Last year was my Ford Madox Ford year.
But this year is likely to be yours.
Ford (1873-1939) was the English author who, between 1924 and 1928, published four novels about World War I titled, as a bundle, Parade's End.
Parade's End comes to American TV Tuesday, when a five-part BBC adaptation hits HBO (over three nights). The script is by Sir Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Arcadia; Shakespeare in Love). U.K. superstar Benedict Cumberbatch is Christopher Tietjens, the elusive central figure of the novels. Rebecca Hall stars as his fearsome wife Sylvia, and Adelaide Clemens is cast, perfectly, as Valentine Wannop, Tietjens' conflict of affection.
Once I read the books, I didn't expect the series to come near what they do. TV can't.
So I'm here to say:
(1) Watch the series. It's beautiful, thoughtful TV, much beyond the usual period drama. More grown-up, less soapy than Downton Abbey. It's a story that questions what it means to be man, woman, warrior in the midst of time.
And better yet, urgently:
(2) Read Parade's End.
Ford played a big role in the modern era, befriending and championing Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Ernest Hemingway. One of the saddest images in literary history is of Ford, as an old man, weeping to realize their fame would outstrip his.
My Ford Madox Ford year started with a poem: "Antwerp," which Ford (who served as a lieutenant in the Welch Regiment of the British Army in 1916-1917) wrote in 1915. T.S. Eliot called it "the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war."
I moved to The Good Soldier (also 1915), a book I'd been promising myself since the Granada TV version aired on PBS in 1983. Original, piercing, it has taken on mountainous stature in the last 98 years, making many best-novel lists for the 20th century. (Read The Good Soldier!)
Suddenly, it seemed like Ford's time. HBO announced it was bringing Parade's End here. Eminent novelist A.S. Byatt called Parade's End one of the century's greatest achievements. Julian Barnes wrote a series of essays on Ford. It seemed like the time to sit down and read Parade's End.
Seldom have I ever read such a depiction of how war changes culture. World War I surely changed England; that, in large part, is what Downton Abbey is about. War swept the old world away and faced humanity with a wounded, open future. That's what drove Pound and Virginia Woolf away from sanity.
In Parade's End, Valentine hears the celebrations in the streets of London on Nov. 11, 1918, and realizes everything is different. Yet how? It's a great, great moment. It takes a war to force characters to make earth-shattering, life-altering, rule-smashing decisions in Parade's End. War is always, ever, more than only war.
No one better evoked the terrifying sounds of war. You're in the trenches in France, Germans bearing down, your back to the sea. But Ford's fabulous experiment, reminiscent at times of Woolf or James Joyce, is to go easy on direct description in favor of interior lives, even as bombs shatter the air and men fall dead in front of us. Interior life takes precedence, over time, over terror.
Sometimes that can make these books seem woolly. So can the English slang of the period, for which almost all U.S. readers will need a glossary. Parade's End, for that reason, would make an ideal classroom or reading-group title.
They are among the best sex novels of the century - without a directly observed sexual act anywhere. At times, I'm reminded of D.H. Lawrence in the way Ford depicts the man-woman paradox. Sex permeates all - the fact, the impact, the mad punishment, invoked with adult honesty. There is a night ride by horse-drawn cart in the fog, elusive, moving, a depiction of falling into spiritual-sexual union, against one's will.
Sylvia, Christopher's wife - whew. Because he has made her love and desire him, she hates him; because he has forgiven her, she tries to destroy him. Christopher is both a modern figure - a paradox, a worshiper and, at last, defier of convention - and a throwback. And I'm a big fan of strongminded, virginal suffragette Valentine.
What of the series? It's a damned good effort. The first episode has a lot of action, backstory, and details to set up, and in general the series can seem as overloaded as some Downton Abbey episodes. But overall, the depiction of era and characters is persuasive, and the ironies are like shrapnel.
Stoppard's telling script gets every last throb of implication - and I admire the clever ways Stoppard solves the all-but-insuperable problems this huge tetralogy poses for any adaptor. The war sequences are harrowing, although TV can't really match the novels' expressionist play of internal conflict against external butchery. And it does very well with the cart ride - edgy, uneasy, romantic, melancholy.
Cumberbatch, a god of sorts thanks to his roles in Atonement and the BBC's Sherlock, brings a Dennis Quaidish stolidity to Christopher. He both attracts and holds at arm's length, invites sympathy but not pity. Hall as Sylvia is a balked, teeth-bared destructionista. I've already said I like Clemens as Valentine, a hard character to perform. She's a 1918 version of a riot grrrl.
If Parade's End on HBO leads people to even a small part of the novels' riches, great. Even better if it leads lots of readers to the books themselves.