Tuesday, November 8, 2011

#30 - The Good Soldier

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Ford Madox Ford’s book baffled me. It was the first of the novels I’ve read in this our Quest where I was at a genuine loss in trying to work out how to respond to what I had read. If this review comes across as a little disjointed, a series of impressions rather than a fully-structured critique, then I hope that the generous Reader will find it wholly appropriate for Ford, who was, consciously, an Impressionist.

The Good Soldier is the first book I’ve read that I cannot whole-heartedly endorse for the casual reader. Every other book I’ve read so far - even Edith Wharton, for all her subject matter bored me - wrote in a skillful, pleasant and accessible enough way that I think a “subway commute and twenty minutes when I can spare them”-style reader could derive great pleasure from the reading. Ford is certainly skillful - moreso than West and probably Wharton, if no Conrad - but his Impressionist contempt for linear narrative and his overbearing narrator make the writing less immediately accessible.

Ford Madox Ford (né Ford Hermann Hueffer - he changed from the very German name to the quasi-palindrome after the First World War) was born in 1873 into a family of painters and scholars of French and other ‘nice’ professions. In addition to writing two books on our list, he was a noted editor and critic. He was an intimate and collaborator with Joseph Conrad, a life-long friend of Ezra Pound, and well-connected with the English literary scene. (His journal The English Review published not only Pound and Conrad, but also Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and the first published work of D.H. Lawrence.

He was also a philanderer and a serial bigamist, which gave him subject-matter expertise regarding the work currently under review.

The Good Soldier tells the story of two couples, John Dowell and his wife Florence (the Americans); and Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora (the English). John is our narrator, and Edward is the Good Soldier. What at the start of the novel appears to be the friendly association of two convalescent families (both Florence and Edward have delicate heart conditions which require treatments at Continental spas) quickly degenerates into a wretched story of infidelities and decay which leaves two of our protagonists dead and drives a third character into permanent catatonia.

The book’s subtitle is A Tale of Passion, and it seems to play on the two meanings of the word - both longing and suffering. Our Good Soldier is (like Ford) a serial philanderer,who falls in love with a whole sequence of women other than his wife (some of these affairs are consummated - the much more destructive ones are not) and pays dearly for it - suffering both from the sting of his own moral sense and from his wife’s multifaceted vengeance.

When reviewing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I commented on the lightness with which Conrad handles his narrator, Marlow. We do not get a straight reporting of the facts from Conrad, we get a biased tale told by a particular character. However, Marlow’s telling fades into the background for long stretches of the story, coloring no more than pronouns, allowing Conrad’s narrative power to work on us. This is not the tactic that Ford takes.

John Dowell is our narrator, and he is both the most brilliant component of the work and the most dangerous. Dangerous, because he is such an overbearing presence in the telling of the story that he might drive off potential readers. I frequently grew frustrated with his presence, and complained to K. on more than one occasion. He’s not a particularly beguiling storyteller, and he interjects too often to tell us how sad this all is.

Dowell is also a brilliant device, however - because he’s a deeply flawed narrator, whose flaws play an integral part in the story he tells. I only really began to appreciate this when I went back and began to reread the book. Dowell is, at the moment of his ‘writing’ (for he is the novelist-with-a-novel), an extremely isolated man, alone in the world except for a nurse and a catatonic mental patient. Because he has no one around to whom he can tell his story aloud,
... I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go to the door and look out at the great moon and say: "Why, it is nearly as bright as in Provence!" And then we shall come back to the fireside, with just the touch of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are gay.
Dowell is an ignorant and sometimes forgetful writer. He intersperses the phrase “I don’t know” in his narrative so many times that I quite literally had time to A) notice the repetition, B) decide to begin counting occurrences, and C) lose count. By his own admission, he’s a dispassionate person, not wholly able to relate to the intense sexual and romantic longings consuming the people all around him. Much of the story comes at us second-hand, and he tells competing versions of the story depending on whether he’s relying on something that Florence told him, or something that Leonora or Edward told him. The same picture gets revisited again and again with different emphases. An image of Leonora running tearfully from a room is first attributed to Florence’s insensitive remark about Irish Catholics (Leonora is one), and then (much later in the novel) to the fact that Leonora recognizes tell-tale signs that Edward is about to begin with a new woman.

