Have you ever wondered what Barnes and Noble Books does with the editions of its classics that they cannot sell in their stores? ( Ok, I know you have not spent a whole lot of time pondering this issue.) It seems a lot of them they ship to the Philippines where they are sold once a year in an 80 percent off sale. I was lucky enough to be in Power Books in Trinoma Mall the day their sale started. I was able to get several Hardys, three James, a Wharton. two Eliots, some Conrads and The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.
I had never read any of Ford's work. The last he was brought to my mind was a few months ago when I read the introduction to the Oxford Classic edition of A Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert in which Ford is famously quoted as saying you could not consider your self a well educated person until you had read that work at least 14 times. A Good Soldier has been waiting for a few months now to be read. I completed it yesterday. I do not recall being so amazed by the very high intelligence, cultivation, and artistic power of a novel for a very long time.
The narrator of The Good Soldier is a simply maddening figure. English professors teach this work as a classic of unreliable narration. It is the story of the lives and relationship of two married couples, both wealthy. The narrator, John Dowell, is an American. His friend (if one has friends in the world of The Good Soldier) Edward Ashburnham is English. He is the good soldier in that he was a regimental officer in the British Army and served in India. He always did his duty as expected by society, hence the label, good soldier. John sees him as quite a fine fellow. We come to see that John is terribly corrupt and completely self centered. He deceives everyone around him including John. He has a long affair with John's wife, a fact that slips John's notice. Least we think John is an imperceptive man, here is how he describes his wife Florence.
You are to imagine however much her bright personality came from Stamford, Connecticut, she was as yet a graduate of Poughkeepsie. I never could imagine how she did it-the queer, chattery person that she was. With that far-away look in here eye-which wasn't in the least romantic-I mean she doesn't look as if she were seeing poetic dreams, or looking through you, for she hardly did ever look at you..She would talk about William the Silent, about Gustav the Loquacious, about Paris frocks, about how the poor dressed in 1337.The narration is not relayed to us in a straightforward fashion though throughout John tells us he is trying to give a true account of their lives. At numerous points in the narration a casual remark, almost a slip from the narrator, will undercut our full perception of events he has narrated. He is nearly half way through his story before he reveals he has a net worth of about Two Million dollars (an utter fortune in 1915) and that he is twenty years older than his wife. We also find out through the smallest aside that after several years of marriage John and his wife have never had sex and that he may well not know how children are produced. His wife, he seems to never know this, had faked a heart condition to avoid intimacy with him. Part of the great pleasure of this work is trying to figure out the truth about the lives of the characters through the medium of the narration. A great deal of my enjoyment of the work came through marveling at the writing. Here is John's part of his first meeting with his future wife's aunts.
The first question they asked me was not how I did but what I did. And I did nothing. I suppose I ought to have done something, but I did not see any call to do it. Why does one do things?
None of the central characters in this work really do anything in terms of work but for Edward's time in the army. Edward has an extreme weakness for women. The book may seem to bear a superficial resemblance to the world of The Great Gatsby but that is the wrong path to go with this book.
It is funny somehow through the prism of this very unreliable half imperceptive half brilliant narrator we see more than we do in tales where the narrator is omniscient. Here is a wonderful utterance by our narrator John:
Someone has said that the death of a mouse from cancer is the whole sack of Rome by the Goths, and I swear to you that the breaking up of our little four-square coterie was such another unthinkable event.As we keep in mind that the book was published and is set during a terrible world war. This is seen by Frank Kermode as Ford's way of saying that the events in lives of the people in the story reflect the events in the world and the conflicts of the characters is meant to be a sort of mirror of the conflicts in the war. I think this is the as taught in universities reading of the novel. I think it is terribly missing the point of The Good Soldier and fails to begin to appreciate the depth of the artistry of Ford. Looking at the quote with this dictum of Natsume Soseki in mind
The pleasure we gain from a Noh play springs not from any skill at presenting the raw human feeling of the everyday world but from clothing feeling as it is in layer upon layer of art, and in a kind of slowed serenity of deportment not found in the real worldWe can see the remark is at least two things. It is a completely silly remark of a fatuous man who compares the self created problems of four idle rich to the death of millions which can only be a terrible trivialization of what really happens. It is reflective of the utter corruption and decadence of John and his world. It is also a remark of transcendent wisdom. John does not know what it means and really uses it as only a cruise ship type line. John has a life of slow serenity. He does not really live in the real world. The pleasure we can get from The Good Soldier depends on how many layers of art we can peel away.
I am grateful to the many 1000s of shoppers in a Barnes and Noble some where who did not want to buy A Good Soldier. (You can get an e book in a pdf formant for free at the Gutenburg Project)
Ford had an interesting life. Ford was not his last name at birth. He changed his name from the Germanic sounding Hueffer (1873 to 1939) as it was felt his birth name would hurt sales of his books. He edited a very important literary journal. His father was the music editor of the London Times. His grandfather was a well known Pre-Raphaelite painter. Even though he was over the age of mandatory service, he volunteered to fight in WWI and saw extreme combat conditions in France. He had an affair with the English writer Jean Rhys who published a very unflattering to Ford novel on the affair, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. He cowrote some books with Joseph Conrad. He wrote about 80 books. He was a very important person in the literary circles of his day. He said A Good Soldier was his best work. Some on Goodreads.com think that A Good Soldier will ruin the rest of Ford's novels for you. The only other Ford that seems at all read still is his four part work Parade's End (an 850 or so page work centered on the reflections of a soldier in WWI fighting in France). The Goodreads and Amazon.com reviewers consensus on Parade's End seems to be it is half brilliant and it is half never ending. I think I will read it in 2010.
I endorse The Good Soldier completely. Like A Sentimental Education it will generously repay the repeat rereader. Ford Madox Ford was himself totally immersed in the reading life. As I concluded my vain attempt to convey my feelings for this book I wondered what he had in his rucksack during his war time period in France.
If anyone has any experience with other Ford books or would be willing to join in a 2010 read along on Parade's End please let me know. (I read Kermode's very useful and interesting introduction after I completed the book and suggest others do the same as it does contain spoilers.)