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The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Maddox Ford is "the saddest story" the narrator has ever heard, but because it's so well written about unlikeable characters who have been emotionally destroyed before the first chapter begins, it engrossed rather than moved me. The narrator, John Dowell, a Pennsylvania Quaker and a member of the American idle rich, is telling the tragic story of the relationships in the early 20th century Europe between himself and his wife, Florence, the relationship then between a married couple of the English aristocracy, Captain Edward Ashburnham ("the good soldier") and his wife Leonora, and the relationships between the four of them. He's telling the story in the way that people who witness disasters like "the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people" feel compelled to write about them for the benefit of future generations or simply "to get the sight out of their heads." Unsure whether to begin at the beginning and progress chronologically to the end, or to tell his imagined listener whatever comes to his mind when it comes and to fill in missing things as needed, he settles on the latter method. This makes the novel innovative for its time, an early example of modernism, though without the stream of consciousness of writers like Virginia Woolf. Dowell recounts how his wife, "poor dear Florence," was, he thought, an invalid with a heart condition that required him to live as her caretaker for the twelve years they were together, carefully monitoring all subjects of conversation to suppress any "dangerous" topics (involving religion or strong emotions or politics, etc.) so as to avoid upsetting her weak heart. It also involved complete celibacy, so that her bedroom door (in whatever European resort or spa hotel they happened to be staying in) was always locked to him. After three years in Europe, Dowell and Florence met the Ashburnhams in Nauheim, Germany, a famous heart spa town, and for over nine years the two couples made a happy foursome, Dowell believed, and if the apple he thought was perfect turned out to be rotten at the core after nearly nine years and six months, to him it was delicious until the end of that period.
This is not to spoil the book, because from the beginning Dowell tells us that the two seemingly happy loving couples, who seemed to make together "an extraordinarily safe castle," or "one of those tall ships with the white sails upon a blue sea, one of those things that seem the proudest and safest of all the beautiful and safe things that God has permitted the mind of man to frame," or a perfectly choreographed and instinctively coordinated "minuet de la cour," were destroyed by adultery, falseness, hatred, love, and death. The Good Soldier employs the cuckoldry or philandering of husbands, the duplicity or domination of wives, and the innocent cruelty of youth to explore the opacity of human nature, the impossibility of knowing what another person (especially a spouse) is really feeling and thinking, and the ungovernable nature of the human heart.
Despite Ford's incisive insights into our flawed human nature, the different influences of Protestant and Catholic Christianities on true believers, and the differences between early 20th century American and British characters and cultures, and despite his vivid metaphors, distilled dialogue, innovatively non-chronological story-telling, and perfectly constructed narrative (told by a man scrupulously relating the history of his devastating obtuseness), The Good Soldier and its characters were rather unpleasant.
The reading by Ralph Cosham is, like any book he reads, flawlessly delivered without showing off, adding to his voice the perfectly appropriate emotion and intention for every scene in the novel without any straining after different characters' voices. The problem is that whereas Cosham's method and style and voice are all just right for Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Robinson Crusoe, for example, here his tendency to turn phrases and sentences down at their ends works with the sordid story to make it all the more of a downer.
I recommend this novel to people who like a good tragedy revealed in layers and layers (like a morose and moldy onion being unpeeled little by little), or to people who want to read one of the best 100 novels in the English language to see what it's like and how it was innovative, or to people who are interested in plumbing the sad and mysterious depths of the human heart.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
What? You mean this novel isn't about war? Is it possible to hate a book and love it at the same time? This is one of those books where it immediately becomes obvious that you aren't going to read this novel for the strict pleasure of it. This book ain't ice cream on the beach folks. I don't think I've run across a more amoral, unsympathetic cast of characters since I visited Kehlsteinhaus. But, Ford Madox Ford is absolutely brilliant at portraying the decay, the depravity and the hypocrisy that existed in early 20th century English and American aristocracy. What a bunch of absolute rat bastards they all were. Nobody is happy. Nobody is true. Everybody gets eventually exactly what they deserve.
This novel is probably the most sexless novel containing the subtitle: A Tale of Passion. It is as sexy as a festering cavity and as passionate as an obsessive and unreliable group of narcissists can be. Two of my favorite writers were either heavily influenced by Ford (Graham Greene) or collaborated heavily with Ford (Joseph Conrad). This isn't a novel you can really ever love, but you will carry this novel with you and days and weeks later you still won't be able to escape its funky grasp. And THAT is something.
23 of 27 people found this review helpful