Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Last Post discussion

Last Post bugle call
Picture source

Sadly they whispered away
As I played the last post on the bugle
I heard them say
Oh that boy's no different today
Except in every single way

-- from "Last Post on the Bugle" by The Libertines

It had been obvious to her for a long time that God would one day step in and intervene for the protection of Christopher. After all Christpher was a good man—a rather sickeningly good man. It is, in the end, she reluctantly admitted, the function of God and the invisible Powers to see that a good man shall eventually be permitted to settle down to a stuffy domestic life…even to chaffering over old furniture. It was a comic affair—but it was the sort of affair that you had to admit. God is probably—and very rightly—on the side of the stuff domesticities. Otherwise the world could not countinue—the children would not be healthy.

The Last Post holds a confusing position in the Parade’s End tetralogy since Ford Madox Ford later spurned the work. Despite some weaknesses I think the book generally works and fits well with the previous three volumes. If nothing else the reader sees how things could have gone wrong in previous sections, making me appreciate what Ford accomplished all the more. The Last Post takes place over the course of a few hours in the late 1920s. Christopher Tietjens and a pregnant Valerie Wannop live in a cottage in the south of England. Christopher’s brother Mark and wife, Marie Léonie, live with them. Mark has had a stroke and lies in a thatched hut overlooking the surrounding area. While The Last Post has a similar “feel” to the previous books since we see a series of interior monologues again. The biggest difference comes from the source of the monologues—the bulk of the chapters reside within the minds of Mark Tietjens, who the reader has only seen briefly, and Marie Léonie, Mark’s long-time mistress and now wife. For this discussion, I’m going to focus on only a few of the topics that stood out for me.

In It Was the Nightingale Ford said he "employed every wile known to me as novelist—the time-shift, the progression d'effet, the adaptation of rhythms to the pace of the action." He easily could have said the same thing about those techniques and Parade’s End, but I want to focus a moment on progression d'effet. I can’t find much on this ‘technique’ (so correct me if I am wrong) other than Flaubert saying that each chapter, episode, and sentence should carry the story forward with increasing intensity for maximum effect. Parade’s End builds word by word, each relying heavily on everything that came before it. Mel U, the ringleader of the Parade’s End read-along, had a post on the page 99 (or page 90) test that Ford proposed to judge the quality of a work. Parade’s End should be Exhibit A on how this test can only provide a hint at the quality that lies on a particular page. Whatever you choose in these books relies on the preceding pages for qualities that won’t be readily apparent. For example, the repetition of words and phrases sets the mood and constructs a tension, not just between characters but between values and eras.

As he saw things, public life had become—and must remain for a long period—so demoralized by the members of the then Government with their devious foreign policies and their intimacies with a class of shady financiers such as had never hitherto had any finger in the English political pie—public life had become so discreditable an affair that the only remedy was for the real governing classes to retire altogether from public pursuits. Things in short must become worse before they could grow better. With the dreadful condition of rain at home and foreign discredit to which the country must almost immediately emerge under the conduct of the Scotch grocers, Frankfort financiers, Welsh pettifoggers, Midland armament manufactures and South Country incompetents who during the later years of the war had intrigued themselves into office—with that dreadful condition staring it in the face, the country must return to something like its old standards of North Country common sense and English probity. The old governing class to which he and his belonged might never return to power but, whatever revolutions took place—and he did not care!—the country must return to exacting of whoever might be its governing class some semblance of personal probity and public honouring of pledges. He obviously was out of it or he would be out of it with the end of the war, for even from his bed he had taken no small part in the directing of affairs at his office…. A state of war obviously favouring the coming to the top of all kinds of devious storm petrels; that was inevitable and could not be helped. But in normal times a country—every country—was true to itself.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Parade’s End is about conflict, some of which are hinted at in this excerpt. Christopher and Mark Tietjens withdraw “from public pursuits”, refusing to accept the mantle of country squire or landed gentry for very different reasons. Mark realized early on such a role bored him. Christopher rejects the house and its money in reaction to the beliefs of his father and brother (although how much of that dispute is manufactured is unclear...Christopher clearly accepts the house for his son). With these failures of integrity from the government (Mark) and family (Christopher) causing the rejection of stewardship roles, we see a proto-John Galt course of action. The encroaching bureaucracy from “a nation of small shop-keepers” is antithetical to the integrity shown as lacking. The interesting twist comes from the difficulties that Christopher faced. Those difficulties came from people nominally trying to uphold some prescribed course of action, reacting to his marital and financial situation as they see it. The problem, beyond believing the worst of Christopher without seeking the truth, lies in their lack of understanding the underlying principles of what their actions were supposed to uphold. Campion, for example, felt like he had to do something about Christopher but never grasped why, other than it was expected of him.

