I am riding a wave of elation this afternoon because about half an hour ago, I finished Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging books I have read in a long time. I’m both relieved I finished it and very glad I persevered.
I first came across Parade’s End about a year ago when a television adaption of it had me gripped and I wrote about it briefly. Since then, the book has been on my bedside table ‘to read’ pile and I finally picked it up about a month ago. The first thing to say is that the chronology is very confusing. As a modernist book, Parade’s End contains many leaps in time, flash backs and streams of consciousness. I found that very difficult to follow at times and at first I struggled with it a lot. However, I took a conscious decision early on to not fight it, to let it wash over me and go with the flow. Although that meant that I certainly did not take everything in, it did leave me with a strong impression of the book nevertheless.
Not only does it contain many of the bon mots I admired in the television adaption, it also contains some of the most fascinating characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading about. Christopher Tietjens, a man from my own county, lives his life by a code of morals that are no longer relevant. However, as honour is of the utmost concern to an English gentleman, he continues to abide by them. I find this stoic, dogged eccentricity frustrating but completely admirable as well. Christopher’s morals sabotage his life and cause him a great deal of suffering. Whilst I don’t advocate unnecessary suffering, I do admire his stand-point as someone who believes in doing the right thing rather than the easy thing. I also found it interesting that, despite his frequent streams of consciousness particularly earlier in the book, Christopher keeps his distance from the reader. This is problematic in one way because it does make this book less successful – I am not entirely sure you end up really caring about any of these characters – but in another way, it is so beautifully truthful to Christopher’s privacy and stiff-upper lip that this was the only way it could be really. One of his best musings in my opinion was eighty-four pages in when he observes:
And Tietjens…fell to wondering why it was that humanity that was next to always agreeable in its units was, as a mass, a phenomenon so hideous. You look at a dozen men, each of them not by any means detestable and not uninteresting…you formed them into a Government or club and at once, with oppressions, inaccuracies, gossip, back-biting, lying, corruptions and vileness, you had the combination of a wolf, tiger, weasel and louse-covered ape that was human society.
Somewhat misanthropic but similar thoughts have crossed my mind before now I’ll admit when I have the misfortune to be stuck in a crowd.
Christopher’s wife, Sylvia, is one of the most odious characters you are ever likely to read about, but I did find her fascinating. A picture of a clever but insecure and bored woman is finely drawn and not always quite right, but it is compelling. The image of her throwing her food at Christopher in his best uniform just to try to provoke him is wonderful and the repetition of the scene from different points of view at different points in the narrative is also a clever touch. In comparison, the lovely Valentine Warner, whom Christopher falls for, seems a bit insipid. What is not insipid at all though is Christopher and Valentine’s slow burning love. It is very touching and all the false starts, unsaid words and longing on both sides are a masterpiece.
My overall impression of Parade’s End is of a difficult, long book that is a struggle at times but moments like the ones I’ve mentioned above reward perseverance. It isn’t for everyone but I’m very glad I took the trouble.