it. It's about humans - a human response to war, change, each other, and characters within a relationship if that makes sense. At times it feels very much about a collection of individuals. It's about sex as well - Graham Greene wrote that Parade's End and The Good Soldier before it was our answer to Flaubert. Emotions run high and spill over to the point of hysteria at times, sometimes contrasted with the mores of the time, and sometimes reflecting situations - war and sex were, as Julian Barnes writes, " in the same business, two parts of the same pincer attack on the sanity of the individual."

It is an excellent series of novels, yet I fear it may take more than one reading to get to grips with them. I felt, as I often do with Modernist literature, thrown around a little. But at the same time I loved reading them. Ford invokes the spirit of this period so eloquently, yet when it comes to understanding events and characters, and their relationships, the task is far harder. Which is, of course, as it ought to be. A brilliant book: I'm glad I finally got to it.

******
Further Reading

Comments

  1. I've had this on my TBR for ages. I loved your review and it has encouraged me to keep it on my TBR for a bit longer. I feel like I need a stretch of time and quiet to immerse myself in the language and flow of Modernist novels. Thanks for reminding me that I have this to look forward to!

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    1. Yes, I think you have to be completely ready for Parade's End - not one to be read as a duty read :)

      Meanwhile, this and your posts have got me almost ready for the Forsyte Saga!

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  2. I am nearly encouraged to take on the 900+ pages, but I still have cold feet. Your posting makes a great case -- arguing for reading -- but the so-called "stream of consciousness" of the Modernist era can be a bit tiresome to my dimming mind; it was unique in its time but soon became cliché. For my money, if I want SOC, I think I'll stick with Virginia Woolf. Still, though, Ford beckons. Thanks!

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    1. Honestly, I do think SOC is done best by Woolf. Sometimes it is done to extremes, other times not so well, so for me I generally find it tiresome as well. Not with Woolf, though - reading her SOC is or feels entirely natural.

      Good luck when you get to Ford, I hope you enjoy it :)

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  3. I really enjoyed "The Good Soldier" but this beast of a novel (or anthology) intimidates me with its immense length. But if you, Grahame Greene and Julian Barnes seem to love it so much...I might have to check it out. Making no promises here but I've bumped it up the queue. :P

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    1. Excellent, look forward to your thoughts! Meanwhile I must get a copy of The Good Soldier :)

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  4. I've never read Ford Madox Ford but your post makes him sound intriguing. I've just recently started reading Faulkner and I find his stream of conscious writing interesting. I'll have to pick up something by Ford.

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    1. I struggled so much with Faulkner! I've read The Sound and the Fury - I'll have to try something else one of these days.

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