Monday, May 04, 2015

Parade's End

Parade's End
Ford Madox Ford

World War I marked the end of an era in Europe and specifically in the UK.  It was the first modern war in which technology enabled mass slaughter and demonstrated the accelerating consequences of technological society for humanity and eventually the planet.  It was itself the tragic consequence of seemingly small decisions and events, of colossal illusions and ineptitude, and the resulting unintended consequences on an unprecedented scale.  The interconnected world of competing nations and alliances, along with ever more powerful and pervasive technologies, signaled a modern age of epic madness.

That's the standard view now, as proposed in Barbara Tuchman's influential history, The Guns of August published in 1962.  John F. Kennedy, the US President at the time of its publication,  gave copies of it as gifts to European leaders, and kept its lessons in mind as he maneuvered through the Cuban Missile Crisis that same year.

World War I as a cultural transition point is established in popular fictions as well, notably in The Shooting Party and other films, the BBC television epics Upstairs Downstairs and its recent and equally popular but better merchandised descendant, Dowton Abbey.  

But long before this--and even before the novel most associated with the Great War, Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front--Ford Madox Ford wrote three novels in quick succession set in the war years that illustrated these themes, and more.  A slightly later novel followed their characters into the postwar era.

These novels came and went.  Though literary icons like W.H. Auden and Graham Greene praised them highly, they were not popular, critical or academic successes.  All first published in the 1920s, they were not collected as a single work, Parade's End, until 1950 in the US, by Knopf.  I read the Knopf second edition of 1961, borrowed from a university library.

Then beginning in 2012 they reached probably their largest audience through a BBC miniseries (seen in the US on HBO in 2013), adapted by acclaimed British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.  Indeed, it was by way of the DVDs of this series that I first knew anything more of this work other than its evocative title.

After viewing this excellent series I read the 836 page work.  Along the way I noted the differences and similarities to the miniseries.  Some (but impressively little) has been simplified.  The central character, Christopher Tietgens, has one older brother in the series.  In the novel he has several, and an older sister, who are never seen and who die in the war, with little difference in the plot but some in the nature of his character.  Stoppard stops the story at the end of the third novel (he regards the fourth as a coda.)  There are other small differences, but I was aware of how skillfully he told the story and took the best bits from disparate monologues for his dialogue.  It is an excellent adaptation.

Similarly Benedict Cumberbatch evokes the character of Tietgens (apparently based partly on someone Ford knew well and partly on himself), even trying mightily to suggest the character's physical size and awkwardness that he doesn't share.  Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia, a singular character in modern literature for her "joyful hatred," matches the book's character physically in a revelatory way, as well as providing an indelible portrait.  They work so well together that the effect does bring to life at least the outlines of the complex relationship the books render.

But reading these pages was a rewarding experience in itself.  Julian Barnes provides an excellent essay-review in the Guardian, so I don't need to add much.  The writing is astonishingly good.  There's much more on the war that may seem familiar now but was new then, and even today is so well expressed that it retains its value and its life.  There's some that goes against today's conventional wisdom as well (such as the efficacy of the newer technologies of killing.)

The central character of Christopher Tietgens is more amply and subtly rendered as well in the novel, as one would hope, that situates him in ways suggested (probably best to a British audience) in the TV version.  Tietgens as the last gentleman of the old school (though in a particular non-London way), an 18th century personality with rectitude and integrity, an "Anglican saint" is set against the frenzied selfishness, smallness of mind and heart of nearly the entire society.  Another theme is masculinity and maturity.  He is (even to his harpy wife) the lone grownup, the only man worth talking to.  But there's a certain "Bartleby, the Scrivener" quality to him, too.

His own sense of masculinity and worth is intriguing.  "The exact eye: exact observations; it was a man's work.  The only work for a man." [p127]  He values "accuracy of thought" [566] and in its lack he sees the corruption of England.

Ford was a contemporary (and acquaintance) of Hemingway, and apparently felt acutely the success of Hemingway's writing (including insulting portraits of Ford) over his own.  While A Farewell to Arms is a classic novel involving World War I, and Hemingway was as much formed by that war as any writer, it is basically about an individual confronted by events in his life as lived in those circumstances.  Its tragedy (and sentimentality) is personal, though the book by extension says much about modern society.

 Parade's End is also in its way a modern work. But Ford's scope was larger, and more detailed.   It seems to me that American novelists have lacked examples of fiction like Ford's to their detriment.  Certainly they can imply social meaning, as in the quintessential example of The Great Gatsby, which stands as the great American novel of the 20th century at least. But the scope and detail in Parade's End is mostly lacking from our literature, to the detriment of contemporary fiction, which sorely needs it. 

No comments: