Ford Madox Ford begins The Good Soldier with this: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” But what follows this simultaneously maudlin and cheeky opening gambit is not a story the narrator has heard, but one he claims to have lived. Is he kidding? I mean, you don’t hear your own story as, well, story. Nor do you hear it at all, actually–if he really meant it, and by “it” I guess I mean a straightforward story sincerely told, he wouldn’t phrase it this way.
The Good Soldier is famous in part because its aboutness is so hard to pin down ( “aboutness” is Rohan‘s word, but we should all be working to get it into the OED; I mean if twerk can make it in, for bloody hell’s sake…). Oh frustrating, yet irresistible, novel: what comprises your aboutness? Let me enumerate the possibilities: infidelity, cross-cultural miscommunication, lust, religious differences, travel, friendship. Or/and love in its myriad forms, mental illness, reckoning with others’ mental illness, marriage, family, money. Also, heart trouble, suicide, America, England, class, the war, dinner, and drinks.
You think I’m being cheeky, but here’s the thing: it’s not just that the opening bit is so not at all straightforward, it’s that Ford’s style–my first experience with literary impressionism–initially blinded me to the novel’s slipperiness and devotion to obfuscation. I thought, at first, “How delightfully straightforward and uncrafted this all is.” What a fool I was. I was almost tricked by the sprezzatura behind what is one of the most deeply and carefully crafted novels I’ve come across–no, that’s not what I mean. Let’s assume all novels worth reading are deeply and carefully crafted. What I mean is, the most carefully crafted narration I’ve come across, by a deeply circumspect and probably dishonest narrator claiming to be just trying to figure out what all the lies, and death, and infidelity mean.
Those ridiculous lists I provide above are integral to this story of two married couples who become friends, two of whom have an affair (with each other, but with others outside the inseparable foursome as well), one of whom commits suicide out of fear, one who does the same out of sheer fatigue, one who remarries, and one who ends up as the nurse for a woman he’d marry if only she hadn’t gone insane and become unable to do anything but stare and gibber and sometimes roar out Portentous Things which almost make sense.
It’s all very gross, and ugly, and secretive–the put-upon narrator most of all. He presents himself as the injured party–he really had no idea his wife and his best pal were sleeping together until they were both dead! And he really didn’t mean to end up kidnapping that girl he truly loved but, you know, no one wants to take care of an insane 20-year-old, so what was he to do? He doesn’t kidnap her, really; he father is grateful to not have to deal with her. But still, it’s pretty damned weird.
Yes, I’m being flip. I can’t help it. I realized Ford was playing an elaborate joke on me when describing Edward’s (Edward is the narrator’s friend, and his wife’s lover) emotional upheavals, saying he “talked like a cheap novelist.–Or like a very good novelist for the matter of that, if it’s the business of a novelist to make you see things clearly.” If it’s the business of a good novelist to make you see things clearly! Our narrator, Dowell, clearly doesn’t think this is the job of a good novelist–and yet Dowell, who is a mere cipher of deluded, creepy, abused selfishness, spends the novel insisting that what he’s trying to do is clarify precisely what happened with him, his wife Florence, and the Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora.
Dowell, Ford: you’re a tricksy pair. You see, this style, literary impressionism: it reads like the honest and direct outpourings of a real person. It overwhelmed, charmed, ensnared me. I am naive and would like to think that at least a measure of clarity is, in fact, the purpose of the novelist. By the time Ford/Dowell threw down this clever little gauntlet about the job of novelists, however, I was already cottoning on; I knew no one was trustworthy by then.
So when he writes, “It is melodrama; but I can’t help it” and later that this sad tale isn’t tragedy because “there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about it no nemesis, no destiny,” I knew not to believe him. It is not melodrama because the real story, I think, isn’t in the lurid details of everyone’s bad behaviour and questionable escape strategies; it’s something about–shit, I don’t know what it’s about. Something subtler than the novel’s sometimes sensational details anyway.
