Wednesday, December 14, 2011

English Interlude - Ford Madox Ford

A few years ago, I taught a class called "Love/War" in which I tried to look with my students at the love stories within war novels. I picked the wrong books, though, so we mostly watched movies with that mix: "Cabaret" being the one I remember most.

The following passage from Ford's A Man Could Stand Up--, a 1926 novel set at the end of WWI, could have qualified the book for that class.

What's excellent about this series of Ford novels (Parade's End, it's called) is that I'm never sure if I'm supposed to respect the main character, who's also a strong influence on the narration. So, I find myself nodding my head and then wondering whether the book is actually criticizing this straightforward, brave, intelligent, stuffy, emotionally-stunted statistician-turned-captain.

A little set-up. Tietjens (whose name I have great difficulty pronouncing in my head) has an awful wife and a lovely young friend named Valentine. The wife's main goal is to destroy and humiliate him, while Valentine is completely on his level, a complementary intellect and temperament. While Tietjens is away in France, he mostly ignores his longing for Valentine, but when he's (shell) shocked--and sometimes when he's not--she flits into his mind:

"The beastly Huns! They stood between him and Valentine Wannop. If they would go home he could be sitting talking to her for whole afternoons. That was what a young woman was for. You seduced a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her. You could not do that without living with her. You could not live with her without seducing her; but that was the by-product. The point is that you can't otherwise talk. You can't finish talks at street corners; in museums; even in drawing rooms. You mayn't be in the mood when she is in the mood--for the intimate conversation that means the final communion of your souls. You have to wait together--for a week, for a year, for a lifetime, before the final intimate conversation may be attained. . .and exhausted. So that. . .
That in effect was love."

See what I mean? I'm pretty sure there's something deeply incorrect about this vision of love. Then again, Tietjens is all about moderation, patience, communication, and there's no immediate sense that we're supposed to dislike him.

He just wants someone to understand (I mean that sentence in both ways). It reminds me of a line about Mr. Ramsay in Woolf's To the Lighthouse:

"It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken into the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life [. . .]."

Why am I so stirred by needy, icy (selfish in Mr. Ramsay's case) Brits from the first quarter of the 20th century? The above would suggest that I want someone to understand me and be understood by me, but that's not necessarily a deep concern--Megan already gets and laughs at my half-asleep improvisations; I mostly understand and laugh at hers; neither of us seems trapped in an, ahem, modernist jailhouse of the self with the inadequacy of language as our bars and unceasing isolation as our faceless warden.

But I guess that's the fear.

No comments: