Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Occasionally I succumb to those lists that tell us what to read.  The Good Soldier (1915) by English author Ford Madox Ford appears in most of those "Best novels.."  or  "100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century" type lists, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, because apart from seeing the novel in those lists, I had not heard of it.

The novel is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, before WWI.  It focuses on the friendship between two upper class couples, John and Florence Dowell from the US and Eward and Leonora Ashburnham who are landed gentry in England.  The couples meet in a German health spa.  The novel is told in the first person by the American, John Dowell, and centres around his explanation of the downfall of his friend Edward, the good soldier of the title.

I have mixed feelings about this book, that I think are partially influenced by my high expectations going in that were not fully realised.  The subject matter of the book reminds me alot of Somerset Maugham novels, which I love, all of the, behind the acceptable social veneer of "happy couples."  Maugham goes in for alot of the transatlantic comparisons of social mores in the first part of twentieth century too.  Maybe reminiscent of F Scott Fitzgerald also.

Structurally the book is very unusual and I would say ground breaking for its time.  The narrator is unreliable (trust me, this is not much of a spoiler, because it is very subtle compared to the unreliable narrators that have been used since), and the story is told in out of sequence flashbacks.  It is all very clever, and I found myself engaged and eager to arrive at the end, as there is a growing tension in the narration; from the outset the reader is made aware that there is something inconsistent in the storytelling.

The novel is packed with clever symbolism. A motif of the heart is used repeatedly to good effect.  The story begins at the German health spa because two of the partners have "heart" difficulties.  There is lots of talk of weak hearts etc, and that is what this story is really all about.  The characters all lack personal insight into their own hearts and for this reader at least, seemed quite heartless.

But you know, clever and "stylistically perfect" as I have heard the novel lauded, does not necessarily equal an enjoyable or "I love it" reading experience does it?  I did not love it.  Mostly because all of the characters are so unlikeable and joyless.  And I am sure that is the point.  I am sure Madox Ford is writing about some sort of self-absorption of the upper classes in England leading up to WWI.  As a study in relationships, or relationships between married couples, I would much rather read Somerset Maugham.  The Dowells and the Ashburnhams are equally awful and his depiction of the women in the story seems unusually harsh. But that is part of the plotting cleverness as it is all tied up in the narration and form of the story.  Even so, the female characters are either painted as domineering and cold, or soulless and wanton.  And again I think this is the point, our narrator is very sympathetic to Edward, the good soldier, and perhaps is speaking to the sadness of his plight.  Well this female reader was left fairly unmoved by the male characters feeling sorry for themselves, and behaving badly none the less.

I would love to know if others have read this and what they think.  It is a classic book, I was just left a bit disappointed. It is however the sort of book I would consider rereading, because there is so much to the structure, I am sure some of the subtleties were missed by me, the first time round.