Ford likened his process of telling a story to the process of getting to know a new acquaintance. You don’t meet someone and then learn their entire life’s history, beginning with conception, proceeding forward to the point of meeting, and covering all the highlights in between. Instead, when you meet someone for the first time, you have a first impression from the encounter. As the relationship develops, you learn additional pieces about that person’s background - some reinforcing the initial impression, many more that change or complicate the picture.
He may occasionally tell you parts of his life story in chronological order, but equally well he might tell brief anecdotes, you might learn about him from other mutual friends, you might even read about him in the newspapers. (Or, nowadays, you might read his blog and stalk him on Facebook.) You never arrive at the ‘true’ account of his life - only a complicated and enriched impression of what the man is ‘really’ like.

The character of Florence Dowell herself is one of the strongest examples of this constant revising throughout Dowell’s tale. At the beginning, she is presented as a lovely, well-educated innocent, a tragic waif with a weak heart. As events are replayed again and again, this picture begins to fall apart piece by piece. First, we learn that she is the chronic Wikipedia-er of her day (we catch a glimpse of her reading history books before an excursion so that she can appear more educated than she actually is). Then, of course, she begins to have an affair with Edward. Then, we learn that she is a grasping social climber, eager to set herself up as an English lord’s wife. Then, we learn that Edward wasn’t even her first dalliance - and despite her refined tastes, her former lovers were sometimes rather crude. And finally, as the pleasant exterior collapses entirely and tragedy sets in, we learn that she doesn’t even have the delicate heart condition that has been her most defining feature! It was but a ruse she put on to cover her affairs and her lack of romantic passion toward her husband.

As a work of Impressionist literature, The Good Soldier is brilliant. Ford is excellent at conveying plot elements as a series of impressions (some visual, some auditory, some purely emotional), and as I read deeper I found the at-times annoying narrator an increasingly clever and powerful authorial tool for creating a complex and non-linear story. If, as I said at the outset, I cannot recommend this book as forcefully for the casual reader as I have some of the others I’ve read so far, it’s only because I think that this is an easier painting to appreciate than this is.


  1. First, let me say (write) that I'm loving this blog and ruing the day M. and K. finally get through all 100 (should be sometime next week) and I'm forced to turn to actually reading books for my highbrow entertainment. I was reading through the Modern Library list, licking my chops in anticipation of your insight on my faves: Joyce (which lucky person gets to read Finnegan's Wake?), Vonnegut, Heller, Faulkner, and Orwell, as well as your recommendation as to whether I should actually read the stuff I've never heard of (is the cover #99 The Ginger Man just a portrait of M. stroking his ruddy beard?) Even if I haven't read the book you're reviewing and never intend to, you both write with such skill and passion that I hang on every word and eagerly await the next entry. I loved K.'s take on Faulkner and her general willingness to appreciate craftsmanship while noting one book or another doesn't quite work for her personally. It's great that you don't buy into any hype about a text but review your human experience with the book, though I do really wish to hear some fiery filleting of the Hollywood hacks trying to discredit your boy Billy Shakes. As for M., I consider this blog to be payback for the time (timeS) in college when you needed me and my car to move your thousands of books out of a dorm or into a dorm, up flights of stairs, boxes and boxes of books and trash bags full of random papers with you haggardly pulling at your hair and saying "um um um yea um Spitz did we accidentally pack Cutler in a box?" We're even now.

    P.S.: When you do finish this project, though please don't rush, I recommend you plow through the M.L.'s Reader's List of top 100. Enough Ayn Rand and Elron Hubbard to start a bonfire.

  2. Spitz! So glad you're enjoying the ride. M's got Finnegan's, but we're doing Ulysses together over the holidays, if you'd care to join us. I took the Ginger Man because I read somewhere that Hunter Thompson was really into it. Wikipedia described it as "the racy misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, a young American living in Dublin." Sounds like a good time to me.
    Michael had planned from the beginning to do a selection of books from the Reader's List, in case someone was really interested in reading reviews of those Great American Classics, Stephen King's "IT" and Battlefield Earth. I'm going to let him have all the fun to himself there....I have to go wash my hair or feed my fish or something.
    Say hi to those handsome Van Buren Boys for us!