Of all the books to speed-read, The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford was a poor choice. I had to, because it was for book group and I started it only a day before the meeting, but I should have lingered, and savoured every paragraph, to get the full stylistic experience.
Most of the books I like, as I’ve mentioned before, I like primarily for style and character, rather than what happens. The exception is Agatha Christie. But it could hardly be more the case than in the present instance – there is a certain amount of things happening, but they are largely incidental to the way it is told. Oh, and it’s not at all about war, as I had imagined it was.
You might be familiar with its (fairly) famous opening line: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’ Apparently Ford wanted to call the novel The Saddest Story, but the publishers thought it would be inappropriate given the onset of World War One, and so it became The Good Soldier – the ‘good soldier’ in question is Captain Edward Ashburnham, although it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the narrator’s (John Dowell) opinion of him is flawed, and a bit changeable.
Have I conveyed to you the splendid fellow that he was—the fine soldier, the excellent landlord, the extraordinarily kind, careful and industrious magistrate, the upright, honest, fair-dealing, fair-thinking, public character? I suppose I have not conveyed it to you.
Indeed he hasn’t, because at other times his opinion of Edward is very low. I shall come on to that…
What isn’t so clear is what the ‘saddest story’ is – or, indeed, why Dowell claims to have ‘heard’ it, rather than acknowledging that he is telling it, and has been a principle figure in it. The leading cast, as it were, are Dowell and his wife Florence, Captain Ashburnham and his wife Leonora, and… no, that will do for now. Dowell starts off telling us all about his ‘poor wife’ Florence, who has died, and narrates the various experiences the two couples have gone through – and it becomes clearer and clearer that Florence is far from the poor invalid Dowell initially conveys, and all manner of other marital strife affects all four people in these marriages.
What makes The Good Soldier masterful is the way in which Ford portrays a voice – and it reminded me a little of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure; a narrator who is not so much unreliable as unsteady, whose shifting thoughts and reflections pull the tone of the novel back and forth. The Good Soldier is all told at one remove, as something that has happened – indeed, a flaw (perhaps) of the novel is this sense of detachment, as though it never really ‘gets going’ – but Dowell’s opinions are far from settled. Depictions of the characters evolve; he is trapped in each changing increment of his opinions, even with the distance of time.
And, as I said at the beginning, it’s all about style in The Good Soldier. I’d been put off reading it for years, mostly because it was the main text analysed in some incomprehensible book I read called ‘Modernism and the Fragmented Self’, or something like that, and because I’d heard it compared to the multi-claused horror that is Henry James. Well, neither terror was warranted – Ford’s writing has depth and rhythm, but certainly isn’t alienating or unreadable. At times it is deceptively conversational, and perhaps its most significant characteristic is how calm and undramatic Dowell’s tone always is. Here’s an example, picked almost at random, but which demonstrates that many clauses need not mean unreadable:
I have forgotten the aspect of many things, but I shall never forget the aspect of the dining-room of the Hotel Excelsior on that evening—and on so many other evenings. Whole castles have vanished from my memory, whole cities that I have never visited again, but that white room, festooned with papier-maché fruits and flowers; the tall windows; the many tables; the black screen round the door with three golden cranes flying upward on each panel; the palm-tree in the centre of the room; the swish of the waiter’s feet; the cold expensive elegance; the mien of the diners as they came in every evening—their air of earnestness as if they must go through a meal prescribed by the Kur authorities and their air of sobriety as if they must seek not by any means to enjoy their meals—those things I shall not easily forget.
I expect that one day I will re-read The Good Soldier, more slowly and thoughtfully. For now, I am impressed, and pleased that the choice of someone at book group finally made me read this.
Others who got Stuck into this Book:
“If you only ever read one more novel again in the course of your life, let it be this one.” – Harriet, Harriet Devine’s Blog
“That is what makes this book great – the characterization, the elegant prose and, most of all, the wonderfully clever structure.” – Jane, Fleur in Her World
“I feel it’s a rare and perfect thing that I am far from done with.” – Hayley, Desperate Reader