Parade’s End

February 11, 2013

Most books, films and TV dramas I’ve read or watched about the First World War have been heavy, sombre, and grim.

Understandably.

“Parade’s End” (the sequence of four novels) has these qualities but adds a new one: hysteria.

A tone of nervous, violent hysteria runs through all 900 pages.

I didn’t like the TV series much and skipped some of it. The book is miles, miles better but as I read it I realised how difficult it is to turn into TV. Most of the plot takes place off stage, remembered or ruminated on by the characters when they are on their own, giving the novels a static, slow, claustrophobic quality. The characters seems trapped in boxes, in one instance literally locked in. It’s very difficult in a medium like TV to convey the impression of people remembering things locked in their own heads.

The other problem with the TV series for me was the casting of everyone’s favourite lead actor of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens. This casting pushes the audiences’ sympathy towards Tietjens, making him more of a hero than he is in the book. I found the Tietjens of the books ambiguous and grotesque. Ford Madox Ford presents him as a Christ-like figure, with many of the other characters telling us how noble and brilliant he is. By the end he seemed to me to be deeply flawed, a wounded man thrashing around in a wilderness. The appallingly vivid and brutal descriptions of the sheer horror and disgusting stupidity of the trenches are brilliant, and the books are worth reading just for these. But it’s worth remembering that even while he suffers terribly Tietjens, ideologically, approves of the war.

The character who describes the war best, who nails it, is his wife Silvia. The contemporary reader may find her a more imteresting and compelling character. It is however impossible to feel much sympathy for someone who is so brutally, appalling cruel from first to last. From the first time we see her surrounded by a tableaux of animals being bloodly slaughtered her relentless campaign to destroy her husband is never really explained or justified. I came to the conclusion that she just likes the game of hurting him. The more I read the more she struck me as some kind of gothic archetype, a Medusa or Medea figure, coldly sexual and destructive. For Silvia the war is just a minor irritation, mainly offering more opportunities to torment her victim.

Unlike the TV series, “Parade’s End” does not have a happy ending. The final book does not offer any comfort. The characters are still trapped and the mindless will to destruction continues on. In contradiction to the blurb on the back of the book jacket, the Great War hasn’t actually changed anything at all. Silvia and some new allies are still bent on destruction. She’s already corrupted the next generation.

Only the sensibilities of a film maker like Ken Russell could capture the qualities of “Parade’s End” on film or television.

“Parades End” isn’t perfect. It is too long and all the lower class characters tork in cliched Cock-er-ney.

But it did remind me of another big book I read last year “The Slap”. Superficially the two books could not be more different: “The Slap” is set in contemporary Australia not Edwardian England. But in both books the characters seemed locked in to a set of arbitrary social conventions. In “The Slap” these are vacuous materialism and the narcissism and vanity that come with it. In “Parade’s End” stultifiying, rigid codes of inherited wealth and priviledge as played out in marriage. But in both societies these conventions are only maintained by cruelty and violence.

In “Parade’s End” the violence boils over into a bloodbath, not a slap.

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No it doesn’t

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