I have just finished reading what is, perhaps, one of the greatest 20th century novels in the English language. The author, Ford Madox Ford, is certainly not unknown, particularly as Parade’s End came out as a successful BBC miniseries in 2012, with the protagonist played by Benedict Cumberbatch. However Ford Madox Ford is certainly not a household name and even literature majors are unlikely to have come across his name, causing a documentary on him to be titled “Who on Earth was Ford Madox Ford?” Ford pioneered the modernist novel by applying the artistic style of Impressionism to literature and helped a generation of writers including Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, but died in 1939 resenting the fact that his name would not be included with the ‘greats’.
While most people will identify with the love triangle in Parade’s End between Christopher Tietjens’ estranged wife Sylvia and his mistress, Valentine Wannop, I want to focus on the character of Christopher Tietjens, and the actions he takes in the face of a world always on the brink of absurdity, where people behave irrationally and cover it up as the ‘proper’ way to behave. Parade’s End glances back from the 1920’s over the years surrounding the First World War, a crumbling world where politics is inexorably overwhelming civil society, dragging it into a war that would send eight million innocents to their deaths. Ford pillories the elites for exercising their power through lies and fear, causing people’s lives to be filled with needless anxiety and tragedy.
Tietjens, whose integrity in fiction is only matched by Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, lives his life as if he walked straight out of the 17th century (shades of Albert Jay Nock) refusing to bend on matters of principal and notably refusing to go along with the lies that the Ministry of Statistics wants him to prepare. Would that Google, Microsoft, Verizon and other blue chip companies, had employees who were willing to stand up, in a similar way, to the bully boys at the NSA.
Of course if you live your life by an outmoded code of behavior, people will take you for a fool and act accordingly. Tietjens is bankrupted, his name disgraced, and his father killed, albeit inadvertently, by his enemies. Although recognized as a genius by his colleagues in the Ministry of Statistics, he decides to enlist to face honest bullets and shells in the trenches, rather than stay at the Ministry dishonestly helping to justify the stupidities of war at the behest of his hypocritical paymasters. Even on the front line he adheres to the principal of what he calls ‘Parade’ – the code of behavior he expects of a man of his standing.
Parade’s End has the scope, drama and social conviction of a 19th century novel, presenting a startling vision of a social and moral order in turmoil, with the war as a symptom of a wider, chronic malaise. Today we are faced with a similar situation in Europe where political and economic ties are dissolving, political hypocrisy is pervasive, and the financial elites are exercising increasing control. The relevance of Parade’s End is that there appear to be very few good men left, but Tietjens is exactly that, a very good man.
“there is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.” Graham Greene