Some Do Not… (Parade’s End vol. 1) – Ford Madox Ford

In some ways it feels a bit odd to be reviewing each volume of Parade’s End rather than the entire novel. However, the sheer scale and complexity of the four-volume book militates against my being able to do justice to each volume’s particular concerns in a single review. If I can do any kind of justice to even one volume then I will be pleased. (I haven’t yet watched the BBC adaptation, so I’m coming to the books as it were unspoiled).

I stand for monogamy and chastity. And for no talking about it.

In Some Do Not… Ford subjects the brilliant and upright Christopher Tietjens to the disintegration of his rigid Edwardian psychology and moral code. Tietjens stands for an old, feudal, landed and taciturn class of Englishman; a man at home with the contours of birth, privilege, and society, whilst hating presumption and overt sentiment. For such a man to be married to Sylvia, a repulsive but beautiful adulterer without a hint of remorse or sympathy, whilst falling in love with the intelligent, witty, altogether charming Valentine, tests both his moral and social principles to the limit.

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. . . .

With the coming of the War and his service Tietjens seems broken, his brilliance slipping away, as the world in which he was so at home slips away amidst the bellicose tumult, whilst he retains the principles which keep him from divorce and happiness. He maintains that he is a sentimentalist at heart, and it is such sentimentalism which keeps him attached to the moral code the world seems to be shedding and, perhaps, never truly held. For Ford forcefully asserts the human realities that Edwardian society struggled to deny: fractured marriage, adultery, ambition, expression, and institutional prejudice and fallibility. Throughout the novel ‘Some do and some do not’ stand as summations of divisions of class, principle and service, most of which Tietjens manages to fall foul of, be it by resentment of his birth, his ability, moral code, or War service.

She looked at Tietjens now with a sort of gloating curiosity. How was it possible that the most honourable man she knew should be so overwhelmed by foul and baseless rumours? It made you suspect that honour had, in itself, a quality of the evil eye. . . .

Sylvia, as loathsome a woman as one is likely to come across in literature, constantly works to undermine her husband. As she herself understands, ‘She preferred to inflict deeper and more quiet pains.’ That so many are prepared to believe her, and those like her, is testament to the rot Ford saw at the heart of pre-War society. Tietjens perceives this and it drives him to the nihilism of the latter part of Some Do Not…

You see in such a world as this, an idealist – or perhaps it’s only a sentimentalist – must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable. He haunts them at their golf.

Indeed, Tietjens’ own brother – a model of Yorkshire taciturnity –  is more willing to believe in the possibility of serious moral and financial failings on Christopher’s part, than to countenance the error of a bank, a ‘prop of England’.

It is Ford’s psychology which I so admire. He plunges the reader into the mental life of his characters as they twist and turn under the pressures of society, duty, memory, and love. The narrative is far from linear as we often find out about a character’s feelings about an event or individual only at the end of Ford’s investigation of their response to it. This renders our apprehension of the narrative as partial as any of its inhabitants and Parade’s End a far more modern novel than it might otherwise appear. A kind of fear seems to drive so many, epitomised, perhaps, in the person of Tietjens’ old friend Macmaster: a Scotsman of low birth who idolises the Romantics, and who is searching for security and esteem, everything his friend has without apparent effort or desire, and finds in the wife of a lewd madman the pillar he needs to rise.

One has to be slightly concerned by the anti-Semitism which occasionally emerges in Ford’s novels, or, at least, that of his characters; and one rather hopes it is merely the latter. All one can really say at this point is that such things are a reminder of how prevalent such language and sentiment really was at the time. (Parade’s End was published during the 1920s). Eliot and others were as guilty as Ford, if not more so. Which certainly excuses nothing, but at the very least it gives a more rounded picture of a period when writers might also easily oppose Protestant and Papist within the work as a signifier of divided loyalties. A very different world.

In the end we might censure Tietjens for the tenacity of his principled stand. For all his brilliance he lacks the flexibility to consummate his love for Valentine in any sense. He does not bend, he breaks as his world dissolves. But even then he cannot quite give in and Ford’s novel is greater for it. Roll on No More Parades.

A man with doubts is more of a man, with eyes, hands, the need for food and for buttons to be sown on.

 

My thanks to Penguin for providing this review copy.

