Fishing for Readers: The Apostles Creed of Literature

October 15, 2010

“The two young men—they were of the English public official class—sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.”

We hear so much about the need for a “hook,” something to grab the reader immediately, that I take more and more pleasure in authors who ignore that dictum, or who wrote before it became the Apostles Creed of Literature.

The sentence quoted above opens Some Do Not…, the first novel in Ford Madox Ford’s magnificent trilogy Parade’s End. Does anything, other than the balance and rhythm of the style, hook us? What are the men doing? Merely sitting. Who are they? Members of a humdrum group of bureaucrats. Where are they? In a railway car whose principal attribute is that it has no faults. This is an anti-hook.

As those who’ve read the trilogy will remember, Ford’s purpose here is to establish the stasis of pre–World War I English society—a stability that will soon be rudely interrupted. Hence the men are seen first as unmoving stereotypes. But even after establishing their stillness, Ford is in no hurry to bring us action. Not until deep in Chapter IV do we reach the scene when Valentine Wannop alters Christopher Tietjens’ life forever by barging up to him on a golf course to demand that he save her friend and fellow suffragette from being manhandled. In the meantime, Ford treats us to, among other things, a description of Tietjens’ companion Macmaster, including his origins, current position, aspirations, and the thesis of the new book whose proofs he has been correcting on the train; a brief history of Tietjens’ disastrous marriage, which leads to an explanation of why the two friends have embarked on a golf outing; a mention of Tietjens’ pastime of finding errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; a philosophical discussion of monogamy; a long chapter with the wife, her mother, and a priest, who utters such observations as “’It’s a good maxim that if you swat flies enough some of them stick to the wall”; and, immediately after the opening quoted above, a leisurely survey of that boring railway carriage:

“The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne. The compartment smelt faintly, hygienically of admirable varnish; the train ran as smoothly—Tietjens remembered thinking—as British gilt-edged securities. It travelled fast; yet had it swayed or jolted over the rail joints, except at the curve before Tonbridge or over the points at Ashford where these eccentricities are expected and allowed for, Macmaster, Tietjens felt certain, would have written to the company. Perhaps he would even have written to The Times.”

The writing is confoundedly leisurely, as Tietjens himself might have said. It’s also brilliant, pointed, and amusing.

No hooks. The reader isn’t treated as a fish. I admire that, and envy Ford for living in a time when it was possible.

I first read Ford when I was quite young, and now I’m wondering if my convictions about him would change during a new read. By accident in browsing, I discovered one person who has recently come to Parade’s End for the first time and finds it fascinating: see the entry in Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, http://hannahstoneham.blogspot.com/2010/04/read-along-of-ford-madox-fords-parades.html.

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