IN ONE OF LITERATURE'S more celebrated pranks, a character in a Max Beerbohm story travels forward in time to discover how his reputation has fared with posterity. Heading straight to the card files in the British Museum, he finds himself mentioned in but a single reference -- as a character in a story by Max Beerbohm. That's all right as far as it goes, I suppose; Sir Max's deliciously pilloried victim was a bit of a swine who definitely had it coming, but the joke wears a trifle thin when life imitates art and works the same trick on the unhappy shade of Ford Madox Ford.

Ford is one of those Englishmen so often encountered in the conversation of others, who is said to have done something once, the implication being that he never did anything else. In Ford's case, the nature of the something remains vague to few save a relative handful of university English majors, before whom he is perenially held up (rather like a kidney pickled in formaldehyde) as the author of The Good Soldier and thus a convenient exemplar of the impressionistic mode. In this connection, it is sometimes mentioned that he enjoyed the friendship of Joseph Conrad; it is less often mentioned that they wrote books together. Someone bearing his name wanders briefly through Hemingway's A Moveable Feast , bearing with him the heart and soul of an English remittance man. It is one of the ever ungracious Hemingway's more loutish sallies (and dead wrong as usual), but it should instantly alert us. Hemingway's notorious envy of the excellence of others invariably took the schoolboy bully's form of ridicule, and a highly informative history of Anglo-American letters could be written simply by concentrating on those whom he professed to loathe. As litmus paper, he was all but infallible.

Ford would doubtless have appreciated his peculiar fate -- a laboratory exhibit in someone else's lecture, the victim of an impostor in someone else's memoir, appreciated for the wrong book, his best work ignored; martyrdom was, after all, his single great subject. For all its acknolwedged excellence, The Good Soldier is something of a tour de force, a methodological sally into the techniques and preoccupations that would later reach maturity in Parade's End , the enormous novel on which his reputation ought to be soundly based but upon which, pervesely, it is not.

This remarkable volume, written in the 1920s, last saw light of day under the Knopf imprint in 1961 and has now been issued in paperback by Vintage; it is the sort of book that gets rediscovered once every 20 years or so, lights a brief but fitful fire under the critics and professors, and proceeds to vanish like Brigadoon. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of them being Ford's naive trust in the cultivation of his readership's intellect -- without a rather extensive liberal education of the endangered species variety, much of what he has to say is totally incomprehensivle -- but the chief villain is Ford's woeful mistake in coming down on the wrong side of almost every intellectual fashion of the past 60 years. Parade's End is about Anglican sainthood in an ear where sainthood is embarrassing and Anglicanism is something rich people do for a couple of hours on Sunday. It is about Toryism and class in the century of the common man, the social engineer, and Richard Nixon. It is about the relations of a man and his wife in a time before the contemporary invention of sex and the remodeling of womanhood. Worst of all, it is about the end of civilization in the West, an event that, as everybody who has ever driven a freeway or owned a Betamax knows to a certainty, did not occur on September 3, 1914. Indeed, it is getting exceedingly difficult to find anone who knows the first thing about what happened on September 3, 1914.

Many of Ford's concerns -- the British gentry and their trappings, the hero-as-victim, the decline of taste, religious sensibility -- were similarly the province of Evelyn Waugh, a lesser but more consistent talent, but Waugh was funny. Moreover, he was neither an impressionist nor Frenchified. True to the traditions of the Anglo-American novel, he didn't muck about with a lot of ornate prose and (with the possible exception of Officers and Gentlemen ) he faithfully ended his novelistic scrutiny well before the consequences of holy matrimony made themselves felt. Ford, like any inconsiderable Gaul, insisted on beginning Parade's End with the wedding and he made matters worse by writing the story as if he were painting it, shifting his emphasis with his viewpoint, altering his meaning as though altering the play of light, layering his effects.

The book opens in the imperial late afternoon of 1912, in a perfectly appointed railway carriage that seems to be conveying two young civil servants to a golfing holiday but which in fact is propelling them into the heart of a nightmare. For the lesser of the pair, Vincent Macmaster, it will mean false rewards, hollow honors, and an odious sort of pre-Raphaelite pseudolife that will finally kill him by its sheer irrelevance. For Christopher Tietjens, the younger son of a great country magnate and the last 18th-century Tory on earth, the future is rich in war, scandal, martyrdom inflicted by his own principles (abetted by his ghastly wife, Sylvia), and the utter and final collapse of everything that makes his existence bearable.

There is a superficial but exquisite sadism in the ceaseless torment Ford visits upon the man through the agency of his spouse -- herself one of the great, ambiguous monsters of literature -- but there is also a stern purpose. Unlike virtually everyone with whom he comes in contact, Tietjens is a man with a coherent set of values. As Ford sees them, they are quite good values -- indeed, he regards them as indispensable -- centering as they do on the feudal and intellectual obligations of a ruling class and the careful tending of the soul's garden, but they are horribly dangerous things to have in an inchoate world. Tietjens desires only to imitate George Herbert and stroll a beloved and structured countryside with a Greek text beneath his arm, a sentimental ambition and surely not much to ask for in this life but one so incomprehensible to the age that surrounds him that -- with a certain amount of help from his wife -- it confuses his actions with evil.

There are multiple ironies here. While it is a comforting truism that any subject is fair game for the novel and the writer's only obligation is to do his job, Parade's End is the exception that proves the fallacy of the rule. We don't have much truck with unpopular ideas, and Ford's dilemma is of a piece with that of the protagonist of his masterpiece; intellectuals like Tietjens are uncomfortable company unless they happen to be crazy, and saintly feudalism is feudalism still, something whose virtues we have lost the power to contemplate. We find it palatable only when, as in The Lord of the Rings , it is disguised by the conventions of the long ago and far away. It doesn't seem to matter -- at least, it hasn't mattered -- that Parade's End is brilliant, plausible and kindly, that its ideas are valid, or that its characters live as few others do; like the House of Tietjens, there is a curse on it and for an identical reason. Parade's End has become a strange, haggard Flying Dutchman of a book; like Christopher Tietjens, it was a hundred years out of fashion before it was born. For that reason alone, it is unique in the history of literature.