I tried and failed to read Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. I made it through Some Do Not…, which is the first of its four installments and an awfully awkward title. It’s hard to divorce Benedict Cumberbatch’s doughy face from the character of Christopher Tietjens, thanks to the BBC adaptation, but what really did me in was Ford’s dislike of straightforward chronology. I want a story that moves from A to B to C to D; Ford prefers to begin with D and then bounce around between A, B and C (not necessarily in that order) on his way back to D again.
I hate to admit defeat, since Parade’s End comes recommended by someone who has led me to so many other wonderful books, but the truth is that I may not be a sophisticated enough reader for these early twentieth-century moderns.
It wasn’t a wholly unfruitful experience, however. Tietjens claims that the only poetry he ever reads is Lord Byron. It’s not true, really, since Tietjens corrects others when they misquote lines from any number of poets. But the reference led me to pull down the old hardcover of Don Juan that I got cheap at a used bookshop a few years ago with the idea that someday – someday – I might actually read it. That’s what I’m doing now.
What an outrageous performance! With every comic, bawdy, snarky, adventuresome stanza I feel my 2020 anxieties washing away. Don Juan is like – what? Not quite like anything I can think of, but you might shelve it near Tristram Shandy, The Three Musketeers, Tom Jones, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and The Golden Ass.
Byron came to my aid just the other day. On our neighborhood’s NextDoor message board someone outed the young veteran owner of a local liquor store as a Trump supporter, with a screenshot from the man’s Facebook profile to prove it. Since the man was a Trump supporter he was therefore racist and sexist and anti-science and just a terrible and dangerous person in general – so the poster wrote – and we should all boycott his business and destroy his livelihood. The woke hordes of Portland jumped into action, pledging one after another to never again spend a dollar at the shop of such a monster.
I made the mistake of coming to the small business owner’s defense. You’re all free to shop where you like, I wrote, but the political dog-pile and general tone of the thread was ugly and created a toxic atmosphere in the neighborhood. We need not shun people for their politics (else, I added inwardly, I’d have to shun all of you) and I didn’t think the man had done or said anything to place himself beyond the bounds of tolerance. To judge by the responses I got, you’d think I had put in a kind word for Adolf Hitler. I was clearly a moral monster too, an apologist for people who would starve brown children in steel cages and inject them with bleach. Or so they said.
What was I to do? In an impulse of bibliomancy, I opened Don Juan and read the following:
Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap how branchless were the trunk
Of life’s strange tree, so fruitful on occasion!
But to return, – Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
Obedient to the oracle’s voice, I went out of my way that afternoon to visit the liquor store in question and buy some whiskey (rye and Irish) that I didn’t need, just to spite those bastards on NextDoor and put some money in the pocket of the neighborhood “Nazi.” If I did not, in fact, get drunk, well, it’s only my native spirit of moderation that held me back.
But the next stanza helped me understand the service Lord Byron had done me in that moment:
Ring for your valet – bid him quickly bring
Some hock and soda-water, then you’ll know
A pleasure worthy Xerxes the great king;
For not the blest sherbet, sublimed with snow,
Nor the first sparkle of the desert spring,
Nor Burgundy in all its sunset glow,
After long travel, ennui, love, or slaughter,
Vie with that draught of hock and soda-water.
Ah, yes, that’s it. Byron, you see, is himself the valet. And that’s just what Don Juan is like: hock and soda-water delivered to you on a silver platter in bed the morning of a bad hangover.