Saturday, April 03, 2010

Some Do Not... discussion: Part One

Picture source

Jumping down from the high step of the dog-cart the girl completely disappeared into the silver: she had on an otter-skin toque, dark, that should have been visible. But she was gone more completely than if she had dropped into deep water, into snow--or through tissue paper. More suddenly, at least! In darkness or in deep water a moving paleness would have been visible for a second: snow or a paper hoop would have left an opening. Here there had been nothing.

The constatation interested him. He had been watching her intently and with concern for fear she should miss the hidden lower step, in which case she would certainly bark her shins. But she had jumped clear of the cart: with unreasonable pluckiness, in spite of his: “Look out how you get down.” He wouldn't have done it himself: he couldn't have faced jumping down into that white solidity...

He would have asked: “Are you all right?” but to express more concern than the “look out,” which he had expended already, would have detracted from his stolidity. He was Yorkshire and stolid: she south country and soft: emotional: given to such ejaculations as 'I hope you're not hurt,' when the Yorkshireman only grunts. But soft because she was south country. She was as good as a man--a south-country man. She was ready to acknowledge the superior woodenness of the north...That was their convention: so he did not call down: 'I hope you're all right,' though he had desired to.

Her voice came, muffled, as if from the back of the top of his head: the ventriloquial effect was startling: “Make a noise from time to time. It's ghostly down here and the lamp's no good at all. It's almost out.”

He returned to his constatations of the concealing effect of water vapour. He enjoyed the thought of the grotesque appearance he must present in that imbecile landscape. On his right an immense, improbably brilliant horn of a moon, sending a trail as if down the sea, straight to his neck: beside the moon a grotesquely huge star: in an extravagant position above them the Plough, the only constellation that he knew; for, though a mathematician, he despised astronomy. It was not theoretical enough for the pure mathematician and not sufficiently practical for daily life. He had of course calculated the movements of abstruse heavenly bodies: but only from given figures: he had never looked for the stars of his calculations...Above his head and all over the sky were other stars; large and weeping with light, or as the dawn increased, so paling that at times, you saw them; then missed them. Then the eye picked them up again.

Opposite the moon was a smirch or two of cloud; pink below, dark purple above; on the more pallid, lower blue of the limpid sky.

But the absurd thing was this mist!...It appeared to spread from his neck, absolutely level, absolutely silver, to infinity on each side of him. At great distances on his right black tree-shapes, in groups--there were four of them--were exactly like coral islands on a silver sea. He couldn't escape the idiotic comparison: there wasn't any other.

Yet it didn't exactly spread from his neck: when he now held his hands, nipple-high, like pallid fish they held black reins which ran downwards into nothingness. If he jerked the rein, the horse threw its head up. Two pricked ears were visible in greyness: the horse being sixteen two and a bit over, the mist might be ten foot high. Thereabouts...He wished the girl would come back and jump out of the cart again. Being ready for it, he would watch her disappearance more scientifically. He couldn't of course ask her to do it again: that was irritating. The phenomenon would have proved--or it might of course disprove--his idea of smoke screens. The Chinese of the Ming dynasty were said to have approached and overwhelmed their enemies under clouds of--of course, not acrid--vapour. He had read that the Patagonians, hidden by smoke, were accustomed to approach so near to birds or beasts as to be able to take them by hand.

(Part One, Chapter 7)

In reading Parade’s End I plan on posting immediately after finishing a section in order to capture what I felt about it at the time I read it. With Ford being Ford, I’m banking on future sections causing reevaluation and reconsideration of what I’ve already read. So what’s the best approach to write about such a sprawling work, one I find engaging (and a little disappointing on some points)? I’m sure my approach will change with each section.

