Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A Man Could Stand Up discussion

Picture source

Months and months before Christopher Tietjens had stood extremely wishing that his head were level with a particular splash of purposeless whitewash. Something behind his mind forced him to the conviction that, if his head--and of course the rest of his trunk and lower limbs--were suspended by a process of levitation to that distance above the duckboard on which, now, his feet were, he would be in an inviolable sphere. These waves of conviction recurred continually: he was constantly glancing aside and upwards at that splash: it was in the shape of the comb of a healthy rooster; it gleamed, with five serrations, in the just beginning light that shone along the thin, unroofed channel in the gravel slope. Wet half-light, just filtering; more visible there than in the surrounding desolation because the deep, narrow channel framed a section of just-illuminated rift in the watery eastwards!

Twice he had stood up on a rifleman's step enforced by a bully-beef case to look over--in the last few minutes. Each time, on stepping down again, he had been struck by that phenomenon: the light seen from the trench seemed if not brighter, then more definite. So, from the bottom of a pit-shaft in broad day you can see the stars. The wind was light, but from the North-West. They had there the weariness of a beaten army: the weariness of having to begin always new days again...

Day is night...a subtle way of saying the world has turned upside down. Ford alternates between hitting the reader over the head with a point he wishes to make and taking subtlety to a new (for him) restrained level. For those reading along on Parade’s End, here is a reminder of the very beginning in Some Do Not…?

The two young men--they were of the English public official class--sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage. The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne. The compartment smelt faintly, hygienically of admirable varnish; the train ran as smoothly--Tietjens remembered thinking--as British gilt-edged securities. It travelled fast; yet had it swayed or jolted over the rail joints, except at the curve before Tonbridge or over the points at Ashford where these eccentricities are expected and allowed for, Macmaster, Tietjens felt certain, would have written to the company. Perhaps he would even have written to The Times.

Their class administered the world, not merely the newly created Imperial Department of Statistics under Sir Reginald Ingleby. If they saw policemen misbehave, railway porters lack civility, an insufficiency of street lamps, defects in public services or in foreign countries, they saw to it, either with nonchalant Balliol voices or with letters to The Times, asking in regretful indignation: 'Has the British This or That come to this?' Or they wrote, in the serious reviews of which so many still survived, articles taking under their care, manners, the Arts, diplomacy, inter-Imperial trade, or the personal reputations of deceased statesmen and men of letters.

Six years elapse between the beginning of the first book and the third book, yet they seem to describe completely different worlds. The world of “admirable varnish” no longer exists, at least in the same manner as it did. There is no more “virgin newness” in a world experiencing trench warfare.

(A side note: I found it interesting that Ford gets us from June 1912 to November 1918 while showing the reader only five ‘days’. The following calculations are estimates, but I don’t think they are too far off the mark: Some Do Not… Part One covers 48 hours while Part Two spans about 12 hours. All of No More Parades fits in a 48 hour time period. A Man Could Stand Up’s timeframe covers 9 hours total—1 hour in Part One, 4 hours in Part Two, and 4 hours (or less) in Part Three. That’s a total of 117 hours. At the risk of stating the too obvious, this covers only the “physical” time. The “mental” time is much more expansive.)

Part One takes place on Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) at the school where Valentine Wannop teaches gym. Valentine receives a phone call from Edith Ethel Macmaster, although it takes her a while to figure out who is calling and what she wants. Edith Ethel has behaved quite beastly toward Tietjens and Valentine but she proves to be the catalyst that brings them together. Her call isn’t completely altruistic, though. Vincent Macmaster is such a wreck, mentally and financially, that Edith Ethel’s main concern revolves around the money owed to Tietjens.

Part One takes place in Valentine’s mind but there is a strong, disturbing undercurrent in her thoughts or rather what she reflects from the zeitgeist.

But at the Mistresses' Conference that morning, Valentine had realized that what was really frightening them [teachers and administrators] was the other note. A quite definite fear. If, at this parting of the ways, at this crack across the table of History, the School--the World, the future mothers of Europe--got out of hand, would they ever come back? The Authorities--Authority all over the world--was afraid of that; more afraid of that than of any other thing. Wasn't it a possibility that there was to be no more Respect? None for constituted Authority and consecrated Experience?

Some of this ‘reading’ echoes Valentine’s suffragette background, but I think it’s open to a wider interpretation paralleling the overall theme of things changing and no one is quite sure how to deal with the new world. Valentine’s disturbance, once she realizes Edith Ethel is speaking of Tietjens, comes mostly from feeling insulted that she had agreed to give herself to him the prior year but he refused to follow through on their desires. Her suppressed anger and denial is portrayed by her refusal to think of Tiejens by name. He is “that grey mass” or simply “him”, avoiding the personal name of Tietjens until someone else says it.

In each section of Parade’s End Ford chooses words to repeat in order to set the ambiance or drive the point home for the reader, for example “beastly” appears 56 times in Some Do Not…. Here we see Valentine repeating the same things mentally, constantly thinking what stuck with her in the phone conversation with Edith Ethel. Valentine constantly thinks back to the non-affair with Tietjens as well as musing on what not recognizing his porter or not having any furniture might mean for him. As she thinks over all these things, Valentine rejects her parents’ values.

