Novel * Ford Madox Ford * Social Disintegration * 1925
No More Parades is the second of four novels in Ford’s Modern masterpiece tetralogy Parade’s End. One thing you will notice right away is that while the novels are presented in a rough chronological order, they still jump about in time quite a bit. The other readily apparent thing is that these novels are unconventionally told. Because Modernism. This requires careful reading to fully understand not only whose perspective is currently being explored, but also whether that person is speaking out loud to other people, or internally to themselves. There is a great deal of rambling internal monologue here, and it’s interspersed with all manner of erratic punctuation and abrupt shifts. Personally, I don’t find these things to be negative issues, because I am a goddamn nerd. For new readers, however, the experiments in form that Ford is getting up to here might be a deal breaker. I understand. That said, this is not Ulysses. The narrative is grounded, and there is a definite sense of place.
Still with me? Great. No More Parades picks up an initially indeterminate amount of time after the kinda-conclusion of Some Do Not…. I say ‘initially’ because there is an actual chronology at play, which is available via helpful scholars, which I am not. As the novel opens, we find Captain Tietjens in France. He’s an officer in charge of transportation, and in this instance he’s trying to get a bunch of Canadians to the front. He is partnered with Captain McKechnie, who is a crazy person. Now, the way these books work is to present a very time period in excruciating detail, and in this way cover both the history and future fears of the character whose perspective we share. Most of the first part of No More Parades takes place in a hut where very little is happening, at least until the Germans start shelling them, and then some poor bastard dies. Tietjens takes it pretty well, considering.
No More Parades is concerned with both World War I and Tietjens attempting to deal with his horrible wife, Sylvia. The first few chapters are there to ground Christopher as a Captain in an army with an important job to do for the war effort. He’s actually a good officer, despite his efforts being constantly undermined and countermanded by various external forces. Despite occasional artillery attacks, he’s not in a great deal of physical danger and the men seem to respect his command. McKechnie is a bit of a wild card, as he’s one of these people who immediately dislikes Tietjens. Perhaps he has his reasons – it seems he is the nephew of one Macmaster – but he is also a wackadoo. He’s also really hung up on being the superior Latinist, and is constantly trying to compete with Tietjens over it. For his part, Christopher is mildly annoyed by this dude, but still cracks off a sonnet in two and a half minutes, so you know, bully for him.
Beyond worrying about the state of the war effort, Tietjens also has to contend with his damaged and deeply fucked up home situation. Sylvia, who is in a constant state of war with her husband, has seemingly left him. She won’t divorce, however, because that would a) be conceding the war and b) go against her Catholic upbringing. Since Sylvia won’t divorce, Christopher won’t either, because he’s a fucking gentleman and such things are not done. Meanwhile, Valentine Wannop is totally absent in this book, which is a terrible shame because she’s the best and I love her. While her perspective may be missing in this novel, however, her person still looms large over the narrative. Much mental energy is expended by both Christopher and Sylvia over what Valentine’s very existence even means.
While Christopher Tietjens is a very stoic Tory and is thus extremely good at maintaining his composure, he’s a mess. This first night described in No More Parades was undoubtedly rough on the poor bastard. I mean, he finds out that some dipshit civilian is disrupting his work and making the war more difficult on his men than it needs to be. Then a cat with a great name, O Nine Morgan, takes some shrapnel in the face and pretty much dies in Tietjens’ arms. So that sucks. Then there’s McKechnie, who won’t stop being crazy. And then, as if all this wasn’t enough, he finds out that his horrible wife has actually come to France in the middle of a damn war and has insisted upon seeing him. Try as he might, Christopher cannot figure out his wife’s motives.
“For as he saw it, English people of good position consider that the basis of all marital unions or disunions is the maxim: No scenes…. And indeed, with him, the instinct for privacy – as to his relationships, his passions, or even as to his most unimportant motives – was as strong as the instinct of life itself. He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book. And until that afternoon he had imagined that his wife, too, would rather be dead than have her affairs canvassed by the Other Ranks… But that assumption had to be gone over. Revised… Of course he might say she had gone mad.”
Consider how crazy that sentiment is: “he would, literally, rather be dead than an open book”! This is back in the day, so when people used the world “literally,” they literally meant it. So here’s his wife, who could clearly give a shit if people are gossiping about her and her husband, and she’s considered the crazy one. Everyone’s nuts, I don’t know. Sylvia’s sole purpose in coming to France is to make her husband as miserable as possible. To this end, she’s determined to make him crack his façade, to concede – something, anything – to her. Since she is so adept at society, she knows which levers of influence to lean on to achieve her ends, although we see in her viewpoint chapters her actions often have unintended consequences. She wants to fuck his shit up but in the right ways, if you can dig that. Which is something a crazy person would do, so in this instance Christopher is right to question her sanity, although from a modern reader’s perspective the reasoning is different.
Sylvia also has a curious opinion about the war itself, which ends up being both a glib dismissal of the gravity of the conflict as well as an accurate summation of its existence. As she puts it:
“The whole of the affair, the more she saw of it, overwhelmed her with a sense of hatred…. And of depression!… She saw Cristopher buried in this welter of fools, playing a schoolboy’s game of make-believe. But of a make-believe that was infinitely formidable and infinitely sinister…. The crashings of the gun and of all the instruments for making noise seemed to her so atrocious and odious because they were, for her, the silly pomp of a schoolboy-man’s game… Campion or some similar schoolboy said: ‘Hullo! Some German aeroplanes about… That lets us out on the air-gun! Let’s have some pops!”…. As the fire guns in the park on the King’s birthday. It was sheer insolence to have a gun in the garden of a hotel where people of quality might be sleeping or wishing to converse!”
Damn, girl, that’s cold. Yeah, yeah, millions of people are being blown apart in the trenches but a gun at a fancy hotel? This will not stand! I’m trying to have a conversation over here! And yet, the whole bit about the schoolboy games isn’t exactly too far off. We see that exact attitude from the likes of General Campion, who is actually good at his job, but more in scenes concerning Tietjens trying to function properly. Moving his men from one place to another shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as it is. Yet conflicting orders keep coming down, or some civilian businessman with political contacts wants things done in a particular way and now Tietjens has to figure out a way to make that guy happy at the expense of his men. The war, in this instance, is an economic game as well as a political one.
The above passage also underscores Sylvia’s priorities as a Lady of society. The war has not only disrupted the accepted social order, but it’s threatening to do so in the long-term. The constraints of the social order may have pressed Sylvia unwillingly into Tietjens’ life and home, but despite this, she has still mastered her position. She is striking and beautiful and vicious. Yet all around her the guns of war are slowly shaking her world apart. Sylvia hates Christopher, but she also sees him as a worthy adversary and is dismayed at the maroons he’s surrounded by in his wartime situation. The war is also forcing Christopher to change his thinking, which means that he acts in ways that Sylvia isn’t prepared for, and thus is stymied in her own personal war against her husband.
To this point we come to the central plot-point of the book. Sylvia, who was thrown off her game when Christopher did not actually hook up with Valentine, is back with vengeance in mind. She is in France with Perowne, the utterly dull and drab dingleberry she had the affair with at the beginning of Some Do Not…. Sylvia hates this guy, because he sucks. Perowne is an idiot, and doesn’t seem to realize he’s being used. He lets his horny get in the way, and when Sylvia tells him that she’s going to leave her door open that evening, he somehow misses all the sardonic cynicism she’s been dropping on him pretty much constantly. Later that night, Christopher shows up to the hotel she’s staying at. It’s real uncomfortable. Christopher is solving problems, fixing shit like he do and meanwhile Sylvia is telling lies and making things as difficult for her husband as possible, like she do. In the end, the two seemingly decide to separate and Christopher ends up staying in Sylvia’s room. Do they bang? Probably not! Regardless, he’s there when Perowne shows up expecting a booty call and all hell breaks loose and in the end Christopher ends up under arrest.
Sylvia overplayed her hand. I’m still not entirely sure what her motives are here, other than to embarrass and otherwise humiliate Christopher. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want him to die, at the very least because, somehow, she would consider that a victory for him. However, as a result of her machinations, Christopher ends up being sent to the front, which is a real good way to get dead. This is because Christopher knocking Perowne in the head for trying to creep on his wife wasn’t the end of the bad situation. Another general, probably drunk, decided he wanted to peep on Sylvia in her knickers so Christopher took exception to that and, ah, reacted, which landed him in front of General Campion, who, of course, Sylvia had been lying to about Christopher the whole day previous.
Whew! What’s important about all of this is that being sent back to the front to likely die made Christopher finally realize what a hot load of bullshit the entrenched social order is. It’s important to note that to this point Tietjens has been perfectly honorable and has done everything exactly right, ethically speaking. What he refuses to do is play the damn game. While the social structure is rigid and constructed out of strict rules, most people are adept at breaking those rules. The only important thing is looking like you’re following them. Tietjens actually follows the rules because he believes in them, but is terrible at the optics. He allows himself to be seen in compromising situations and has no idea how to deal with other people’s perceptions, which is something that Sylvia excels at. When Campion “promotes” him to the front and likely signs his death warrant, Tietjens finally realizes what a sucker he is.
Well, roughly speaking. Valentine has always been much on his mind, and with the apparent revelation that upholding the social order means nothing, he is now free to pursue her. If he lives, obviously. This is not to say that Tietjens is not conflicted about the concept of having a mistress. I’m pretty sure he’s still in no hurry to flagrantly flaunt social conventions, including his stance on divorce. However, the war has disrupted the social order enough that he’s willing to imagine a future with the woman he loves, the woman who actually loves him back. I am cautiously optimistic that Tietjens can make this work.