Thursday, 14 September 2000

Ford Madox Ford: The Last Post (1928)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 619

Dorothy Parker thought that Ford should not have written this novel, which concludes his Parade's End sequence, and that he should have just left Christopher Tietjens destroyed, shellshocked at the end of the First World War, as described in A Man Could Stand Up. This book does make a strange ending, notable for the way in which it almost completely ignores the central character of the three earlier novels. Instead, his elder brother Mark, now a tubercular invalid, is most important; much of the novel consists of the interior thoughts of a man who though aware of the outside world and possessing his full intelligence, is virtually unable to move or even communicate. In keeping with this, The Last Post is virtually plotless, the only event it contains being a visit made to mark by Christopher's unpleasant wife Sylvia and the American woman to whom she has let the ancestral Tietjens house of Groby and whom she has encouraged to cut down the (symbolic) ancient oak at the centre of the estate.

Despite this strangeness, it is easy to see why Ford continued his story - it is mainly to do with the symbolic nature of the Tietjens family. Christopher Tietjens is intended to stand for the idea of the English gentleman, and I think Sylvia is meant to be a depiction of the way in which the British government treated these people. (This is clearest in the second novel, No More Parades.) Having destroyed Christopher and vandalised the heritage which formed him, Sylvia must be made to realise something of the enormity of what she has done. Then she will match the way that many in England since 1918 have mourned the destruction of the certainties that were at the basis of Victorian society. The presence of the American and her destruction of the tree also point to post war changes on the old estates, taken over by newcomers who did not understand or value them. Ford, having written about the effect of the war itself, now wants to say something about the effects of peace.

The writing of The Last Post, especially in the sections told form the point of view of the invalid Paul, is masterful. Even the minor characters are all different, each having their own voice - many novelists find it difficult to write even two people with noticeably different voice and thought patterns. Compared to Henry James, a novelist of greater reputation but who bears many similarities to Ford, Parade's End is consistently cooler and more believable; the neurotic side of James is completely absent even from characters like Sylvia.

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