Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Good Soldier (1915)

I'm happy the Modern Library list of best 20th-century novels put this Ford Madox Ford in my way (just as I'm slightly annoyed the list also includes another Ford title, Parade’s End, which is actually four novels). I like Englishman Ford’s intention to write "the finest French novel in the English language" (later he would compare it to Ulysses as examples of European in English). The refractions and circumlocutions are always on point, though that also makes it a little demanding, plus it features an early example of the unreliable narrator. That's John Dowell but his name is only mentioned a few times in the narrative—he's thus close to being an early example of the unnamed narrator too. Not knowing much about Ford or this novel I had always assumed it was some sort of war story. Ford wanted to call it The Saddest Story, which suits the story, the tone, and the narrator much better and is the title I wish they would use now. But World War I was going on and the publisher didn't want to hear from people with much sadder stories. I suppose it is a war story, in a way, but it's marital warfare rather than military. It's literary, distanced, and ironic, a story of two marriages and all the entanglements of the four principals. One couple is American and the other British. Edward Ashburnham, the Englishman, is a former soldier and now a philanderer of a certain type, that is, the type who falls lugubriously in love with his serial paramours. One of his lovers is our narrator's own wife, an affair of which the narrator claims ignorance. What feels most French to me about The Good Soldier is the way it unmoors itself from linear time, as Dowell broods and ruminates over his sad story. In time, all of Edward's affairs are detailed (as the nominal "good soldier"), along with his wife Leonora's strategies for coping with her strange beastly tormented husband, who is otherwise all kindness. The great strengths of this novel are the structure and the language. It may feel discursive and rambling at points but it tells a story that has a deceptive complexity, almost losing itself down the byways, but always coming back right again, maintaining an astonishing poise. As for the language, Dowell's voice is engaging and charming, using repetitions and ingenious comparisons that are unexpected, surprisingly apt, and often delightful, e.g., "two noble natures, drifting down life like fireships afloat on a lagoon," or eyes "as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches," or something that "glimmered under the tall trees of the dark park like a phosphorescent fish in a cupboard." It's a great novel, immersive for its brevity but also still quite strange and fascinating.

In case it's not at the library.

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