Tietjens in the Trenches -Observations on Parts I and II of No More Parades (Part II of Parade's End)
No More Parades finds our man Christopher Tietjens in the trenches in France in the opening months of WWI (1914). He is charge of preparing a large group of Canadian Draftees to go into battle. He is living in the trenches. The trenches in WWI were often quite elaborate and included officers quarters and such. They were not simply places to stand up and fire from. Tietjens's commanding General is his late father's best friend. At first impression Tietjens seems like a man who would not do well in the trenches as he has had a totally pampered life and he is not at all physical fit. Tietjens is in command of a group of Canadian draftees (colonials in his mind), 2994 men for two months time during which they will be readied for combat, trained and fitted out. Tietjens is of several minds on these draftees. He is, we must acknowledge, offended to have to listen to the opinions of some of the soldiers (he feels the lower classes should not have political opinions). He also meets a Canadian draftee who seems nearly as erudite as he is. Tietjens has a kind of near break down shortly into his command due to his compassion for the men under him. One of the draftees asked for a day off, Tietjens thinking he was doing the man a favor for another reason, denied the request and this ends up putting the draftee in the way of enemy fire and he is killed. Tietjens cannot get over blaming himself. Tietjens is very patriotic and as British as they come but he is no fool. Here is how he sees the origins of war:
Intense dejection, endless muddles, endless frolics, endless villainies. All these men given into the hands of the most cynically care-free intriguers in long corridors who made plots that harrowed the hearts of the world. All these men toys, all these agonies mere occasions for picturesque phrases to put into politicians' speeches without heart or even intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of men tossed here and there in that sordid and gigantic mud-brownness of winter...by God, exactly as if they were nuts willfully picked up and thrown over the shoulder by magpies...But men. Not just populations. Men you worried over there. Each man with a backbone, knees..a home, passions..schemes of the universe, a milk walk, a slut of a wife, a brat..The Men: The Other ranks. And the poor--little officers.
Note on the reference to "Slut of a wife"-Sylvia Tietjens, his own wife is never far from the action or his mind. In fact Sylvia even shows up at the trenches. (It was not unusual for officers wives (for those with some money) to show up in France at the front. Sylvia begins to try to stage manage Christopher's military career via her family connections to his commanding general. She feels he should have a more important job. We learn more about the complicated dynamics of the marriage of the Tietjens and get more insight into the characters of our parties.
As I read the parts of No More Parades dealing with trench war fare and Tietjens thoughts on the origins of war I could not help but think of General Pudding, a minor but thematically important character in Gravity's Rainbow, and his memories of trench warfare in France in WWI. I know devotees of Gravity's Rainbow and Parade's End may each find this remark very odd, but I see a lot of commonality in the two books. I might post on this upon completion of Parade's End if I still believe it after I have finished the book.
There are a number of interesting references to the 18th century in this section. Tietjens also makes another one of his wonderful literary epigrams in declaring that there no English literature of value written subsequent to the 17th century. Here is how his wife Sylvia described the head of her pet dog (which for her amusement and stress relief she just beaten for no reason with a rhinoceros whip after remarking that the white dog she was whipping remind her of her husband):
A great head, room for a whole British encyclopedia of misinformation.There are a lot of good conversations between Christopher, his wife, her priest, the general, Christopher's brother Michael and the men under Christopher. We may be seeing the awaking of Tietjens to the many absurdities that unpin the Empire. (the use of the bold characters above is my idea!)
There is a really a lot in Parade's End. Great conversations, wicked epigrams that can take their place among the best in literature. Many wonderful cultural references, some of them brilliant some more than passing strange. The sentences are crafted beautifully and there are themes enough for 100s of posts.
In a prior post I pondered the question as to whether or not Parade's End should be seen as an encyclopedic narrative summing up the culture and knowledge of England in the 1910s. Maybe it is a kind of anti-encyclopedic work suggesting the building of encyclopedias is a fools errand. I think this is part of the reason for the great number of cultural references in Parade's End.
As I said when I began my Reading Notes on Parade's End the very nature of the work means that our early perceptions could be all wrong and I accept that as central to the experience of the work.
Parade's End Reading Notes and links to posts by others in the read along.