The BBC's version of 'Parade's End' has made me feel that my licence fee was well spent this year. It's not just the quality of the adaptation (bearing in mind that I haven't read the books yet, I thought it was excellent bar the last 15 minutes or so when to much got crammed in and wrapped up) but that here was something new to me that has all the signs of being a watershed moment.
Based on an inability to finish anything by Joyce, or enjoy much of what Virginia Woolf wrote ('Orlando' is the exception) I've generally held anything labelled as Modernist with the deepest suspicion. I know I've picked up copies of 'The Good Soldier' in the past, and just as quickly put it down because of that one word. This time I was lucky, I fully intended to buy a copy when one came through the letter box courtesy of Oxford University Press, had I bought a copy it would probably have taken an age to get round to reading it, but as it fell into my hands as I was leaving for the train station and a longish journey I started straight away.
This is such a good book. It lures you in with the promise of gossip and scandal, and then absolutely delivers which is a suitable reward for having to think about it all as well. The story is narrated by John Dowell, he is reflecting on events that happened over nearly a decade of his life, and he takes some months to do it which allows for subtle shifts in his account as recollections are sifted over and re examined in light of what he has learnt. The back blurb on my copy describes Dowell as the archetypical unreliable narrator which I suppose is technically accurate but fails to convey how human that makes him. He declares that he's going to write his 'saddest story' as if talking to a sympathetic listener over the fire of an evening, as he progresses there is a sense of the tale getting away from him, which is of course how we tell our own stories; starting with little lies of omission and attempts to gloss over less flattering episodes, eventually, and despite what we intend, it all more or less comes out.
So it is with Dowell, for nine years he and his wife Florence have spent the summer in Nauheim taking the waters on account of Florence's weak heart, for almost as long they have been friendly with the Ashburnham's - Edward and Leonora. Edward also had a 'heart'. To Dowell the friendship seemed to be just as it was on the surface, but after his wife's death he is forced to realise that she had been having an affair with Edward for some time, that Edward and Leonora only speak in company, and that Leonora was complicit in her husbands affairs.
Reading this my sympathies veered with Dowell's; the Edward he is angry with when the revelation of his affair with Florence is fresh seems a weak fool, but as his anger cools Edward is revealed to be a far more chivalrous and decent soul. So it is with Florence who degenerates from fragile and cherished wife into a manipulative whore. Leonora is as strong as her husband seems weak although she too finally loses Dowell's sympathy after he becomes jealous of her preference for another man. As for Dowell himself - how does one feel about a man who allows himself to be so effectively emasculated, and would have you believe he has been so blind to what's going on around him?
This is a book I'll need to read again. The narrative skips back and forth across the years dropping spoilers by the score and full of inconsistencies. This edition comes with a handy chronology that attempts to unravel events but even so a single reading could only scratch the surface of what Ford has done with this book. There are lot of books I want to read a second, third, fourth time, there are some I feel I ought to read again, but very few like this one where I need and want to read it, not for it's escapist qualities but because it's I feel it's a rare and perfect thing that I am far from done with.