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The Plot Thickens

In response to:

Ford's Modern Romance from the November 22, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Kazin’s review of Parade’s End (NYR, November 22) is riddled with errors of fact and hence of interpretation. This is extraordinary from one who wrote as fine a study as On Native Grounds. It is true, of course, that there is hardly a critic who gets even the rudiments of the story of Parade’s End right. And this does have unhappy results for the various critical responses offered. Only A. Mizener of all the critics of Parade’s End comes close to accuracy—and even he makes a number of minor mistakes. Under the circumstances it is futile to argue about matters of interpretation. Let’s just try to establish some facts:

  1. Kazin says that it is in The Last Post that Tietjens “finally consents to live with [Valentine Wannop] on Armistice Day.” I am not sure what Kazin intends by “consents” here. Tietjens decides he will live with Valentine while he is still in the trenches late in A Man Could Stand Up. Armistice Day ends this volume, as does his reconciliation with Valentine—a reconciliation that is clearly permanent.

  2. Christopher has until now refused to accept his rightful share of the estate because Mark has seemed to credit the lies of Christopher’s terrible wife Sylvia.” Not so. Christopher is quite clear as to why he refuses to accept his share of the estate. He has fabricated the quarrel with Mark (the pretext being that Mark had believed Ruggles’s slander of Christopher) so that he could refuse the family money, so that he would have no responsibility to Groby, so that he could live with Valentine. “He had refused to take any money from Brother Mark on the ground of a fantastic quarrel. But he had not any quarrel with Brother Mark. The sardonic pair of them were just matching obstinacies.”

  3. In The Last Post we see Christopher will accept the house at Groby and all its perquisites….” No, absolutely not. (Kazin gets this badly wrong and thus ruins his whole case for Parade’s End as a romance.) The whole point of what happens to Groby is that it goes—not to Christopher—but to his son Mark, who is now a Roman Catholic…thus vindicating Speldon and lifting the “curse” from the family.

  4. Macmaster “…palms off Tietjens’s most brilliant work as his own and is knighted for it.” Kazin gives completely the wrong emphasis to this incident. This fooling with statistics is merely an exercise for Tietjens. He does it “…in the merest spirit of bravado”…an idle attempt to adumbrate the arguments of those whom he opposes, and to show how footling statistical arguments can be. The incident is crucial because in it we see how badly Christopher misjudges the world and the people around him and—he allows his figures to be used for an end which is abhorrent to him—how shaky his own moral stance has become.

  5. Kazin suggests that Tietjens “…is quite sure that the child (Mark) is not his” and that “Sylvia is happy to encourage him in thinking this.” Wrong on both counts. Sylvia is much too accomplished a bitch and a sadist for that sort of simplicity. She is fully aware that the most exquisite way to torture Christopher is to keep him uncertain about the paternity of the boy. (This is easy for her because she too is uncertain. It is finally Christopher himself—with a great expenditure of money, and elaborate calculations of respective movements, days and months—who ascertains that he is the father.)

  6. The point is not that “…the British Army has more to worry about than one captain’s back-home fornications or his estranged wife’s sheets.” The point is that General Lord Campion is Christopher’s godfather, Sylvia’s champion, and has already been involved in their domestic difficulties. We may have some difficulty in accepting Campion’s doting credulity. But having accepted him in the first place we have no difficulty accepting his worrying about Christopher’s sheets and fornications.

  7. Captain Mackenzie does not “…mysteriously become McKechnie.” At the beginning of No More Parades Tietjens calls him Mackenzie although “…Tietjens was not sure that the name was Mackenzie: it had looked something like it in the general’s hand.” Ford amuses himself by having Tietjens (and others) call him Mackenzie while slyly telling us his real name. (The divorce leave is made out for Captain McKechnie.) Not very funny. Very Ford.

Appearances to the contrary Ford’s prose is not easy to read. At a time when critical language is becoming progressively more notional and abstract it is salutary indeed to be reminded of the necessary care which must be lavished directly on the text.

Finally, the text of Parade’s End has never been very satisfactory. It would be interesting to know which text Vintage followed, and whether they made any changes.

David Glassco

Queen Mary College,

University of London

& Trent University

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Alfred Kazin replies:

Although Mr. Glassco is the only person who “gets even the rudiments of the story of Parade’s End right,” he does not understand the extraordinary shiftiness and fantasizing behind Ford’s great adroitness as a novelist. The point of my essay has passed him by. Ford’s projection of Christopher Tietjens’s perfect English gentlemanliness and tireless rectitude turns a remarkable social panorama into a form of literary romance, plausible and enjoyable on both counts. Tietjens comes to personify mythic “old England,” positively Arthurian despite a faithless and destructive wife and a modern period equally faithless and destructive. The half-German and unassimilable Ford, perplexing and dismissible to so many of his contemporaries, craved to join that mythic England and did so as the creator of Christopher Tietjens—one of the more effective and consummated wish fulfillments in the modern novel.

Despite this success at grafting on Tietjens his innermost dreams of perfect probity, aristocratic nonchalance, total intellectual command, the Ford who wrote effortlessly, more than a hundred books, out of his remarkable inner connection with his dreams and his ability to summon up history-as-legend, the Ford who mechanically made up stories about everything and everybody—just as quickly forgot what he had made up. He was inconsistent in all matters of personal detail. But he was astonishingly adroit, better at the technical shifting of his story from plane to plane than at integrating what his mind, so gifted at delivering the full volume of inner consciousness, probably did not care to keep on an even keel.

  1. Tietjens “finally consents to live with Valentine Wannop on Armistice Day.” He consents to her when they meet in London. Valentine was not in the trenches. 2. Mark Tietjens’s successive suspicions and admirations of his brother, to say nothing of his irritable civil-servant pieties and revulsions about a brother so much talked about, whirl along a wide spectrum of love and distaste. At different times—which in Parade’s End as much as in any stream-of-consciousness novel means successive mental states—Mark’s and Christopher’s many reactions make for drama and humor. The relationship between the brothers does not depend on a conspiracy between them. 3. I did not say that Christopher accepts Groby for himself. 4. Mr. Glassco romanticizes Christopher even more totally than Ford does. But where Ford drew a character, Mr. Glassco just takes him at his word. Tietjens does not “fool with statistics”: he is the most valued brain at the Government’s Statistics Office. At several points in the story his projection of the resources available to the warring powers is shown to have strategic significance. How can Mr. Glassco dispose of this as “fooling with statistics” when Macmaster reiterates how much he owes to Christopher’s work and how guilty (occasionally) he feels about his taking credit for it? Lady Macmaster becomes paranoiac on the subject of Christopher because she owes even her title to her husband’s arrogation of Tietjens’s “fooling.”

If Mr. Glassco were not such an idolater of Ford’s every passing fantasy, he would recognize that while it is true that Christopher misjudges the world and the people around him, this is one of the qualities attributable to his hero’s superior virtue. 5. In the course of the four novels that compose Parade’s End, Christopher goes through many suspicions about the child’s real paternity (and hears many more; the book is full of hidden voices). I wrote that Sylvia encourages his suspicions, and so she does. 6. The “sheets” item belongs not just to the history of General Campion, but is also a mockery of the British commands. I was writing an interpretation of the book, not reporting the complicated plot scene by scene. 7. All I said is that Mackenzie mysteriously becomes McKechnie. Mr. Glassco’s attempted nitpicking is irrelevant to my characterization of Ford’s mind and the literary-historical fantasy that makes Parade’s End so remarkable because it works.

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