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

I really wanted to love Toby’s Room – released 16th August – because, whilst it is not in any way a bad book, I had not enjoyed Life Class, the book whose events are sandwiched by those in Toby’s Room, as much as I had hoped. Toby’s Room was going to bring me back to Barker. However, I found it oddly unsatisfactory despite, or perhaps because of, its thoroughly competent and occasionally powerful character. Toby’s Room returns to the young Slade-trained artists of Life Class, Elinor Brooke, her ex-lover Paul Tarrant, and Kit Neville, as well as their artist-surgeon teacher Henry Tonks by whom Barker was clearly fascinated and who plays a larger part in Toby’s Room as the portraitist of disfigured servicemen. At the heart of everything is Elinor’s brother Toby whose presence haunts the novel. Their complex relationship of desire and dependence, and his apparent disappearance and death on the battlefield set her on an obsessive mission to discover what happened to him. So close growing up, one day is enough to derail their relationship.

Toby had been right all along. Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.

After he is reported ‘Missing: Believed Killed’ Toby’s bedroom becomes the repository of guilt and longing, but most of all the signifier of the empty space inside Elinor. It is the space she needs to fill, to exorcise, before any resolution becomes possible. His ghost is everywhere, not least in the person of Elinor herself, who bears such a resemblance to Toby. Following his disappearance her work becomes inspired, she paints landscapes each of which contains the diffuse shadow of her brother. Indeed, Toby is only ever seen through the eyes of others, all artists, which is fitting as the analysis and deconstruction of the War, and of Toby in particular, by each of them seems to be Barker’s key concern. In the pre-War section Tonks enrols Elinor in an anatomy class where she dissects an unknown man and is repelled by so clinical an approach to the human form: she cannot see the life in such an artistic programme.

 Churned-up flesh; churned-up landscape.

The ordered and disordered in the analysis and destruction of flesh underpins the novel and probes the artist’s role and aims in the body’s depiction. As Paul Tarrant puts it when describing his Nash-echoing landscapes, ‘The point is, the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.’ This affinity between ruined earth and ruined flesh can be seen in Kit Neville, who returns from France with an awful facial injury and is sent to the specialist facial reconstruction hospital at which Tonks works to record the progress, or lack thereof, of the patients’ recoveries. Neville is an unflinching, unsympathetic Modernist, all hard edges and machined parts, all of which make him ideal both as an observer in France, and as the individual whose facial disfigurement both challenges his Futurist aesthetic and leads to his being, in turn, subject to another’s analytic gaze.

The northern light flooding in through the high windows was pitiless, but not more so that Tonk’s gaze. He was still at the table selecting pastels from a tray, but now and then he stopped to look at Neville, who felt his injuries had never been more cruelly exposed than in this glaring light.

The ambivalence of the artistic response to disfigurement and ruin is well played-out in Elinor’s response to an injured patient.

He had been a remarkably handsome man; still was, on one side of his face. If anything, his injuries threw the beauty of his remaining features into sharper relief. He reminded her of some of the ‘fragments’ they used to draw at the Slade where so often a chipped nose or broken lip seemed to give the face a poignancy that the undamaged original might have lacked. It disturbed her, this aesthetic response to wounds that should have inspired nothing but pity.

This marks the beginning of a more sophisticated response both to the war and to artistic practice on the part of Elinor. So what is it that fails to satisfy? Part of the problem may well be that this is well-trodden ground for Barker and, indeed, for many others. She has spoken of the First World War as our myth, our Illiad: a set of events which can be endlessly reinterpreted and represented as a means of exploring human nature and action. This is a valid position, as the wealth of good Great War literature attests, but new ground should be broken each time and supported by the particular characters and narrative presented, and this is where Toby’s Room becomes unsatisfying. As a study of differing reactions to service, grief, and injury, Toby’s Room is fairly compelling, particularly in Neville’s brooding and occasionally explosive recuperation, whose morphine dreams transport him back to the Front, and to Toby. However, the whole book feels curiously unmotivated, and the figure of Elinor is partly to blame.

The paradox of Elinor is that she so resembles her brother as to become unconvincing as a woman. She is curiously unsympathetic in her pursuit of the truth of Toby’s fate, simultaneously passive and aggressive and oddly opaque despite our access to her mind. Without the violence of the Front to fall back on – something Elinor’s political stance precludes – the normal centrifugal force of Barker’s men is missing, despite the attempt to supply that founding injury in another form in 1912.

One also has to question whether Toby’s Room works as a stand-alone novel given its oddly bracketed structure. As far I can tell it is not presented as a sequel to Life Class whose narrative, for all that I was not bowled over by it, at least had the virtue of cohesion and a quality of concentration.  Toby’s Room is dark, disturbing, and, in certain respects, acutely insightful; and yet it refuses to cohere as it should in order for its aims to be fulfilled. In that sense it is frustrating, but certain passages stand out as impressive, in particular those about art: those focused on the artists are less compelling in general, and suffer from a lack of weight. This is a good book, but it’s not the return to form I was hoping for. Essentially, the problem is that it’s all been done before. It’s no Regeneration.