Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915, 207 pages, Barnes and Noble Classic with an introduction by Frank Kermode)

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 world
We 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 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 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.)

Mel u


Mark David said...

"very high intelligence, cultivation, and artistic power of a novel"... sounds like my kind of reading. And you really caught my interest when you said "The pleasure we can get from The Good Soldier depends on how many layers of art we can peel away." :)

About the Barnes and Noble classics, I do see a lot of them and when I bought my first one (Kafka's Metamorphosis) I was just amazed at how cheap they sell those hardcovers (something like $7) even when they're not on sale. And they're quite the good editions, I must say. While I'm not very much a fan of the paper they use (which makes me sneeze most of the time), the content is great. They even have nice introductions and supplementary sections which can be great material when it's a really old classic you're reading.

Right now, though, my favorite classics edition would have to the Oxford World Classics. They're just wonderful. As with B&N, the extra material is rather helpful (something I'm very likely to read for the likes of War and Peace) and the print is fantastic. Good font, excellent paper, and even the covers are sometimes perfect (like in the case of Machiavelli's The Prince). And they're rather cheap as well (less than $10?) so I do intend to collect more book from this series :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mel. You've an excellent review here. I saw a small introduction in my edition of this novel (now hidden away, so I can't tell you which edition it is) in which Ford says he would never have named the novel "The Good Soldier" if he had realized that a connection would be made with WW I. He felt that the title was demeaning to those who had fought in the war, since the problems in the book were on a personal level, rather than deciding the fate of nations. I loved this book and was astounded at how the unreliable narrator pulled us into the plot by invisible strings.

That was interesting about the B and N classics. I've bought a few of those because of their already amazingly low prices. But I prefer Oxford and Penguin Classics. I think Penguin editions have the best notes, but the Oxford editions hold up better---I've had to use large clear tape on the bottom of the spines of almost all my Penguin editions.

I'm all for trying Parade's End in 2010. Let's hope the length won't overwhelm us.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Fine post. This novel really is one of the absolute best. You're right about Kermode here, too - a rare lapse on his part.

A readalong of Parade's End is worth a try.

Mel u said...

Mark David-I like the Oxford Classics a lot also

Bohemima-thanks for visiting my blog-I am attempting to locate a copy of Parade's End-no libraries etc where I reside-if so I will see if any body is interested in a read a thon of the work

Amateur Reader-thank you-I will see if I can put together a read along of Parade's End-

Dwight said...

I'm planning on reading Parade's End this year and would enjoy timing it with others. Thanks!

Fred said...

According to Ford, his original title was _The Saddest Story_. However, his publisher rejected that as perhaps killing sales since they were in the middle of WWI. Finally, after several suggestions were rejected, in exasperation Ford telegraphed the publisher and ironically suggested _The Good Soldier_. It was accepted.

Ford hated the title and when he got control of the book was going to rename it _The Saddest Story_, but he decided to leave it as the title was already well-known and changing the name might be confusing.

I have read about ten of Ford's novels, including the three collaborations with Conrad and would say that _The Good Soldier_ is his best work, followed by _Parades's End_. However, the others are well worth reading.

Fiona said...

Funny - I come here from your Wild Sargasso Sea topic... and that picture on your book cover here, is the same picture as on my copy of Jane Eyre.

Anyway - always wanted to read this book after picking it up in the bookshop and reading the first line. I got in from bookmooch later on but it's still languishing around in my TBR. I shall have to dig it out.

Mel said...

Hi Mel

Thanks for directing me to your post. My experience with the novel was not so different to you I don't think, certainly in terms of my admiration for Ford's level of skill in crafting the story. I guess I just didn't like what he revealed once the layers were peeled back. I felt cold, perhaps even horrified, as we learned what "heart"less people these really were.

This is a novel I will read again and I scarcely re-read anything.

Thanks for the background on Ford too. I enjoyed your review very much.

Mel u said...

Mel-yes our takes are not far apart-if you can do it, try Parade's End-I hosted as read along of it in 2010 and all who read it classified it as among the the best reading experiences of their lives, including me