Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

My edition of The Good Soldier comes with an introduction. Here’s the first paragraph.

This may or may not be ‘the saddest story’ you will ever hear, but it will certainly be one of the best. As a tale of the ‘broken, tumultuous, agonized and unromantic’ human condition it has few equals and it spellbinds from the beginning. Ford once said that he and his friend and collaborator Joseph Conrad (whom he first met in 1898) strove for progression d’effet in their novels, where ‘every word set on paper -- every word set on paper -- must carry the story forward, and, that as the story progressed, the story must be carried forward faster and faster and with more and more intensity’, and The Good Soldier, with its tortuous retreat from the farthest reaches of the Empire and the cosmopolitan watering-places of Europe to a loose box in a Hampshire stable (by way of two suicides, one fatality and one mental collapse), achieves progression d’effet of rare degree. It is universally regarded as one of the masterworks of modernist literature, a novel which explores tensions between light and darkness (epistemological, moral and narrative), speech and silence, desire and restraint, order and chaos with an ever-tightening power. Sadness is one of its many attributes; humour, oddly enough, is another.

Wow. I happened to read this at the very end of a period of personal tribulation and at the very beginning of a period of personal reflection, and I thought I had stumbled upon the perfect novel to assist me with that process of transition.

It may be worth a re-read. Truth be told, I had trouble penetrating it.

On the surface, The Good Soldier is a story told by John Dowell, our American first-person narrator, whose wife, Florence, has an affair with the philandering Englishman Edward Ashburnham; both of whom, sequentially and for different reasons, wind up committing suicide.

That, in itself, is a sad story. Indeed, Ford “had wanted to call the novel The Saddest Story, and had only offered an alternative as a joke when his publisher insisted that his preferred title would render the book ‘unsaleable’ following the outbreak of the First World War.” But Dowell’s story is not, I think, the saddest story that Ford had in mind.

For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loved a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.

So, for a time, if such passion come to fruition, the man will get what he wants. He will get the moral support, the encouragement, the relief from the sense of loneliness, the assurance of his own worth. But these things pass away; inevitably they pass away as the shadows pass across sundials. It is sad, but it is so. The pages of the book will become familiar; the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned too many times. Well, this is the saddest story.

Remember, this is Dowell’s first-person voice. He is commenting that the story he is telling is the saddest story -- as he has done numerous times in the text. But it isn’t Dowell’s story that is the saddest. It is the deeper human pattern that his story follows that is indeed the saddest story of them all. The loss of both the passion and the security of love, which, in Ford’s metaphoric imagination, is all but inevitable.

Inevitable, and impenetrable.

I call this the Saddest Story, rather than ‘The Asburnham Tragedy’, just because it is so sad, just 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. Here were two noble people -- for I am convinced that both Edward and [Edward’s wife] Leonora had noble natures -- here, then, were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fire-ships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all darkness.

These things happen. In this world, these sad things happen to both the great and the small, with no apparent distinction or motivation. One must add this into the mix if one is to transform the sad story of Edward and Florence into the saddest story of the human condition.

Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people -- like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords -- broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?

And this inscrutability connects directly the Ford’s method of storytelling.

I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair -- a long, sad affair -- one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.

It was the introduction that tipped me off to this aspect on the novel -- that in it, Ford is experimenting with this very real authorial theory, that a narrative that rambles and jumps around in time, the same way that human beings verbally relate past events, would seem more realistic and natural to the reader. You’re not supposed to be able to connect every dot, to follow every plot point chronologically from one to the next. This novel is messy because life is messy, and memory is both fallible and subjective.

And add to all of that Dowell’s status as an unreliable narrator. From the introduction:

Ashburnham is most certainly a bit of a mystery, but Dowell is English literature’s most fascinating enigma. Paradoxically, the more gushingly he idolizes the errant ex-soldier and the more contradictory his appraisals of the other main characters turn out to be, the more urgently we feel the need to fathom not them but him.

Put plainly, Dowell consistently praises Ashburnham for his virtue, all the while providing details of a life seemingly dedicated to the absence of virtue. And he is equally as unreliable in portraying the actions and motivations of the novel’s other main characters. Is Dowell blind? Or lying? Or something else?

Ultimately, depending on how Dowell’s relationships with Florence, Leonora, Nancy and Ashburnham are configured; on how the reader interprets the various relationships amongst these last four and, above all, on whether the reader sees Dowell as ‘an American millionaire of exaggerated destiny’ or a more switched-on and manipulative story-teller, seemingly intent on hiding rather than revealing the truth, ‘analysis of [his] … psychology’ is probably the only reliable angle from which the novel may be approached.

What is one to make of such a novel? Like peeling back the layers of an onion: an unreliable narrator, ineptly telling a story about characters, whose interactions represent the sadness and futility of the human condition.

Yes. Definitely worth a re-read.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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