When I read a major novel by an author I’ve never read before and know next to nothing about, I try to do it clean of preconceptions. I don’t read up on the author. I try not to read too many descriptions or reviews of the book. I want to have my own reaction, to see whether I can understand why the novel is considered to be significant.
I did that with Parade’s End. Now that I’ve finished it, I find that I want to understand who Ford Madox Ford was.
First I read his entry in Britannica. There I was reminded that he co-wrote some stories with Joseph Conrad. I also discovered that he founded The English Review and championed contemporaries such as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. He also discovered D H Lawrence. He lived in Paris after World War 1, where he edited the Transatlantic Review. In this magazine, he published Ernest Hemingway’s work.
So Ford was a little bit responsible for two of the 20th century writers I have most trouble appreciating. And his championing of them makes sense in the context of Parade’s End. They are all three trying to achieve the same thing: finding a new language to describe what it is to be human and living in a changing, modern world. I was too young, a teenager, when I first read D H Lawrence. I think I probably need to try him again. Hemingway I enjoy reading, but I know too much about what a dickhead he was about women to not have my reading experience coloured by his reality. Because I was having a Great American Writers phase when I read his books, I will forever link him to Steinbeck, and Steinbeck will always be the winner in my mind.
But this is about Ford Madox Ford. I also read this conversation that was published in Granta. It fleshed out some of the detail in the Britannica entry and made me want to read The Good Soldier. It also made me want to read Quartet by Jean Rhys. It’s interesting that she’s not mentioned at all in the Britannica entry. Clearly their affair had a creative impact on both of them. Perhaps Britannica’s editors didn’t think Rhys was as important as Lawrence or Pound or Hemingway.
The conversation is also revealing about Ford the man. It made me think that he created Tietjens in Parade’s End as a self-portrait. It made me understand why he wrote the women in Parade’s End the way he did, how he missed an opportunity to be daring and write women as rounded, nuanced people in a way rarely achieved at that time by male writers. He didn’t understand women. One of the correspondents in the Granta piece has a theory about this. But he didn’t understand women and, for all that he made it appear that this was partly his aim in Parade’s End, he didn’t try to understand them, either. It was the most frustrating part of the book for me.
I learnt that Graham Greene viewed Parade’s End as “the terrible story of a good man tortured, pursued, driven into revolt, and ruined as far as the world is concerned by the clever devices of a jealous and lying wife.” That’s a very male interpretation. Tietjens for me was the architect of all that happened to him, through his repression, his politics, his moral dubiousness. He didn’t seem a good man to me. He seemed a dull, self-absorbed, stick-in-the-mud. The way he lived his life, and particularly the way he lived it in relation to Sylvia, was a big contributing factor in the way she lived her life in relation to him. It seemed to me that Ford wrote Sylvia with a sense of bitterness towards women who, if they weren’t principled and a teeny bit biddable like Valentine Wannop, were automatically tricksy, lying whores.
I might read The Good Soldier. I’ll definitely read Quartet and probably Wide Sargasso Sea, as well, now.