The structure of this first section is relatively straightforward, the action taking place over a 48-hour period in late June in the early 1910s (probably 1911 or 1912). I can see why some people feel the work is difficult to read. Several chapters drop the reader in the middle of the action with no context to help understand what is happening. At times, conversations have to be read several times in order to recognize who is talking to whom. Pages later, when the context is provided, everything falls into place. It can be frustrating at times to read without moorings, but (so far) Ford has provided a frame of reference at some point for the murky passages. What isn’t always clear, though, is Ford’s take on his characters. The question that keeps coming to mind, and probably will for much of the work, centers on how much does Ford support Tietjens’ views versus how far does his presentation travel into irony? Let’s take a look at a few characters introduced in this section.

Christopher Tietjens
As an aristocratic, rational gentleman, Tietjens is a throwback to a prior era. Underlying his chivalric nature, though, beats a Quixotic heart that becomes confused with the contradictions inherent in his code and his life. He will not divorce his wife even though she has given him cause since “[n]o one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.” While he plays the gentleman role perfectly in this case, he fails at rational action. He is a man with encyclopedic knowledge but the one fact he doesn’t know, whether his son is his own, unmoors him. I found it interesting to watch other characters respond to Tietjens. Those that dislike him go out of their way to be rude to him or torture him while those that like him will do anything to please. He provokes a decided response from people, good or bad, wherever he goes.

While his intelligence astounds everyone around him, Tietjens can be inconsistent in application or memory. He acknowledges the fallacy in his argument with Valentine about the Pimlico army clothing factory, yet he makes other mistakes as well. When Tietjens and Macmaster are arguing in the first chapter, Tietjens quotes “The Lady of the Lambs” by Alice Meynell but he gets a word wrong:

“It's precisely that,” Tietjens said. He quoted.

“She walks, the lady of my delight,
A shepherdess of sheep;
She is so circumspect and right:
She has her thoughts to keep.”

Except the poem actually reads “She has her soul to keep”, changing the meaning and (assuming Ford did this on purpose) undermining Tietjens’ argument. In short, Tietjens is always right, except when he isn’t. Which seems to mirror his belief system, a few basic principles dominating his actions while the remainder are chosen à la carte depending on what is most important at the moment. To Ford’s credit, he shows Tietjens working through the inconsistencies and uncertainties, which is probably the point—how will a belief system of old work in the present age. Two considerations remain when I look at Tietjens, though. The first question centers on the accuracy of his nostalgia. In other words, is he recreating a world that never existed? The second revolves around another motive, a little more base. Is Tietjens simply masochistic, finding higher ideals a palatable excuse for sacrificing himself?

Vincent Macmaster
We are not participants in Macmaster’s inner world to the same degree as Tietjens’, but what the reader sees is still interesting. The son of a working-class Scot, Macmaster has had to overachieve in over to receive recognition and standing although he received a helping hand from Tietjens and his family. Macmaster hopes his publications, magazine articles and now a book, proves he belongs to the “circumspect class”, the level of people that pilot the nation. Macmaster’s involvement with many women, many of them married, places him in precarious positions. Tietjens constantly has to intervene and save Macmaster from consequences of those affairs. It will be interesting to see the comparison Ford paints between those that accept and those that reject commitment.

Early in the book we are given a clue to one of the central themes. Macmaster has written a book on Rossetti, the 19th century neoclassical artist. While reviewing the proofs of his book, Macmaster reads his own lines:

'Whether we consider him as the imaginer of mysterious, sensuous and exact plastic beauty; as the manipulator of sonorous, rolling and full-mouthed lines; of words as full of colour as were his canvases; or whether we regard him as the deep philosopher, elucidating and drawing his illumination from the arcana of a mystic hardly greater than himself, to Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, the subject of this little monograph, must be accorded the name of one who has profoundly influenced the outward aspects, the human contacts, and all those things that go to make up the life of our higher civilization as we live it to-day...

These are precisely the things Tietjens doesn’t like about society, so another conflict between traditional and modern is presented. Ford also combines Macmaster’s conscious reading of his book with his unconscious thoughts on the fame and women the book will bring him, then shifting to Tietjens’ problems with his wife. Ford’s interweaving of the conscious and unconscious, and the conflict it creates, flows throughout this section.

