The Chemistry Major
At this late date, newly minted Medicare card tucked safely in my wallet, I suppose it’s time to admit, mostly to myself, that I have always been what Pavel calls “An English Major.” He certainly thinks so, with simultaneous admiration and contempt. Notwithstanding three years as a chemistry major with a math-physics minor, 4th prize in the Arizona State Math Contest, possession of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (56th ed.), and calculus class at 7:4o a.m. Monday through Friday my freshman year of college, I imagine “liberal arts” was always written clearly on my forehead; fortunately, it wasn’t written backwards, so I had the excuse of not being able to read it. Daddy certainly knew it when he called me a lazy sow who didn’t know how to do anything but lie around reading all day; I’m sure he said “lay around,” but we’ve established that I’m an English major. And though he thought college for girls was a fool’s errand, he was willing enough to send me off to the University of Arizona (on full scholarship), slide rule in one hand and Look Homeward, Angel in the other, for something as respectable as a career in chemistry. Of course, Puritan that I was and am, I, too, thought that literature majors were rather fluffy and insubstantial even though I was in awe of the insouciance with which Judy Schneider raised her hand in Dr. Robinson’s American literature class, somehow with her elbow still on the desk, and made an offhand remark about, say, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, as though she had just been to his house for a Sunday afternoon of playing backgammon, drinking Bloody Marys, and reading the New York Times.
And then one day, two marriages and a lifetime later, I found myself in my second year of a graduate program in English, lying on the bed, propped on my elbows, reading A House of Mirth. I was, in fact, seemingly always propped on my elbows reading; I was taking a five-week summer class in the American novel. I suddenly thought to myself, “This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing!” I didn’t mean existentially, only instead of, say, scrubbing the toilet or shopping for groceries. But there it was. I was supposed to be reading The House of Mirth and Moby-Dick and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets for an intense five weeks that summer–not least because Harold Bain was the professor, and he might die of lung cancer before I had the chance again. But I suppose that’s how English majors think. Thought in 1990, at least.
All that goes to say that both before and after acknowledging that I was–not was meant to be, but WAS and AM; there’s a subtle difference–“An English Major,” I was quite comfortable lying around and reading all day. Even as a chemistry undergraduate, I took a survey course in British literature; we used the Norton Anthology and read Byron (“Don JOOO-an”) and Coleridge (“Kublai CAN”). It was there that I heard of Ford Madox Ford, but only insofar as I got him confused with Lytton Strachey because once the professor stammered, “Strachey–Lytton Strachey,” and for many years I thought those two shared the peculiarity of having the same first and last names.
There was, of course, that long interval before I became a card-carrying English major, but even then I was content with all that reading in lieu of chemistry labs or toilet-scrubbing. Thereafter, I took all the official classes in British literature: Lawrence and Joyce; Dryden, Swift, and Pope; Non-Dramatic Literature of the English Renaissance; the Victorian Period; the Romantic Poets; Shakespeare’s Early Plays; Chaucer. But through it all–through even the written master’s exam covering Beowulf to the present–I never again heard the name of Ford Madox Ford, the one whose first and last names really were the same. Well, sort of. He was born Ford Hermann Hueffer (HEFF-er), used the name Ford Madox Hueffer as a young novelist to honor his grandfather, the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, and changed his name to Ford Madox Ford only after World War I because Hueffer sounded so, well, German. But of course if I never heard his name, I didn’t know any of that–didn’t know it until earlier this week when I became obsessively immersed in reading Ford’s World War I tetralogy, Parade’s End. And now I am distraught (and not a little ashamed) that I never had this encounter until I was almost 65. Moreover, I am a great deal disturbed by the quality of a master’s program at a respected state university–the first state university, I might add–could be completed without familiarity with this important novelist, critic, collaborator with Joseph Conrad, friend of James Joyce and Henry James, paramour of Jean Rhys, mentor of D. H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, practically the b—y inventor of stream of consciousness (and, unlike his fellow veteran of the Somme, Frederic Manning, practitioner of the annoying habit of writing f—ing and b—y). But I get ahead of myself.
Parade’s End and My Belated Tale of Passion
I actually began reading the 906-page tetralogy last autumn. I was in the process of reading every World War I novel I could get my hands on–or at least could order from AbeBooks for $3.64 apiece. I know the season because I always write the date I begin reading inside the covers of my books, and I wrote there “Fall 1917,” an understandable slip of the century that I had to cross out in favor of “Fall 2017.” I avidly made my way through Some Do Not . . . and most of No More Parades by the end of Christmas vacation.
I found myself thoroughly enamored of the last Tory, Christopher Tietjens, who could “tabulat[e] from memory the errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica” and who by all accounts was uglier still than Benedict Cumberbatch (who played him in the BBC serial I watched before diving into the first book). Given the rhymes, Tietjens could produce a sonnet in under three minutes, and he could be described thus:
His private ambition had always been for saintliness: he must be able to touch pitch and not be defiled. That he knew marked him off as belonging to the sentimental branch of humanity. He couldn’t help it: Stoic or Epicurean; Caliph in the harem or Dervish desiccating in the sand; one or the other you must be. And his desire was to be a saint of the Anglican variety.
