So, I had urgent business that I had to finish before I dusted off my novel and got it ready for publication.
I had to finish reading Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy “Parade’s End.”
You see, the fourth novel in the book, “Last Post,” is a hard slog at first. You’d think that, after having hacked your way through the thickets of confusing prose in the first three novels, the fourth would be a breeze, but you’d be wrong. Because suddenly Ford throws a curve-ball and abandons his protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, leaving him entirely out of the book until the last two pages. So we’re thrust into the point of view of a bunch of people who have mostly been in the background, and the epic study of one obstinate man becomes more of a gossipy pursuit of truth through the various bits of information these characters reveal.
It’s jarring. But, having resolved to finish the book, I kept at it until I found the groove. Which came, oddly enough, from the one completely incurious character in the novels.
The other characters are always wondering about something, obsessing about something, sifting through memories and possibilities until you’re quite certain that all of them are more than a little bit crazy. None of them are introspective; they’re constantly obsessed with the actions and possible actions of others. When we finally get dropped into the POV of Tietjens’s sister-in-law, it’s refreshing. She’s completely incurious, to the point where it’s ridiculous. After so many hundreds of pages devoted to worrying about people, here is a woman who just wants to bottle some cider. Properly, the French way.
Graham Greene famously hated “Last Post” and tried to strike it from the tetralogy completely. It’s easy to see why– it’s so different in tone and style from the first three novels that it seems like an ugly duckling. But by the end of the third book, the only real “change” that Tietjens is capable of making has been made. We know him, we know how sentimental and hard-headed and absurd he is. What we haven’t seen before is the resolution of the conflict between the women of the novels and the fallout from WWI. Those are both messy topics, and not in the least anything that Tietjens himself would want to even think much about. It’s a much prettier ending to end the series with the third book– it has a classic romantic ending– but it’s much more psychologically satisfying to see the whole darn mess for what it is.
And that’s what “Last Post” gives us: a real conclusion. And I couldn’t move on from Ford’s books, mentally, until I’d moved past them. After the horrible shadow of jealousy and despair was dismissed, well, we can all move on. Until then, the reader knows that there’s no actual happiness in that romantic ending, because the banshee of Sylvia’s desire is going to keep haunting Tietjens and all his affairs.
Now that I’m finished reading the series, however, my lovely excuse for not working is gone so I’d better get busy.
Reading novels like these, however, does set the bar that little bit higher. How can I be happy with my work if I don’t try for “art?” I can’t, of course. But it helps to remember that Ford wrote dozens of novels, of which only this series and “The Good Soldier” are actually given any renown. Not everything we write really hits the mark. And sometimes, like this novel, it may hit it for some people and decidedly NOT hit it for others.