What makes a book great?
On holiday with my family last week, they had different ideas. Easy to read – Mum. All about plot – brother. Forget books, I’m reading the Daily Mail Bar of Shame – husband. Me? I’m more of a literary purist. I love a good plot, but theme, character development and overall message/values rank just as highly. The question was prompted by the labelling of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (according to good ol’ wikipedia) as “possibly the greatest 20th-century novel in English.” But no one has read it. Does a book have to be widely read to make it great?
Perhaps the best definition of a great novel – beyond plot, character and style – is its ability to move you and to make you think. It’s Proust’s creation of the emotion of nostalgia in yourself that makes his madeleine episode so potent. It’s one’s self-recognition in Jo’s impetuous passion in Little Women that makes the book one of the greats of teenage fiction. And Parade’s End certainly made me think.
With 900 pages and a roaming eye, Parade’s End is hard to sum up. To be reductive, it’s about an unhappily married couple in the pre, during, and post-WW1 years. It’s about the loss of an old England, it’s about the war, it’s about passion. And yet it is a more nuanced, splintered and modernist work than either of those sentences could suggest.
2 of the 3 main characters are works of greatness. Tietjens is, at different times, the brightest man in England, lumpish mealsack, soldier, antiques dealer, aristocrat, line-tower, dropout, semi-mute. With his lack of obvious likeability, insistence on giving away all of his money and not accepting his inheritance for no very clear reason, and his lack of action on divorcing his wife or getting together with his lover, he should be unbearable. This troubling “saint” figure is nonetheless profoundly affecting in his idealism. Without the benefit of the interior view, however, other characters don’t view him with such affection. Certainly not his wife, Sylvia, at once one of the arch-villains of twentieth century literature (hell hath no fury like Sylvia) and a bitingly psychologically perceptive depiction of a spirited, frustrated woman maddened by her husband’s lack of resistance and reaction to her.
There’s little narratorial voice in P.E.; instead, it’s all filtered through the different consciousnesses. It’s a part of the way that, as Julian Barnes argues in his excellent tribute, P.E. is a profoundly modern novel. It’s as disjointed and as difficult to follow as most Woolf. It moves from imagination to description of fact with no differentiation, and you just need to keep reading to get the general flow. The writing of characters feeling exhausted or distracted is simply stunning, and its free-roaming formlessness is at least one explanation for the sheer length of this thing.
The other explanation is the scope of its ambition – enormous – but despite this, for my money it’s not the state of the nation, This Is England novel that most people seem to think it is. As much attention is given to an extremely French mistress as any of the other supporting British characters. Non-sympathetic people (and, frankly, the lower classes) are drawn without interest or sympathy. No – Ford is interested in the interiority of the specific characters and the time in which they live in its most intellectual sense. You feel that Tietjens and Sylvia are drawn out of a very personal understanding of human nature, with Tietjens being particularly personally linked to Ford. Indeed, Ford described himself in similar terms to those he used for Tietjens in the novel – an “old auk” – and sometimes Tietjens’ words reflect Ford’s own sayings: Tietjens states: “You marry to continue the conversation where Ford himself stated more baldly “You seduced a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks to her.”
The world that Tietjens longs for is not a nostalgic patriotism, nor is it a world of equality. It’s a dream of great culture, education, morality and respect. And yet it’s not so much an upper class dream per say; Tietjens fights not for sophisticated soirees (in fact these are mocked as false and self-aggrandising) but the world of George Herbert in his rural parsonage, living the solitary, contemplative life of integrity. It’s a deeply appealing dream – how wonderful to live in a world where education and culture are highly prized, people quote classical literature offhand, and there are renowned Latinists peppered around – and its increase distance from modern society is felt with true pain.
Ultimately, at 900 pages it is a tome, and the second volume in particular was hard work. Graham Greene didn’t even publish the 4th novel in his curated editions of P.E., a move of quite astonishing audacity. My strong recommendation to you literature lovers out there short of time is to read only the first volume, which has the lion’s share of the Tietjens and Sylvia character development and an excellent introduction to the themes. You won’t get “the message”, as Parade’s End isn’t consistently saying any one thing. It’s vaguely torturing because you feel that it’s spinning messages at you and you aren’t quite getting any of them. But with such a wealth of content and style, you’ll be rewarded by any one of the strands you do pick up on. Surely that’s what makes a great book.