Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Man Could Stand Up-- by Ford Madox Ford

Coming into the square was like being suddenly dead, it was so silent and so still to one so lately jostled by the innumerable crowd and deafened by unceasing shouts. The shouting had continued for so long that it had assumed the appearance of being a solid and unvarying thing, like life. So the silence appeared like Death; and now she had death in her heart. She was going to confront a madman in a stripped house. And the empty house stood in an empty square all of whose houses were so eighteenth-century and silver grey and rigid and serene that they ought all to be empty too and contain dead, mad men. And was this the errand? For to-day when all the world was mad with joy? To become bear-ward to a man who had got rid of all his furniture and did not know the porter--mad without joy!

Three books and over 500 pages into the Parade's End (1 2) novels, we get out first glimpse of real combat. For Christopher Tietjens, it has been a steady spiral to the bottom, from a high-ranking government position to quartermaster to the front lines, rejected at each step of the way because those around him cannot bear his stoic goodness, which is increasingly an anachronism. At the front, Tietjens is mentally unraveling:

It was like being a dwarf at a conversation, a conflict--of mastodons. There was so much noise it seemed to grow dark. It was a mental darkness. You could not think. A Dark Age! The earth moved.

Ford's dexterity as a novelist continues to amaze me. There is so much packed in here--the literal darkness of the world, which is at that moment being bombed, the "mental darkness" which is also the darkness, like the Dark Age, of human civilization. The cunning em-dash, which somehow expresses perfectly the stumbling gait of Tietjens' (once nimble) mind. The absurd matter-of-fact statement, "The earth moved."

Tietjens' middle portion is bookended by two sections dominated by his unspoken love object, Valentine Wannop, on Armistice Day. Valentine's excitement over the end of the war is tempered by the return of Tietjens, whom she loves, but has reportedly gone mad:

What was the coming together that was offered her? Nothing, on the face of it, but being dragged again into that man's intolerable worries as unfortunate machinists are dragged into wheels by belts -- and all the flesh torn off their bones! Upon her word that had been her first thought. She was afraid, afraid, afraid! She suddenly appreciated the advantages of nunlike seclusion. Besides she wanted to be bashing policemen with bladders in celebration of Eleven Eleven!

What is it, I found myself wondering, that makes the Tietjens and Valentine of A Man Could Stand Up-- different from those of Some Do Not...? I think we are rightly meant to respect their decision not to become lovers in that first novel, a decision which they reverse toward the end of this book. It is partly excused, I think, by the sense that Sylvia has abandoned Tietjens (though this is not explicit, her absence is peculiar). And also that both have simply earned their rest and companionship; Tietjens for his suffering, and Valentine for her willingness to become Tietjens' nursemaid if he turns out to truly be mad. (As John Dowell does for Nancy Rufford in The Good Soldier.)

Happily, this is not the case. I am struck by the strange optimism of A Man Could Stand Up--. There is the strong suggestion that Tietjens and Valentine come out on the other side of WWI better than they entered; not that something irrevocable has been lost or the world has been disfigured, as Modernist literature commonly regards the war, but that life can be instead rebuilt. I think Ford draws a sharp line between social consequences and personal ones, and notes that the couple's happiness can really only be found apart from the culture of war and spiritual emptiness:

A man could now stand up on a hill, so he and she could surely get into some hole together!

This is the third of the four Parade's End novels; I know that the fourth is a horse of a different color. A Man Could Stand Up-- carries a sense of closure, and so I feel comfortable calling it--gasp--a "happy ending."

No comments: