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Ford may have given readers the ultimate *unreliable narrator* in 1915 when he published The Good Soldier. For all of my reading, I don't recall ever coming across a narrator half as guileful, or as entitled, as John Dowell -- or is he so inconceivably dim-witted and naïve the story IS actually sad? There in lies the brilliant pinpoint on which this story is balanced, and masterfully so by author Ford Madox Ford. Though, there was the peer group of his day that would have taken to task anyone that thought the writer *masterful*, or anything other than *unreliable* himself. His own *wife* -- or should we say biga-mistress (seems Ford didn't have any problem *marrying* or carrying on affairs in spite of his legal marriage to another never being dissolved) wrote that Ford had "a genius for creating confusion," and he himself stated that,"he had a great contempt for fact." So, it is with that insight to this author that one should approach this story; this is the magic that turns just an OK story into absolute brilliant writing -- and a top notch mystery in disguise that requires an efficient reader.
A wealthy American couple, Dowell and Florence, and a wealthy English couple, Edward and Leonora meet at a spa during an extended stay in Europe and become friends. Interestingly, Dowell narrates the story directly to the reader/listener, as if it is a tale he was told, "the saddest story I've ever heard in my life." Immediately you assume he was told this story and is just now recounting it to the reader, but as he goes on we learn it is his wife Florence and the Englishman, Edward, that have an affair that leads to her heartbreaking death on her and Dowell's honeymoon.
Dowell's story continues to twist like a hanky wrenching out the tears. But, is it her reported weak heart that killed the young bride...(weak enough that she warns her new husband she is unable to have sex because of her condition) or is it suicide (her medicine bottle smells strongly similar to a particular acid)? So it goes... where nothing is as it first seems, nothing can be taken at face value. The outward grace, the breeding, the money, the passion, blend into a swirl of colors that lose definition and become a muddied mess. Even our narrator repeats often, "I don't know, I don't know!," sharing doubts as to his competence to recall what happened.
The profiles of these characters are intriguing; illuminated by Dowell's shaky perspective they become outrageous, even contrarily uncivilized, extravagant, and completely without principles. I could only conceive of this caliber of persons by reminding myself, "how reliable is this narrator/participant, what hidden agendas, sociopathic befuddlements contort the players and twist this supposedly sad tale?"
If you were a keen-eyed detective taking Dowell's testimony, you would listen carefully to this one...ignore your colleague's protests of his innocence...put a tail on him...watch for those insurance policies, secret bank accounts, more missing bodies of people he crossed paths with...sit back and wait for this Keyser Söze fellow to make a wrong move. Or; did poor Mr. Dowell just tell you, truly, the saddest story you've ever heard...? This is a classic that needs to be read competently to be truly appreciated. If so, you'll see The Good Soldier draws out the kind of reader participation, where the text is "open to the greatest variety of independent interpretation" -- what Barthes said was the *ideal text.* Gosh, what a masterpiece; if I wasn't so disgusted by the whole lot of them, I'd turn around and read this again, right now.
This was perhaps one of the worst books I've ever read....yet.... It was the worst, because, I think at some level I like to like at least some character in a book I read....or at least relate to them. Every character in this book was detestable. The narrator was one of the most pathetic creatures in all of literature. This was a tragedy, only in the American sense of the word...not in the Greek sense...for there wasn't an ounce of hubris. They say pride goeth before the fall....this was just the fall.
So why did I give it 3 stars, instead of one. This book was incredibly well written....and way ahead of it's time in narrative. The narrator rambles unbelievably...I would say he is one of the worst story tellers....but through him, Mr. Ford shows himself to be one of the best. He reminded me of the "idiot" from Faukner's The Sound and the Fury, or the way things unfolded in the movie Memento. The story unfolds, so oddly, it is really quite incredible....and all of this after he has essentially told you the end of the book at the beginning....Yet the full import doesn't hit until later....and then it hits again...and again...and again.
The story was totally depressing...the characters, totally without redeeming qualities....what happens...pretty awful....yet somehow the art of telling this story...was quite a sight to behold....or listen too.
Before when I talked about the Narrator, I meant the character in the story who tells the entire story. The narrator of this book, Mr. Frank Muller, was quite outstanding. I hated him....he had a smarmy aristocratic condescending tone....which exactly matched the character who narrates the book! His voice, his attitude, his intonation, was perfect for this book.
So basically it was a perfectly told story that I happened to hate, yet will probably not forget for some time to come.