2003-12-11: Parade’s End

Parade’s End (1924,1925,1926,1928)

by Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939)

This is one of Kenneth Rexroth’s recommendations, one of the few from the 20C. I am writing this before rereading Rexroth’s essay.

I found Parade’s End unsatisfying. The work is a trilogy, plus a fourth volume, demanded by his reading public to tie up loose ends (and provide a conventional happy ending).

The style is annoyingly complex, for my taste. Ford tells the story from the viewpoint of a half-dozen major characters, with full inner dialog, musing, reminiscence, and planning. The story jumps forward long periods, then relies on its characters to remember the events the reader has missed during the jump. Some events are recalled from multiple characters’ views. The story is of a marriage gone bad, and one of the partners finding his true love. The characters have personalities, attitudes, and belief systems that seem incomprehensible to an American of my age, though perhaps not to Rexroth. The emotional responses might be appropriate to the personalities as presented, but as they are so unlikely it is hard to really get involved with them.

To tell this story, Ford must have been a romantic, which I found surprising. I would have expected a more cynical attitude; perhaps an English cynic of that age expresses himself in a romantic way.

The story envelops the years of the Great War, and I thought Rexroth had referred to it as an anti-war work. Certainly war is not glorified, and the invidious working of the civilian government, and its devastating effect on the troops in the field, is portrayed as an evil phenomenon. However, I suspect Rexroth read some of his own antigovernment attitude into Ford’s work.

I’m afraid I couldn’t recommend the work to anyone else. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but it’s a big investment of effort (906 pages plus introduction). You must have a good reason to read this book. My reason was Rexroth’s recommendation.

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After rereading Rexroth’s essay, I have selected a few of his comments, beginning with his opening paragraph.

The great bulk of the world’s prose fiction, contemporary and past, does not wear well. Almost all of it is soon forgotten and of those books which survive the wear of time, only a few withstand the effects of time on the reader himself. Out of all the novels ever written there is only about a ten-foot shelf of books which can be read again and again in later life with thorough approval and with that necessary identification that Coleridge long ago called suspension of disbelief. It is not ideas or ideologies or dogmas that become unacceptable. Any cultivated person should be able to accept temporarily the cosmology and religion of Dante or Homer. The emotional attitudes and the responses to people or to the crises of life in most fiction come to seem childish as we ourselves experience the real thing. Books written far away and long ago in quite different cultures with different goods and goals in life, about people utterly unlike ourselves, may yet remain utterly convincing – The Tale of Genji, The Satyricon, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Burnt Njal, remain true to our understanding of the ways of man to man the more experienced we grow. Of only a few novels in the twentieth century is this true. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End is one of those books.

I suppose Rexroth would exclude me from the class of cultivated persons able to accept the cosmology of a great work. But in my view, the attitudes of the hero, his wife, his brother, and some of the minor characters amount to insanity. Perhaps insanity was behind their acquiescence to a social system that gave rise to the situations in which they found themselves, but I’d rather not expend the effort to internalize that cosmology. Perhaps I was expecting an antiwar novel for a late twentieth century mind, but I kept waiting for something that isn’t there. Rexroth had this to say about war.

Many critics down through the years have pointed out that almost all antiwar novels and movies are in fact prowar. Blood and mud and terror and rape and an all-pervading anxiety are precisely what is attractive about war–in the safety of fiction–to those who, in our overprotected lives, are suffering from tedium vitae and human self-alienation. In Parade’s End Ford makes war nasty, even to the most perverse and idle. There is not a great deal of mud, blood, tears, and death, but what there is is awful, and not just awful but hideously silly. No book has ever revealed more starkly the senselessness of the disasters of war, nor shown up, with sharper x-ray vision, under the torn flesh of war, the hidden, all-corrupting sickness of the vindictive world of peace-behind-the-lines. It is not the corporate evil, the profits of munitions makers, the struggles of statesmen, the ambitions of imperialists that Ford reveals at the root of war, but the petty, human, interpersonal evils of modern life, what once was called wickedness.

This is true, but makes up a very small part of the work. Though the hero volunteers (for insufficient reason), and later appears practically unaffected by the experience, Ford seems to assume that his readers take for granted the evils behind war (and maybe thay did). But if a work is to speak across the decades, it has to speak to people who don’t take such things for granted.

 

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