In The Last Post we spend time in the thoughts of Mark and Marie Léonie, allowing the reader to explore Christopher and Valentine from additional angles outside of their own consciousness. This book could almost be called Ford’s pastoral novel, idealizing the Tietjens’ move to the countryside and the life it represented. Marie Léonie embodies the direction Mark (and Ford) saw in the last excerpt. She represents a tie to the land, a “Norman of a hundred generations” who felt it “the duty of a French citizen, by industry, frugality, and vigilance to accumulate goods” while at the same time not demanding “a better life than this”. The contrast is not just to the political class of England but to the avaricious Americans caricatured (who “drop down in aeroplanes, seeming to come up out of the earth” just as bombs and Germans did in the war). As with many aspects of this volume, Ford can be heavy handed in his symbolism and message. But he gets his point across—there is no George Herbert in a parsonage on a hill anymore providing serenity. There is only Mark, overlooking the area (as well as the past and future), but no serenity comes this time--only death.

Looking back on Parade’s End, is there a single normal relationship free of tension or conflict? Mark’s association with Marie Léonie is possibly the closest, and even that was bizarre—she didn’t know his surname for over a decade, only seeing him twice a week until his illness at the close of the war. The soldiers in Mark’s regiment were all basket cases, such as O Nine Morgan and McKechnie. We are only given a glimpse inside Michael/Mark junior’s consciousness, but the sexual conflict and tension we see can’t bode well for his future.

The annotated version of Parade’s End cannot come soon enough. Many references are easy to recognize such as Molière or The Mill on the Floss, while Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson plays a central role in bringing the brothers together. Yet Ford draws on many areas for additional meaning, some I’m not familiar with such as the children’s ballads that open and close The Last Post. The twists Ford puts on common expressions (“Lettest thou servant…divorce in peace”, for example) can be more than simply humorous but add to the examination of a world that has turned upside down.

The resolutions at the end of The Last Post, such that they are, feel more forced than the other volumes. Sylvia’s agreement to divorce Christopher seems semi-believable since she has overplayed her hand too many times and has, Ford tells us, felt humiliation and mortification for the first times recently. Yet the sudden concern for the unborn child of Christopher and Sylvia feels contrived. As Ford takes pains to point out, neither can we accept everything will continue to go Christopher’s way. The reader gets to find out what happened the night after the end of A Man Could Stand Up and it wasn’t the happy ending anticipated.

Christopher’s rejection of what society sees as important, turning instead to the land feels less like a rejection of the old or embracing modernity (as critics like to point out) and closer to an embracement of the values that supported the older customs. What I get from Ford is that somewhere along the way the values became divorced from the customs, the latter carrying on without an understanding or linkage to of the former. Throughout the four books there has long been a wistful tone of regret toward the waning old values during the suicidal rush by countries and individuals. Christopher never loses those virtues, adapting and applying them in a very different manner than what was expected of him. By this route he triumphs, staying as firm as the land he believes in.

Christopher presumably believed in England as he believed in Provvy [Providence]--because the land was pleasant and green and comely. It would breed true. In spite of showers of Americans descended from Tiglath Pileser and Queen Elizabeteh and the end of the industrial system and the statistics of the shipping trade, Englandwith its pleasant, green comeliness would go on breeding George Herberts with Gunnings to look after them…. Of course with Gunnings!

The Gunnings of the land were the rocks on which the lighthouse was built—as Christopher saw it. And Christopher was always right. Sometimes a little previous. But always right. Always right. The rocks had been there a million years before the lighthouse was built, the lighthouse made a deuce of a movable flashing—but it was a mere butterfly. The rocks would be there a million years after the light went for the last time out.


Fred said...

I also could never understand how some saw Tietjens as rejecting the old values and embracing the new. It seems to be quite the opposite to me. He recognizes the change but never embraces it.

The death of the old ways is a common theme in many of Ford's novels, from _The Good Soldier_ when an American supplants the Englishman to _The Rash Act_ in which an American actually is mistaken for a wealthy Englishman and takes over his life, to _The Inheritors_, a collaboration with Joseph Conrad in which aliens from another dimension come to England and begin taking over various positions of power.

Dwight said...

Fred, you've hit on the problem I'm trying to put into words for my last post on Parade's End. Ford is decidedly critical of the old values and he recognizes that history only moves in one direction. Yet there is a longing for some of the virtues that Tietjens embodies.

His resolution at the end of this book seems both dark and at times contradictory, which I'll try to flesh out in the next post. Ford is a slippery writer, changing direction (adroitly) often.

Fred said...


I'll be looking forward to your next post on _The Last Post_.

I think Ford recognizes the basic problem with change--does the good brought about by change outweigh the bad that will also be brought about by change. Will the advantages outweigh what is being lost by the change?

Dwight said...

My summary post will be my last word on Parade's End for now. I would love to revisit the book when the annotated version is released.

Ford is willing to scrutinize his beliefs and criticize them, both on the societal/cultural plane as well as political. I haven't really addressed the political part of this equation, even though I think it's necessary to fully understand the books. Unfortunately it's not an area I feel comfortable commenting on (which is why I'm looking forward to a refresher course on British politics in an annotated version).

His conclusion is oddly ambivalent and partially unsatisfying. The pastoral vision cannot be sustained and I think he knows it. The cultural virtues he longs for will be nice, but I don't think he believes they are enough by themselves. There is hope, personified in Valentine and the baby, but is a nation full of George Herberts really what he wants to see?

Despite all the ambivalence, it's a powerful novel I'm so glad I read.