Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Man Could Stand Up

A Man Could Stand Up – Ford Madox Ford

This is the third novel in the Parade’s End tetralogy, which Anthony Burgess called “the finest novel about the First World War.” The title echoes a remark made by a squaddie (grunt) that once peace finally comes, a man could stand up on a hill without the risk of anybody taking shots at him.

The end of the war, however, finds our hero Christopher Tietjens in a bad way. He suffers from anxiety and obsessive guilt that he was responsible for a terrible wound sustained by his subaltern. This novel does not develop the plot laid out in the first two novels, except that Tietjens’ harpy of a wife Sylvia sells all his furniture and he returns from the war to an empty house.

But the writing is amazing for us readers who enjoy modernist prose. Ford uses challenging modernistic techniques such as time shifts and what he called “literary impressionism,” the reproduction of life as it is lived. For instance, the novel opens with protagonist and pacifist Valentine Wannop missing the Armistice signal because of a telephone call from her nemesis, the literary poser Edith Ethel:

She didn't even know whether what they had let off had been maroons or aircraft guns or sirens. It had happened — the noise, whatever it was — whilst she had been coming through the underground passage from the playground to the schoolroom to answer this wicked telephone. So she had not heard the sound. She had missed the sound for which the ears of a world had waited for years, for a generation. For an eternity. No sound. When she had left the playground there had been dead silence. All waiting: girls rubbing one ankle with the other rubber sole...

The theme Ford examines is that after the First World War, nothing is going to be same. Men will return from the war in pain:

Hitherto, [Valentine] had thought of the War as physical suffering only: now she saw it only as mental torture. Immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds. That remained. Men might stand up on hill, but the mental torture could not be expelled.

But the traditional authority of Late Victorian and Edwardian sages was undermined too: "No more respect! Was that to be a lasting effect of the cataclysm that had involved the world?”

And why not – a couple of royals are snuffed in a provincial town in the Balkans and millions have to die – like Valentine thinks, “Middle Class Morality? A pretty gory carnival that had been for the last four years!

To my mind, the Parade’s End tetralogy is well-worth reading. And re-reading.

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