During my JYA (Junior-Year-Abroad)-- which because I fell fantastically in love with courses in my American Studies Major and proved hopeless at learning languages, really became my "semester abroad" in London--I had a wonderful Modern British Literature Professor named Max Something-or-Other. Max was so shy that he kept backing into the chalk board during lectures and ended up with chalk dust smears on his leather elbow patches. Max was a expert at Ford Maddox Ford- so I naturally shared the same high opinion of the author without having read a single novel.
Last month I found "the Parade's End" in a used bookstore during my frantic dash to buy more brain food books. Good literature is my antidote to the brain melt of breastfeeding sessions.
During that awkward newbie stage, I bribe myself with good books. For Hannah, I read the 800 page history of Henry the VIII's wives in one week and then got hooked on studying the history of the reformation. Alexander got his nickname "Alexei" because he kicked at a specific place during my husband's narration of "the History of the Russian Tsars." Now with Maria, obsessing about reading "the art of the novel." Mostly English writers, some French thrown in for variety. So I was happy to pick up Ford Maddox Ford, thinking there is nothing like finding a new author to add to my mental bookshelf.
UGH! The first scene opens with such promise. A freshly varnished railway car with those fussy straps the British are so fond of having. Two friends on an adventure together. Then, yuck, pages and pages of pointless railing against Roman Catholics (the main character's wife is an adulterous Catholic) -which I'd stomach since it is such a favorite tangent for Anglicans -but then the rest of the novel became obsessed with unhappy upper-class marriages and glorified affairs with Roman Catholic women. Such talent wasted on such a stupid plot!
I so dislike it when artists glorify affairs as a source of "true love" a la The English Patient. It is impossible for an affair to blossom into true love- the kind that lasts, the kind that forgives you for all your shortcomings and simultaneously challenges you to do better. That type of love takes grace and only comes from a marriage- not cohabitation, not sneaking around when you're married to someone else. So all of this "she really was the love of my life, even though I never made an honest women of her" strikes me as false. Ford Maddox Ford had great writing talent but used on such shoddy subject matter.
Surprisingly, "the Painted Veil" by Somerset Maugham and the Woody Allen's movie "Husband's and Wives" also had affairs as subject matters, but struck me as so much more "true." Here the affairs weren't perfect nor were the original marriages. But the affair part ends up striking the protagonists as a poor way out, beneath their inherent dignity as humans.
I worried that becoming a serious Catholic would mean that there would be certain books and subject matter forever "banned" from my reading list. I'm pleased to realize that my faith hasn't limited my tastes. Instead, it has given me another criteria by which to judge fiction: how much do they reflect the truth. Woody Allen's films are really funny. While I'm not signing him up to be a babysitter to my girls, his films strike me as "true." There's an honesty and tenderness about their lack of understanding about what makes up a successful marriage. That's why I can watch his films and come away thinking "wow, we live in a cynical age so it's really important that I get this marriage thing right." Not a take-away message I got from Ford Maddox Ford. Instead, it was "when can I put this book down because it's fake sentiments are really driving me crazy."