Sylvia Tietjens
Sylvia has a limited physical appearance in this section but she can be felt throughout it, especially through her husband. She lives to torture him and it seems she has done so their entire relationship. In pondering what she will do, she declares if she stays with him she will be bored beyond belief except for one thing—she can torment him. Even worse, she is willing to corrupt their child to get to her husband. She feels powerless at times even when causing significant damage to those around her. Although running off with another man for several months seems to undercut how powerless she really is. It is almost if she knows that asking to be taken back by her husband will compound the damage she has already done.

Sometimes I wonder if Ford isn’t too heavy on the symbolism. Sylvia offers tea and cream to Father Consett after midnight on Saturday, which means he cannot take mass as he had planned. Even though it was an accident, Sylvia causes difficulties and problems even in innocent actions.

Valentine Wannop
I would love to see a young Judi Dench as Valentine, the perfect complement for Tietjens (unfortunately there does not seem to be a copy of it). As a high-spirited suffragette, she presents one possible model for a “new woman”. Tietjens consciously tries to keep his distance from Valentine even though he desires her. For someone uneducated, at least in the mold of Tietjens and Macmaster, she has learned enough to hold her own (and then some) with them. As someone unattached, she stands out as an exception to the other characters who are viewed in comparison or contrast to their spouses. Ford shows a wonderfully rounded picture of Valentine in a brief period. She protests for suffrage but upsetting the social order does not seem to be one of her goals. She has no problem asking for or accepting Tietjens’ assistance many times.

I’ll end with a few stray comments out of many that stood out in this section. In the first chapter, Tietjens and Macmaster make a few comments about the possibility of war. Macmaster thinks war impossible because the “circumspect classes” “will pilot the nation through the tight places.” Tietjens believes “war is as inevitable as divorce”, drawing a parallel between adultery and war. He does recognize that war blurs social lines, responding to Macmaster’s disdain for educated lower classes with “All the same, when the war comes it will be these little snobs who will save England, because they've the courage to know what they want and to say so.”

Parade’s End is very much a political novel, as the reader sees from the opening comments. Since the novel is early at this point I won’t go into this angle yet, wanting to get a better feel for the direction Ford will go. On to reading Part Two…

…Miss Wannop moved off down the path: it was only suited for Indian file, and had on the left hand a ten-foot, untrimmed quicken hedge, the hawthorn blossoms just beginning to blacken at the edges and small green haws to show. On the right the grass was above knee high and bowed to those that passed. The sun was exactly vertical; the chaffinches said “Pink! Pink!”; the young woman had an agreeable back.

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. Each come just from an admirably appointed establishment: a table surrounded by the best people: their promenade sanctioned, as it were by the Church--two clergy--the State: two Government officials; by mothers, friends, old maids...Each knew the names of birds that piped and grasses that bowed: chaffinch, greenfinch, yellow-ammer (not, my dear, hammer! amonrer from the Middle High German for “finch”), garden warbler, Dartford warbler, pied-wagtail, known as “dishwasher.” (These charming local dialect names.) Marguerites over the grass, stretching in an infinite white blaze: grasses purple in a haze to the far distant hedgerow: coltsfoot, wild white clover, sainfoin, Italian rye grass (all technical names that the best people must know: the best grass mixture for permanent pasture on the Wealden loam). In the hedge: our lady's bedstraw: dead-nettle: bachelor's button (but in Sussex they call it ragged robin, my dear): so interesting! Cowslip (paigle, you know from the old French pasque, meaning Easter); burr, burdock (farmer that thy wife may thrive, but not burr and burdock wive!); violet leaves, the flowers of course over; black bryony; wild clematis, later it's old man's beard; purple loose-strife. (That our young maid's long purples call and literal shepherds give a grosser name. So racy of the soil!)...Walk, then, through the field, gallant youth and fair maid, minds cluttered up with all these useless anodynes for thought, quotation, imbecile epithets! Dead silent: unable to talk: from too good breakfast to probably extremely bad lunch. The young woman, so the young man is duly warned, to prepare it: pink india-rubber, half-cooked cold beef, no doubt: tepid potatoes, water in the bottom of willow-pattern dish. (No! Not genuine willow-pattern, of course, Mr Tietjens.) Overgrown lettuce with wood-vinegar to make the mouth scream with pain; pickles, also preserved in wood-vinegar; two bottles of public-house beer that, on opening, squirts to the wall. A glass of invalid port...for the gentleman!...and the jaws hardly able to open after the too enormous breakfast at 10.15. Midday now!