It was suddenly obscured by a recrudescence of the thought that had come to her only incidentally in the hall. It rushed over her with extraordinary vividness now, like a wave of warm liquid...If it had really been that fellow's wife who had removed his furniture what was there to keep them apart? He couldn't have pawned or sold or burnt his furniture whilst he had been with the British Expeditionary Force in the Low Countries! He couldn't have without extraordinary difficulty! Then...What should keep them apart?...Middle Class Morality? A pretty gory carnival that had been for the last four years! Was this then Lent, pressing hard on the heels of Saturnalia? Not so hard as that, surely! So that if one hurried...What on earth did she want, unknown to herself?

She heard herself saying, almost with a sob, so that she was evidently in a state of emotion: 'Look here: I disapprove of this whole thing: of what my father has brought me to! Those people...the brilliant Victorians talked all the time through their hats. They evolved a theory from anywhere and then went brilliantly mad over it.

Valentine accentuates her stance on those rejected values to Miss Wanostrocht, who revered Valentine’s father: “I mean that my father left us so that I had to earn my and my mother's living as a servant for some months after his death. That was what his training came to.” The above quote has yet another inversion in the order of things (another one of many), with Lent coming after Saturnalia/Mardi Gras/Carnival. Everything has been turned upside down, and Valentine concludes it is all right to love Tietjens. In a world where “we've no means of knowing where we stand nowadays”, she decides that she wishes to be with Tietjens.

Part Two skips back to April 1918 and to Tietjens on the front in France. I found this the most powerful section of the series of books so far. Once again we reside inside Tietjens’ mind but there are additional facts from an omniscient narrator (such as how a soldier would die months later) that adds poignancy. The violence is described in an offhand, impressionistic manner that can mask or dull what happens until the results are depicted. Ford adds tension by having Tietjens counting down until some undisclosed (initially) event. Even more chilling can be some of the small moments, such as Tietjens checking which way the wind is blowing—for those that don’t pick up on the reason, Ford will eventually explain it.

By detailing a small part of Armistice Day in the previous section, then flashing back to battles where Ludendorff threatens to defeat the Allies, Ford sets up an interesting tension. The reader knows how the war ends and that Tietjens survives (with some undisclosed damage) but filling in the details makes for stimulating reading. Ford explicitly makes and implicitly allows the reader to make many comparisons and contrasts in this section. Tietjens’ rumination on German and British soldiers’ helmets allows him to compare more than just their equipment:

A very minute subaltern--Aranjuez--in a perfectly impossible tin hat peered round the side of the bank. Tietjens sent him away for a moment...These tin hats were probably all right: but they were the curse of the army. They bred distrust! How could you trust a man whose incapable hat tumbled forward on his nose? Or another, with his hat on the back of his head, giving him the air of a ruined gambler! Or a fellow who had put on a soap-dish. To amuse the children: not a serious proceeding...The German things were better--coming down over the nape of the neck and rising over the brows. When you saw a Hun sideways he looked something: a serious proposition. Full of ferocity. A Hun against a Tommie looked like a Holbein landsknecht fighting a music-hall turn. It made you feel that you were indeed a rag-time army. Rubbed it in!

His imagery evokes comparisons, describing that the German gasmask makes the enemy look “like goblin pigs with sore eyes”. The reader envisages some disturbing imagery during Tietjens’ survey of no-man’s-land as he tries to identify a body (if it is a body) mangled and draped over barbed wire. The human shape becomes harder to recognize as does what it means to be human.

The structure of this section echoes the first Part as well. Tietjens works his way to the conclusion that he would be much happier with Valentine instead of Sylvia, selling antiques instead of working for the Department of Statistics. At this conclusion, Christopher frees himself from the obligations that Tietjens of Groby “must” maintain, much as Valentine freed herself from Edith Ethel and other controlling powers in Part One. The physical and mental strength Tietjens displays in this section shows he is no longer the “Hamlet of the Trenches”, a role he has wallowed in for too long.

Even though the violence of the war covers only a small section, it is powerfully drawn. By unveiling impressions of the action instead of just the action itself, Ford gives immediate meaning to those events. The words Ford chooses to constantly repeat in this section assist in building atmosphere: beastly (again), lachrymose, strafe, portentous, boring, reprehensible. The actions of those in the trenches as well as the general staff (echoing the distinction between the ruling and governing classes in other sections) seem suicidal. Tietjens becomes the perfect, analytical character to record these actions since he refuses to wallow in the misery that surrounds him, maintaining hope despite everyone and everything conspiring against him. For someone whose life has been an open book for everyone to assume the worst about him, Tietjens ironically demonstrates living can be like his assessment of dying…”a lonely affair.”

Part Two deserves its own post, or maybe two or three, so I know I am shortchanging it. I have found myself resisting Parade’s End on some level, but after Part Two all opposition melted away. Everything Ford has done so far leads to this point and for me the payoff hit the mark. Just to demonstrate one point…Tietjens’ mental notes on the construction of the trench was, in some ways, a continuation of the opening passage of Some Do Not...(quoted at the start of this post). Tietjens expects the spit and polish of the carriageway to extend to trench building—both a perverse and a logical view, with many more such extensions throughout this Part.

