The Good Soldier
“So 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.”
― Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
Some questions arise when reading The Good Soldier. Is it an impressionistic masterpiece? Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Published in 1915, from the pen of Ford Madox Ford, it is unique enough to have been described by its critics as all of the preceding and more. Subtitled "A Tale of Passion", the emotions are presented through an ever shifting memory with multiple facets that suggest Ford's subtle attempt to join the realm of Cubism. It is a unique novel both in my experience and within the author's total work.
The story is narrated by an American, John Dowell, who invites the reader to sit down with him beside the fire of his study to listen to the "saddest story" he has ever known. Set during the decade preceding the Great War, the story, while appearing to be sad for some of the participants, is truly sad only in the ironic sense of the word. Thus we encounter one of the themes of the book--the distinction between appearance and reality.
The characters are not particularly likable or sympathetic. Consider Leonora, the wife of Edward Ashburnham (the "good soldier"):
"Leonora, as I have said, was the perfectly normal woman. I mean to say that in normal circumstances her desires were those of the woman who is needed by society. She desired children, decorum, an establishment; she desired to avoid waste, she desired to keep up appearances. She was utterly and entirely normal even in her utterly undeniable beauty. But I don't mean to say she acted perfectly normally in the perfectly abnormal situation. All the world was mad around her and she herself, agonized, took on the complexion of a mad woman; of a woman very wicked; of the villain of the piece. What would you have? Steel is a normal, hard, polished substance. But, if you put it in a hot fire it will become red, soft, and not to be handled. If you put it in a fire still more hot it will drip away. It was like that with Leonora."
Considering the unlikeability of the characters, it is counter intuitive, but the reader is spurred on to read the novel by the precision and the beauty of the prose and the intrigue within the story. The narrative unfolds in a mosaic-like way with a traversal of the narrator's memory back and forth over the nine year period that is covered. The mosaic is interlaced by motifs including the importance of the date: August 4, and the apparent existence of a heart condition in some of the character's lives. I mentioned the narrator's memory, but one experiences a growing realization that the narrator is inherently unreliable; perhaps John Dowell is the most unreliable narrator in literary history--so much so that I cannot help but think that Ford may have been influenced by Leo Tolstoy's philosophy of history. When complete, the tale is ended perfectly much as it begins.
The result is a beautiful small novel that ranks high in this reader's experience. When a book improves with each rereading some call it great or a classic. My personal term is transcendent, as the books for which I have experienced this effect embody transcendence on one or more levels of reading. The Good Soldier is one such book for me.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. Everyman's Library, 1991 (1914)