Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some Do Not... by Ford Madox Ford

The gods to each ascribe a differing lot:
Some enter at the portal. Some do not!

It is the eve of World War I, and Christopher Tietjens is the "last English Tory"--a title with all sorts of political connotations that are mostly lost on me. But, apparently, it means that he holds sentiments like this:

This, Tietjens thought, is England! A man and a maid walk through Kentish grass fields: the grass ripe for the scythe. The man honourable, clean, upright; the maid virtuous, clean, vigorous; he of good birth; she of birth quite as good; each filled with a too good breakfast that each could yet capably digest.

Among other things he is a mathematical genius, working for the British government, and a cuckold. When the novel opens, Tietjens has been abandoned by his wife, Sylvia, who has run off to a German health resort with her lover. (In Ford, it seems, German health resorts are where you go to commit adultery.) Tietjens will not divorce Sylvia, because "no one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce," though he has cause, and she tortures him incessantly:

He felt a great deal of pain, over which there presided the tall, eel-skin, blonde figure of his wife...

Sylvia claims to hate her husband; calls him "the Ox;" at one point she yells "I'm bored!" and throws her breakfast at him. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, and Tietjens is savaged by the probability that their child together is probably not his own. And yet his sense of honor and duty prevails over his own misery.

His true affections lie with Valentine Wannop--the maid walking through Kentish grass above--a young suffragette and household servant who is devoted to her mother, a famous but impoverished novelist. Valentine is the opposite of Sylvia: deeply principled, humble in poverty, despising of cruelty. Tietjens muses himself on the difference between them:

If you wanted something killed you'd go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion, hope, ideal; kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you'd go to Valentine: she'd find something to do for it... The two types of mind: remorseless enemy, sure screen, dagger... sheath!

Tietjens and Valentine become close after he rescues her from an abortive (and very strange) demonstration for women's suffrage at a golf course. Though they have never met before that moment, insinuations that she is Tietjens' mistress are generated on the spot. These accusations dog Tietjens and Valentine throughout the novel, though the relationship is never consummated. In fact, this is is a reoccurring irony: though Tietjens acts with the utmost integrity, his reputation is ruined by accusations of adultery with multiple women, of fathering children out of wedlock, even of being a French spy! His sense of honor, however, limits his willingness to defend himself. In a way, he is the mirror image of The Good Soldier's Edward Ashburnham, whose uprightness masks deep character flaws.

The epigram "Some do... some do not..." appears throughout the novel, in differing contexts. Tietjens and Valentine, by their self-denial, are those who "do not," and as such are set apart from the rest of the characters, all of whom "do": commit character assassination, make moral compromise, and generally pursue self-aggrandizement. Their love resounds in a lower, quieter register:

On the surface the story of her love for Tietjens had been static enough. It had begun in nothing and in nothing it had ended. But, deep down in her being--ah! it had progressed enough.

I love this; it is the appeal of those who "do not": Tietjens and Valentine's romance is a communion of spirits, not a summary of actions or appearances, and needs no outward expression to be validated. Wouldn't it be wonderful to say that, when you meet the one you love, that:

Words passed, but words could no more prove an established innocence than words can enhance a love that exists. He might as well have recited the names of railway stations.

I loved The Good Soldier, but what minimal amount of true love exists in that novel is the source of endless anguish. Mostly, it is bereft of love. Some Do Not... shares similarities of time, place, and theme, but in it, true love is unassailable.

If it is a love story, it is also a war story--split in two, the second half takes place after Tietjens has returned from the front lines of World War I, where he has experienced a shell shock that has blunted his brilliance and clouded his thoughts. The novel ends just before (and the next in the series picks up, I think, just after) Tietjens is about to ship out again. But the war somehow always seems secondary, either to the love story or the sexual warfare between Tietjens and Sylvia. We are not permitted, in this novel at least, to see Tietjens at war; far more important are the effects of the war back home. In fact, the novel comprises only a handful of long set pieces, through which Ford carefully weaves flashbacks and a surprising amount of stream-of-consciousness.

If one of the measures of a great book is that it seems impossible to do justice to in a review like this one, then Some Do Not... is a masterpiece. Like The Good Soldier, its simple structure belies endless complexities, and it constantly forces the reader to reconsider earlier events and characterizations. And there are three more books to go!


Sam said...

Wonderful review. I look forward to reading more of these.

Christopher said...

Thanks Sam! Book III coming soon.

Brian Rose said...

Difficult to believe we both read the same book. I am still working my way through it due to a sense of duty (almost finished). This is an Author who wants to bludgeon the reader with his erudition. An example: I believe he uses the word "contestation" several times (correct my spelling if need be, can't be arsed to find the word in the book). Now from context I think he means to say "thoughts", or "ruminations", or "deliberations", all adequate, known, words. Instead he uses something obscure - "if you don't know this word you are not as educated as me".

To understand the book you also need to be aware that " Ford Madox Ford's" father was German, hence the pathetic attempts to deny his owm Germanity. He changed his name from something like Hueffer. Returning to the book/series rather than the man: Even the characters in a Jane Austen novel are more understandable, warmer and believable. I fail to understand the motivations of the main characters. I think the kindest thing I can say is that this book that it is a parody of itself. Don't let any one tell you this is "Great Literature". Sad, I like a good book; I need to say that I'm Oxford Graduate by the way in case I appear anti-intellectual.

Christopher said...

Sorry you didn't enjoy it, Brian. I'll agree that it's not the book for you if you're looking for warm characters. But I don't think cherry-picking one word proves that Ford is being a pedantic. In fact, I think "contestation" is pretty clear for what it is, a verb form of the word "contest," like argue or deliberate.

I do find the book complex, almost to a fault. But I think it's a complexity that's true to complexity of human thought. In that way I find the characters both understandable and believable.

Brian Rose said...


To be fair to Mr.Ford I plowed thru all 3 books in the series ( or maybe it was 4). The writing did not improve. The "cherry-picking" comment is a bit unfair. I was not trying to prove Ford is/was a pedant, only that his choice of words is unecessarily erudite, and only serves to alienate the general reader. A valid maxim of good, clear written English is :"use simple words where they convey the intended meaning, use rare and complex words only when you have to". To me Ford's word usage is an exercise in blugeoning the reader with his erudition. Contestation was only one of the words I could have chosen to illustrate the point. I have the Australian Oxford Dictionary in front of me (all 949 pages of it), there is "contest", but no "contestation" listed. I agree with you "deliberations" is a simpler clearer word to use. Some books do not outlive their time, I'm afraid this is one of them. Glad you enjoyed it though!