Friday, 4 January 2013

1001 Books Review: Parade's End

Let's carry on the 2013 reviews by featuring something I actually read in 2012. I know, I've been lazy. But there is just so much to this book that I'm daunted by the thought of trying to sum it all up. Here goes.

Parade's End has recently been a TV show starring Benedict Cumberbatch and his strangely motionless face, but, before that, it was a novel by Ford Madox Ford. In fact, it is four novellas packed into one enormous 800 page tome. About the effect of World War I on England in general, and about one hidebound bastion of English maleness in particular, Parade's End is the story of how Christopher Tietjens learned to shut up and be unfaithful to his wife already.

Tietjens presents himself as the last outpost of true English values, which he sees as being located firmly in the eighteenth century. This is brilliant in ways that Ford probably couldn't even predict, since these days we think of English values being eternally Victorian (or even Edwardian) - proving, if any more proof were needed, how nostalgia is permanently jumping backwards to the year before, and the year before that, and so on for ever. I bet the first Homo sapiens got nostalgic about being Australopithicae.

Anyway, Tietjens has a sulky and unfaithful wife called Sylvia who sort of hates him and sort of loves him and LONGS to divorce him - but he won't, because he believes in keeping up appearances (also known as parades, you see. There are a lot of different parades in this novel). Then Tietjens falls in love with a youthful suffragette called Valentine Wannop (a glorious name) and dooms them, because of his refusal to divorce his wife, to years of sexless super-British yearning. And then along comes WW1.

None of their faces ever move.
I'd read some Ford before - The Good Soldier, coincidentally also about miserable early twentieth-century marriage - so I was sort of expecting a more protracted version of that. But not at all. The Good Soldier is an Edwardian novel, albeit one with its petticoats over its head, but Parade's End is a fully-fledged modernist text, slightly mad and stark and with lashings of disconnected stream-of-consciousness confusion. Almost the whole thing is told as a series of flashbacks, which is very disconcerting. A character sits staring at a pot of flowers for ten straight pages, thinking about elephants and metaphysics and breasts, and then suddenly it's five years later and we're in France and the same character is huddling under a shell bombardment that sounds like metaphysical elephants dropping pans on each other's breasts. Or something.

I'm being facetious - really, I enjoyed this book. Sylvia, especially, is an astonishing character. She's so bad, but you understand and empathise with every step of that badness and with every nutty action it drives her to carry out. It's also got a lot of very smart things to say about gossip and reputation. So much mud is flung at Tietjens and the other characters during the novel and (I think this is a brilliant touch) not a single one of those rumours is true. Everyone is better, and more boring, than they are painted. Even Tietjens' brother Mark, who lives in sin with his mistress, has been faithful to her for twenty years and comes home every evening to the meat and potatoes she has cooked for his supper.

For a book that seems like it might be full of reactionary muttering about how bad change is, I was quite delighted by how balanced Ford is about the way that life - and the world - is constantly moving on. Christopher needs the parades he's so obsessed with to be over so he can finally free himself from mad Sylvia. His brother Mark, heir to an ancestral title he doesn't want, needs the world to change so he's not forced to manage a huge estate that he hates. Those that don't or won't change die - no, literally, they die - and what's left are those who are willing to alter and compromise. Thank god, Parade's End is a nostalgic novel that's not sentimental.

There are a lot of lovely things about Parade's End.  The relationship between Tietjens and Valentine is wonderful - they fall in love by having an argument about Latin translations, and the main reason why Tietjens fights through the war to get back to her is because he wants to spend the rest of his life talking to her about interesting ideas. The book itself, for all its convolutions and modernist clever-clever, is beautifully written and the characters are sympathetically drawn. This is not a novel to pick up lightly - seriously, it's got a heft like a brick - but it is one that deserves to be given the time it takes to read it. And, having read it, I can endorse the amazing BBC TV series even more fully than I did before.

4 stars.

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