Sunday, 30 September 2012

Some Do Not (Parade's End Bk 1) ~ by Ford Madox Ford

If the measure of a book is how easily it transports you to another place, then Ford Madox Ford's novel, 'Some Do Not', is certainly a masterpiece.  I pulled back the curtains this morning and was surprised to see that I wasn't living in England in 1914.  I am not sure what I expected to see, army trucks lined up, gas-lit street lights, horse-drawn cabs perhaps, but my heart sank with the reality of rainy, suburban Dublin.

It is impossible to wait until the end of this four-novel series to write a review of 'Parade's End', in its entirety, and so I will do a diary blog post as I finish each individual book, beginning with the first.

 I understand now why Madox Ford is described as a Modernist writer, his place well-secured in the company of Woolf, Joyce and Conrad.  The narrative hops from one character's mind to another, but in such a deliciously revealing way, that the reader cares little for chronology.  What does a time-line have to do with the true meaning of a story anyhow?

By using this fragmented narrative style, we can see a scene from various people's point of view, until, ultimately, we get a sense of the truth of the matter, the truth of the story.  Like the glimpses of Tietjens' reflection, broken into many tiny pieces as the light shines from the multi-panelled window frame, the narrative of 'Some Do Not', is broken into many pieces.  Ultimately, we process the details and rebuild the story, into one, clear line, one clear truth.  Think of it like a diamond, with many sides, casting many reflections, but all the more beautiful for that.

In the character of Christopher Tietjens, we are given the embodiment of honesty, goodness and duty.  It seems all the more unexpected then, that he turns out to be the most romantic figure, that I have encountered in years.  By keeping his distance from Valentine Wannop, his academic equal and soul mate, he demonstrates the depth of his love.  It is the innocence and purity of their mutual feelings that is so moving and touching.  So much of the book takes place in the minds of the characters, in the silence of deep thought, that a verbal declaration of love is devastatingly profound.  It is the pure hearted Valentine who speaks first:

 'From the first moment I set eyes on you...' He interrupts, embolden by her honesty saying, ' And I ... from the first moment... I'll tell you ... if I looked out of a door ... it was all like sand ... But to the left a little bubbling up of water.  That could be trusted.  To keep on forever.'

 It is so typical that Christopher to declares his love through metaphor and simile and no one but Valentine can understand.  This is further proof that they are destined to be together.  How fitting that, in a Modernist text, where the whole reasoning behind the writing was to 'illumine the world within', that the secrets's of a heart should be communicated through imagery and visual means.  For Christopher, Valentine is the oasis in the desert, the only source of life, fertility and renewal in his desiccated world. The poetry of his language is the perfect mode of expression: not trite, but truthful.  The effect on the reader is all the more poignant as the words are uttered by a man in uniform, about to leave for the France, his beloved's talisman against harm tucked safely in his breast-pocket.
Of course this whole scene is so effective coming as it does after a sequence of fast-paced meanderings through Valentine's mind, as she races across London on foot, erroneously convinced that Christopher is the father of Mrs Macmaster's child, and that the rumours about him are true.  Her thoughts flood the page, as she hops from idea to idea.  The language is ceaseless, the ellipses reflecting her thought processes, as Madox Ford brings to light her inner life and the reader recognises in her how we too can think ourselves into a state.
By the time she meets Christopher face to face, she is only fit for crying, and we understand fully why this is so.  By now, Valentine has become a fully-rounded, living thing, no longer a mere fabrication on a page.

The book presents us with two specimens of womankind: Valentine, the virginal suffragette of high moral character, and Sylvia, the unfaithful wife, who disloyally, sends food parcels to her German friends despite, and because of, the war.  Life, for Sylvia, is one long party and so, perhaps, she represents the good life, the old life, of decadence, that ended with the horror of the trenches.  If she has her face turned to the past, Valentine's is facing the future.  She sees that change is coming,  and indeed hurries it along, with her demonstrations and embrace of the women's movement.  It is uncanny that Christopher, who prefers the world of the eighteen century to the England of 1914, should find himself falling hopelessly in love with a thoroughly modern girl.  Perhaps there is something deep in his unconscious mind that knows survival means embracing the future, and with it, hope.  He says earlier in the book:
'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...'.  It is clear that at the end of 'Some Do Not', Tietjens, despite being hurled back into the horror of the war, is opting for life.

The  'Some Do Not' of the title is referred to at least four times, once by an administrator in the War Office, who offers Tietjens a comfortable position at home.  He utters this phrase when Christopher declines: others may take the easy way out, but some do not.  Another time, it is spoken by the fly-driver, who conveys Valentine home after her horse is hurt in the fog near home.  He says: ' "But I wouldn't leave my little wooden 'ut, nor miss my breakfast, for no beast... Some do and some... do not".' Because the man has a taste for food in the morning, Valentine and Christopher's glorious time together on the hill is cut short.  How little decisions can make such a difference in the lives of others.
Then, being faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to Christopher, a tramp sees Valentine crossing the London streets, with tears streaming down her face and says to himself,  ' "Some do!" ...  then added: "Some do not!" '.  It seems that people from every level of society, have some comment to make about Valentine and Christopher.
Yet, the most informative reference to the title comes at the very end of the book, when fate once again prevents the couple from consummating their relationship.  Valentine offers herself to him saying she will be ready for anything that he might ask of her, but Tietjens says, 'But obviously... Not under this roof...' And he had added: 'We're the sort that... do not!' Suddenly they are a 'we', a self-declared couple, united in their mutual, moral understanding and feeling for one another.  The change is complete.  Overall, the title seems to suggest, the importance of the decisions that we make in life and while some are beyond our control, others, the really crucial ones, are not.

And now, I have torn myself away from the book too long and will begin 'No More Parades'.


Unknown said...

Love the thorough review. Brilliant BBC series is currently making it's debut on U.S. television (HBO Network)which will send reader headlong in search of all thingd Ford Madox Ford. Hope you will, at some point review "The Good Soldier," a perennial favorite of my darker moods.

My Book Affair said...

Thanks for your comment Dan. You know what, the first line... 'This is the saddest story you will ever read' etc. keeps putting me off. But if you liked it, I might just give it another go. Madox Ford simply took my breath away. I am afraid that his other books won't live up to Parade's End, but perhaps that is not a good enough reason NOT to read a book. :-)