By the time I began reading A Man Could Stand Up I was feeling fairly heartbroken by Parade’s End; the angst I was experiencing was weaving its way through my day to day existence. Most noticeably my musical habits changed as my mood dropped; Fleetwood Mac made way for System of a Down.1 By this book, if anything worse had happened I am not sure I would have been able to finish the series.
The penultimate novel of Ford’s series, A Man Could Stand Up details Christopher’s experience at the front line, shell shocked and damaged by Sylvia’s scheming. Meanwhile this story is encased by the events of Armistice Day – Valentine and Christopher’s eventual reuniting.
Against the backdrop of a world at war, Ford recounts the complex sexual warfare between Tietjens and his faithless wife, Sylvia. A work of truly amazing subtlety and profundity, Parade’s End affirms Graham Greene’s prediction: “There is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.”2
If No More Parades was Sylvia’s novel, A Man Could Stand Up is Valentine’s. Older and wiser, Valentine has developed from being besotted with Christopher to, in his absence, angry at his rejection of her. Valentine finally realises how trapped she is in her love for Christopher, frustratedly she acknowledges the experiences it has lead her to miss. Finally Valentine wants to live her life, but she cannot, she is trapped both by love and where society has placed her. It is an interesting contrast to Sylvia, who is just as trapped as Valentine by social decorum, however, wants to preserve the traditions. I could not help but smile when Valentine notes that she does not want to be like Sylvia, she has no desire to lead a life based on looks (not that she really has any to rely on), she prizes her learned mind.
Valentine appears as annoyed as Sylvia at Christopher’s internalising of emotion, however, she transcends Sylvia in her knowledge and acceptance of his reasons for doing so. Valentine, more than Sylvia, understands how his duty gets him in horrendous messes, but that it has been to protect her. It was refreshing to finally see Valentine out of lust, living in the bitter reality of the real world. However, Valentine is also angry with herself, she doubts Christopher’s interest in her, concerned she reads more into their few moments together than Christopher actually expressed. Valentine is no longer the naive girl who saw him off in 1916.
After visiting Valentine on Armistice Day we are pulled back to Christopher on the Front Line, where Ford once again amazed me with his description of the boredom and horror of war. (He also made me giggle.)
“The man’s shoulders had come heavily on him as he had re-bounded from the parados-face. He felt outraged. Watching that performing Hun he held the knife pointed and tried to think of the German for Hands Up. He imagined it to be Hoch Die Haende! He looked for a nice spot on the Hun’s side.”3
As a child of older parents, I was brought up on television programmes a little different than most of my friends. For anyone unaware of the brilliance that is Dad’s Army, it is a British Sitcom about the Home Guard during The Second World War. One of its lead characters, Lance-Corporal ‘Jonesy’ Jones, has some of the best lines, one of which is a rather eccentric, “Hände Hoch, Hände Hoch!”. Because of this recollection, I could not help but giggle at the quote above, it brought back many childhood memories. Dad’s Army aside, Christopher is hilarious in himself; “He felt outraged”, you can almost see his chest swell in fury at this German soldier.
Ford gives us an interesting and realistic vision of war, one which rings true today. The majority of the news reports on death, bombings or shootings, but war is more than this. It is administration and waiting, waiting for the worst. Young men and women are drawn into the Army etc… by exciting and interesting propaganda, but it is not all exhilarating and challenging, it is about control and discipline too, managing boredom and fear.
“That damned truck had stayed under that bridge for two hours and a half… in the process of the eternal waiting that is war. You hung about and you hung about, and you kicked your heals and you kicked your heals: waiting for mills bombs to come, or for jam, or for generals, or for the tanks, or transport, of the clearance of the road ahead. You waited in offices under the eyes of somnolent orderlies, under fire on the banks of canals, you waited in hotels, dug outs, in sheds, ruined houses. There will be no man who survives of His Majesty’s Armed Forces that shall not remember those eternal hours where Time itself stayed still as the true image of the bloody War!…”4
Once again Ford’s representation of the prosaic nature of war and the sheer risk these men were facing is fantastic, you get a striking sense of realism from his writing.
“They were alone now in the hall, he on a level with her. He looked into her eyes. He Smiled. He had never smiled at her before. They had always been such serious people.”5
Christopher and Valentine’s union was something I had been waiting for since their first meeting, and I was surprised that this climactic event occurred prior to the end of the series. It was amusing that while Christopher was at war believing Valentine would be worried for him, she is back in England angry at him. Even as his memory of her fades, she is still the only person he wants to talk to, “The only clear intelligence!” Valentine is not superficial or bogged down by propriety, she upholds a sort of innocence he finds attractive. Their minds march to the beat of an odd drum, which makes them so perfect for each other. Christopher and Valentine are less about passion because passion fades, they wish to build a life-long companionship.
“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 seduce a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks 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 mean the final communion of your souls. You have to wait together – for a week, for a year, for a life time, for the final intimate conversation may be attained… and exhausted. So that….. That in effect was love.”6