It may actually be tragedy, at least for a little while, as everyone certainly over-reaches their abilities to the point of breaking the bonds of social stability; the kind of stuff Shakespeare and that whole lot would recognize on some level. But it isn’t always tragedy, because the over-reaching is, except in Edward’s final attempt at self-control, not about reaching higher but giving in to lower instincts–by which I don’t mean sex at all, in spite of the sheer, horrid amount of Freud that got spilled all over this novel–I mean by the small, subtle ways in which everyone tries to get a leg up on everyone else through the very smallest of character assassinations, the politest of ruinous casual comments, the shaming of others’ better instincts, the ignoring of home truths until they become dangerously useful, the lying so much that no one notices it or balks it at it, ever.
Now I sound like I’m talking about Edith Wharton but Wharton’s head would spin at the dishonesty this novel imagines. In the end, the centre cannot hold, not because the world is spinning and shifting too rapidly, but because there is no centre to begin with. And by centre, in The Good Soldier, I mean code of conduct. No I don’t mean that. Code of honour? No, Dowell would ironically dismiss that too. He’s not thinking of honour when he upbraids the memory of his dead wife for her use of him:
She should not have done it. She should not have done it. It was playing it too low down. She cut out poor dear Edward from sheer vanity; she meddled between him and Leonora from a sheer, imbecile spirit of district visiting. Do you understand that, whilst she was Edward’s mistress, she was perpetually trying to reunite him to his wife? She would gabble on to Leonora about forgiveness–treating the subject from the bright, American point of view. And Leonora would treat her like the whore she was.
The invocation of his wife’s whoredom is, of course, a red herring. The real problem is that Dowell doesn’t get what he wants. Well, no one gets what they want, in the end. And sadly, that is probably the only thing linking these bright, selfish beings who, for awhile, trip across Europe together, pretending to be careless and free when it’s all shit and misery for all of them, most of the time.
I’ve just added more confusion to the blur of misunderstanding that clings to The Good Soldier, I know; there’s bloody good reason I’m not a modernist. As a reader, I would like to be played with in a Dickensian way which is, I think, essentially kindly–or, at least, is meant to be understood as such. Ford is ruthless and remorseless and cynical, but all in such constructed fashion, that it felt like reading a novel narrated by a character pretending to be human, and written by someone also pretending to be human. I don’t know if this makes sense.
Maybe I have an overly narrow view of what constitutes recognizable humanity filtered through the lens of literature. It comes down to this: while reading The Good Soldier, I believed it to be one of the best novels I’d read, definitely this year, maybe in many years. As time has passed and I’ve puzzled over how to write about it, I’ve come to resent a little the difficulties Ford constructed for his readers; am I hammering home the connotations I wish to convey when I say “constructed”? George Eliot, for example, looks hard at human difficulties but it never feels as thought she either invented them, or is making them more obtuse and profound than they are. Ford: I love this book but I don’t believe anything you or your narrator say, ever.
But of course I will read Parade’s End and whatever other Ford novels present themselves to me. Ford was a gifted stylist and if I’m honest, which I am, and you know I am because I say I am, I want to be deceived by great authors. I’ll let him try his dirty tricks on me again and hope for the best.
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I am, of course, entirely sympathetic to your frustration at reading such a good novelist who is also such an … unpleasant one! I’m pretty interested in ‘Parade’s End’ myself, though: despite my fraught experience of ‘The Good Soldier,’ I might yet read it. Eventually. There’s still a lot of Dickens I haven’t read, after all. First things first.
Also, Eliot…you know I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a copy of Impressions of Theophrastus Such to send you, right? The world needs that new critical edition. 🙂
I should reread this sometime. It is a slippery book and I fell for it for a good while at first before I started to suspect something was up. But it also was not a pleasant reading experience even after I realized what was going on and that unpleasantness is keeping me from reading it again in spite of how brilliant it is.