In electing to be particularly English in his habits and in as much of his temperament as he could control–for, though no man can choose the land of his birth or his ancestry, he can, if he have industry and determination, so watch over himself as materially to modify his automatic habits–Tietjens had quite advisedly and of set purpose adopted a habit of behavior that he considered to be the best in the world for the normal life.
The latter passage amply illustrates Ford’s prose style, which Ian Crouch describes as the “animating spirit” of Parade’s End–“both his archaic and gloriously obscure diction, which represents a form of literary Toryism, beholden to the past; and his high modernist stream-of-consciousness style, which points boldly to the future.” That startling style–to say nothing of repeated cybertrips to Google and American Heritage, 5th ed., in order to squeeze out every nuance of meaning and every gloriously obscure definition–makes for slow going. Slow and exceedingly satisfying going, I might add. Reading in the car, I generally had to take a break to read such passages aloud to whoever was driving the car and marvel with him at how much thought was required to do justice to every page.
However, after returning to school in January, eager to read even more and more disparate WWI novels and saddled with seven composition classes, I abandoned Parade’s End almost exactly midstream and wondered if I would ever get back to this writer whom I by then admired as I have few others. His carefully drawn characters, his clear depiction of the horrors of war with scarcely a scene of battle, the minutiae with which he chronicled the watershed that was post-Edwardian England: All these qualities haunted and beckoned to me. But hundreds of essays to grade and 400 pages yet to read daunted me.
I found the tattered paperback under a couple of umbrellas in the trunk of my car two weeks ago and decided that my summer-school schedule would allow me to continue reading. And I have been at it ever since–all the while teaching three in a series of classes devoted to ensuring that at least a few hundred community-college students in North Carolina know a few details and care at least a little about what happened in the trenches of the Western Front. As soon as I completed No More Parades, I launched right into A Man Could Stand Up–and immediately thereafter, The Last Post, the final novel, which I finished, with tears, yesterday afternoon. The tears were partially because of the parting scene between Valentine Wannop and Mark Tietjens, but also because I was forced to extricate myself from this fascinating world of Ford’s creation. And since I couldn’t quite let it go, I began reading biographical sketches of the author, reviews of his books, and even reminiscences of the experience of first reading them.
My purpose here is not to write a review. Certainly I will encourage all who follow Just(e) Words or chance upon this post to read these four books that have given a new dimension to my life. I will even tell you a little about them. But my main purpose here is to honor a writer who I believe has fallen out of favor not because he is no longer relevant, but perhaps because he is too relevant, and his trenchant observations of English–and even a bit of French and American–society still chafe a little too much. His reputation also suffered because of the ingrates whose careers he encouraged and whose works he published; Hemingway, for example, lambasted Ford in A Moveable Feast. And of course, Ford’s sentences are as abstruse as those of Henry James, and his use of multiple narrators and stream of consciousness is as complex as that of Virginia Woolf and–well, almost as intimidating as that of James Joyce. They don’t, in short, fit onto the screen of an iPhone or into the heads of hipsters. And if my own writing in this post seems unnecessarily prolix, it’s perhaps only because Ford’s style is somewhat contagious and his way of thinking, difficult to escape–my best and truest hommage to Parade’s End and its ungainly author.
Parade’s End begins in 1912 and ends a few years after the Armistice in 1918; it chronicles the life of Christopher Tietjens of Groby Hall from the time he decides to allow his unfaithful wife Sylvia to return to their marital home, through his experiences in the trenches on the Western Front, to the events of an afternoon in the bucolic if penurious aftermath of these tumultuous events. Because summaries of the intricate and interwoven plots of the four novels might spoil their sinuous entrance into your consciousness, I will dispense with them. Instead, I will mention that my enthusiasm for the novels is shared by such notables as novelist Julian Barnes and physician-poet William Carlos Williams, the latter of whom described Christopher Tietjens at the end of The Last Post as “not the ‘last Tory’ but the first in the new enlightenment of the Englishman” and continued, “Parade’s End then is for me a tremendous and favorable study of the transition from England’s most worthy type, in Ford’s view and affections, to the new man and what happens to him.” English political philosopher and intellectual historian John Nicholas Gray called the tetralogy “possibly the greatest 20th-century novel in English.” And Max Saunders, writing as one of the editors of Carcanet’s 2011 critical edition of Parade’s End, declared in the New York Review of Books:
[We] believe, with Anthony Burgess, that it is “the finest novel about the First World War”; with Samuel Hynes that it is “the greatest war novel ever written by an Englishman”; and with Malcolm Bradbury that it is “a central Modernist novel of the 1920s, in which it is exemplary.”
Sadly, I fear that most of my fellow English majors, past and present, existential or official–at least in the United States–share my previous ignorance of this important writer, his checkered life, his presence at the forefront of literary modernism, and his vast and varied œuvre.
This “English Major,” though, is eagerly awaiting the arrival by post of Ford’s 1915 masterpiece, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion–described by many as the most successful use of the unreliable narrator by any novelist–so I can devour it before the fall semester begins. For the nonce, I am reading The Only Story, the most recent novel by the aforementioned Julian Barnes. Nor do I believe he would object to my suggestion that this novel, like 2011’s The Sense of an Ending, was inspired in its very soul–and to its credit–by its creator’s passion for the works of Ford Madox Ford.