Part Three returns to London on Armistice Day at the end of the war, a short time after Part One in which Valentine decides to find Tietjens. She and the reader received only a partial description of his condition, leading Valentine (and us) to wonder about his status. His initial contact with her seems to confirm the worst. Tietjens’ actions are logical, in a perverse way, given the constraints he desires to work within. Valentine does not see that yet, though, since their consciousnesses are very far apart. The narration alternates between the minds of Tietjens and Valentine, highlighting their lack of communication and connection. Each is doubtful of the feelings of the other although it should be clear that each acts in the interest of being together. Parallel thoughts in each mind begin to foreshadow their convergence of consciousness. Valentine looks at Tietjens hall, with his bunk and sleeping bag and thinks “The war was over. All along that immense line men could stand up!” Right after that thought she reads some of Tietjens’ notes which use the same language, making her conclude “that he could stand up” and be hers. Unspoken communication occurs right after this example as Valentine, who had been thinking of calling her mother, answers Tietjens’ phone. The following conversation with her mother, uncanny in its timing, follows the pattern so far of words having much more weight than outward meaning. The two women skirt around the issue while both fully understand the significance of the situation.

Bits and pieces of information accrue to both Valentine and Tietjens, reinforcing what they hope to find. Tietjens’ apparent madness had nothing to do with his stint as commanding officer at the front but with having been in charge of German prisoners. Even when other people try to help Christopher, they end up hurting or hindering him. General Campion, always looking out for Tietjens but feeling constraints on what he could do for the younger soldier, “had put him in command over the escorts of German prisoners all through the Lines of several Armies. That really nearly had driven him [Tietjens] mad. He couldn't bear being a beastly gaoler.” Tietjens goes off the deep end because he wishes to avoid responsible for the enslavement of others. I guess there is some irony here because everyone around him in his personal life wishes to enslave him in some manner. And even though Campion was looking out for him and doing what he thought best to protect Teitjens, his recommendation and reassignment ended up shortchanging Tietjens:

So Tietjens had lost all chance of distinction, command pay, cheerfulness, or even equanimity. And all tangible proof that he had saved life under fire--if the clumsy mud-bath of his incompetence could be called saving life under fire. He could go on being discredited by Sylvia till kingdom come, with nothing to show on the other side but the uncreditable fact that he had been a gaoler. Clever old General! Admirable old godfather-in-law!

A few impediments to Tietjens’ and Valentine’s happiness surface at this point. Her mother does not present a formidable foe but represents the questions they will face from society and friends. Mrs. Wannop wants to make sure the two are firmly committed to each other. Another obstruction comes from Tietjens’ regiment members who show up (as promised) on Armistice Day. They prove to be more of a nuisance, providing lots of merriment while continuing some running jokes. The alternation of narratives presenting the minds of Tietjens and Valentine during this part demonstrate their evolving understanding with each other as they synchronize their thoughts. The final scene, the celebration in the almost empty hall, feels like a wedding celebration, which in a sense it is. How Tietjens and Valentine come together despite everything that has happened to them, their families, their country, and the world provides a satisfying conclusion.

The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him. There was no other way to look at it. It had made him reach a point at which he would no longer stand unbearable things. At any rate from his equals! He counted Campion as his equal; few other people, of course. And what he wanted he was prepared to take...What he had been before, God alone knew. A Younger Son? A Perpetual Second-in-Command? Who knew? But to-day the world changed. Feudalism was finished; its last vestiges were gone. It held no place for him. He was going--he was damn well going!--to make a place in it for...A man could now stand up on a hill, so he and she could surely get into some hole together!

A few loose thoughts to end this discussion:

  • The respect that Tietjens receives from his men stands in marked contrast to the scorn he endures from his ‘superiors’. His behavior to his men seems to be an extension of Tietjens’ outlook that goes well beyond class distinction. He always provided help, financial or physical, to those in need. The protection he gives to his men is a reflection of love and concern, similar in some ways to what he demonstrates to horses. Not to say he viewed the two in the same manner but rather that his code doesn't distinguish when someone or something was in need.
  • Sylvia has no physical presence in this book but she hovers over much of it. Even in the trenches, Tietjens has to face comments and questions about his wife. Only at the end does she feel excised to the extent that Tietjens and Valentine can carry out their lives together.
  • So “feudalism was finished”, but was that the age that Tietjens represented? Comments about Parade’s End always talk about the end of the Victorian or Edwardian eras reflected in the story, but Tietjens seems to embody (and constantly looks back on) a 17th-century archetype. I think it’s a mistake to get bogged down on trying to pin what age Tietjens represents. More important are the virtues and ideals he represents, regardless of when or if any such age successfully embodied them. By the end of A Man Could Stand Up Tietjens concludes he is willing to live outside of these virtues, at least to a certain extent, which seems to reflect Ford’s ambivalent tone throughout the grand work. Hopefully there will be occasion to expand on his ambivalence in The Last Post.
  • No comments: