Writing about Robert Louis Stevenson the other day, Amateur Reader described the way he would build to scenes and compared it to Ford Madox Ford’s technique in Parade’s End. Parade’s End is full of this, but the scene that came to mind immediately was the first one of the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up–.
The novel begins with Valentine Wannop, back in England teaching physical education in a girls’ school, on Armistice Day. The school has her make the girls run around all morning to tire them out, so when news of the armistice comes through the blaring sirens there won’t be too much chaos. Just as the chaos starts, Valentine gets a phone call from Edith Ethel Macmaster, her former friend and the wife of Tietjens’s former protegé.
Valentine has no idea who she’s talking to, nor does she care—her thoughts are racing because everything in her world has suddenly changed. She thinks of what she’ll do now the war is over, how she’ll act, how everything is different and now that the war is over you can’t use profanity, how she’d been ordered to keep the girls in line, whether her brother is safe—everything but the phone call. When she finally realizes who she’s talking to her thoughts change, responding often indirectly to Edith Ethel and her offensiveness. After she hangs up, she sits and thinks, then goes to her headmistress, who’s also spoken to Edith Ethel, and makes quite a scene about her father, her family situation, her relationship to Tietjens, Edith Ethel’s untrustworthiness, and finally her plans to leave the school and be with her man.
The stream of consciousness Ford writes is just as it should be: all but impossible to understand for several pages, especially being as it is at the absolute beginning of the novel (there is enough separation between the volumes in Parade’s End that a reader of No More Parades would have no real idea of where the next book would be starting up), then slowly coming together until the passage makes complete sense and brings an understanding of the novel’s events and Valentine’s feelings that would have been all but impossible to achieve otherwise. Valentine’s highly fragmented mind is like a glass being un-shattered; the bits and pieces fit one by one until all the breakages have disappeared and the reader can look through it—not quite clearly, but close enough.
Perhaps ultimately this boils down to saying “the scene worked for me,” and there’s not much to do but tell you to read it, but you’d have to read all of it, and you should certainly do that anyway. But I also find it somewhat tragic. This kind of technique certainly turns people off, and I won’t say it’s not difficult to some extent. The rewards are so great, but I know people who would love this novel if they could get past the formal difficulty and who wouldn’t ever attempt it, who would be completely turned off. I want to evangelize this book far and wide but honestly, how many people are going to be sold on 900 pages of some seriously dense Modernism?
Back to the point, those great rewards and AR’s “true realism.” When I began Parade’s End, and I did read part of the introduction to my Everyman’s Library edition, I thought about the commonplace that the Great War changed everything. I was discussing what that “really” meant with the consumption partner, and how I had certainly read of this fact and knew of it and knew many things about the actual changes, the before versus the after, but that that didn’t give me much sense of why it struck people that way at the time, or what it actually struck them like. The usual questions of how a cultural narrative is constructed, I suppose. But now I feel like I know, rather than just knowing about. Again, what am I saying other than “this worked for me”? Probably nothing, but damnit it worked and it worked amazingly well. The awareness of the war and England before and after that Ford imparted in Parade’s End has crept into everything I’ve been reading since I started it—into my whole life, to some extent—and I don’t expect that to stop.