“God's England!” Tietjens exclaimed to himself in high good humour. “Land of Hope and Glory!--F natural descending to tonic C major: chord of 6-4, suspension over dominant seventh to common chord of C major...All absolutely correct! Double basses, cellos, all violins: all wood wind: all brass. Full grand organ: all stops: special vox humana and key-bugle effect...Across the counties came the sound of bugles that his father knew...Pipe exactly right. It must be: pipe of Englishman of good birth: ditto tobacco. Attractive young woman's back. English midday mid-summer. Best climate in the world! No day on which man may not go abroad!” Tietjens paused and aimed with his hazel stick an immense blow at a tall spike of yellow mullein with its undecided, furry, glaucous leaves and its undecided, buttony, unripe lemon-coloured flowers. The structure collapsed, gracefully, like a woman killed among crinolines!

“Now I'm a bloody murderer!” Tietjens said. “Not gory! Green-stained with vital fluid of innocent plant...And by God! Not a woman in the country who won't let you rape her after an hour's acquaintance!” He slew two more mulleins and a sow-thistle! A shadow, but not from the sun, a gloom, lay across the sixty acres of purple grass bloom and marguerites, white: like petticoats of lace over the grass!

“By God,” he said, “Church! State! Army! H.M. Ministry: H.M. Opposition: H.M. City Man...All the governing class! All rotten! Thank God we've got a navy!...But perhaps that's rotten too! Who knows! Britannia needs no bulwarks...Then thank God for the upright young man and the virtuous maiden in the summer fields: he Tory of the Tories as he should be: she suffragette of the militants: militant here on she should be! As she should be! In the early decades of the twentieth century however else can a woman keep clean and wholesome! Ranting from platforms, splendid for the lungs: bashing in policemen's helmets...No! It's I do that: my part, I think, miss!...Carrying heavy banners in twenty-mile processions through streets of Sodom. All splendid! I bet she's virtuous. But you can tell it in the eye. Nice eyes! Attractive back. Virginal cockiness...Yes, better occupation for mothers or empire than attending on lewd husbands year in year out till you're as hysterical as a female cat on heat...You could see it in her: that woman: you can see it in most of 'em! Thank God then for the Tory, upright young married man and the suffragette kid...Backbone of England!...”

He killed another flower.

(Part One, Chapter 6)


mel u said...

I think one of the deeper themes of Parade's End is the nature of knowledge-Tietjens is a central figure in this-Slyvia suggests his appearance of great knowledge is in part a skillful bit of fakery-we know this is not true but it is also not completely wrong either-I hope we learn more about Macmaster as the work proceeds-I am very near the end of first novel-I agree it is hard to know how to write about this work knowing your first impressions may all be wrong-even the narrative voice of the book is in a way a character in the story and far from a reliable one-

My temptations is simply to post quotes so people who would enjoy this book can be drawn into it-

I think it is worth reading just for some of the marvelous conversations-there is a huge amount to be learned from this book but, to use the slang of the era, you cannot really simply lollipop your way through the book

great post and great job on the resources page-I will cross linki your post

Dwight said...

Like The Good Soldier, summarizing the action only helps a little bit in understanding what is going on in the work. Although it may be more helpful here since sometimes it takes a few pages to figure out what exactly happened--the General's car hitting the horse, for example.

I'm about halfway through Part Two and so far it feels just like a play instead of a novel.