“…there are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them.” ~W.H. Auden
When I was in college, I had to make a choice one semester between taking Romantic Literature or Victorian Literature. Knowing just enough about everything to get myself into trouble, I chose to take Victorian Literature. Romantic poetry did not sound like something a Montana kid grown up on Hemingway would want to read. Only much later, years and states away, would I discover how wrong I was….
The Victorian sensibility that pervades Arnold and Browning – the interest in the ordinary and common day, the moral purposefulness, the unmooring clash with science, the search for the Victorian ideal – seemed cloyingly myopic and dark. I admired much but was never able to get my sea legs.
Years later on a whim, walking through a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I picked up a copy of Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. The big paperback caught my eye because of the size and the price, $1.00.
By then, I knew a little about Ford: his relationship with Conrad, his literary influence, his reputation for untruth (though hardly a vice in a writer), his bad relationship with Hemingway. I knew of, but had not read, The Good Soldier, his most celebrated and read work. I think, but cannot be sure, that I may have read by that time some of his literary reminiscences, which (whether “embellished” or not) remain in my mind some of the best of that genre ever written.
I put the book on a shelf and carried it for a few moves. Through years of reading the once neglected Romantics, through expanding my familiarity with Irish poetry beyond Yeats. [In those days, before kids and domestic distractions, I created, as I continue to do, my own courses of study but, of course, had much more time to concentrate and ruminate.] Finally, one dark winter day in my little studio on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul I picked up the big book and began to read.
Parades End has been called the last Victorian novel. And I suppose it is. So much that is Victorian is in this book, and yet… there is something of the lost generation in here also. It is in my mind a transitional novel, the last hurrah of the Victorian and a first tentative peek at the modern. Or more properly perhaps, the first description of the Modern by a Victorian: “No more hope, no more glory, not for the nation, not for the world I dare say, no more parades.”
Ford, always an admirer of Henry James, lived by the credo: why say it in 4 words when 24 will do better. His is the anti-Hemingway style. His sentences and paragraphs go on for pages… and yet, I found myself enthralled in the same way that James enthralls me. So exotic does their language usage seem that I feel I am reading another tongue altogether. A language at once more ornate and expressive and beautiful than I could even dare to imagine – the term baroque comes to mind (although unlike baroque music, James and Ford are almost always satisfying).
The four separate novels that make up Parade’s End (Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post) tell the story of Christopher Tietjens, a man struggling to survive personally and publicly. His wife is unfaithful to him, he is betrayed by friends and colleagues, and the modern, post-war world is changing everything he once thought he knew.
Those who have read The Good Soldier will recognize some familiar themes, but in Parade’ End will enjoy Ford at his most expansive. Why Ford has fallen so out of favor, and this novel in particular has been all but forgotten, is one of those peculiarities of taste and time.
Ford himself once said, “Only two classes of books are of universal appeal; the very best and the very worst.” It is certain that Parade’s End belongs in the former class. Certainly it will again be “rediscovered” by some generation of writers. It’s quality and execution demand it.