Review: "The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford
The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion by Ford Madox Ford.1914. The Broadview Press, Edited by Kenneth Womack and William Baker. 2002
"Ford's The Good Soldier is one of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our century" -back cover of 1951 Random House paperback edition
I suppose there's something contrary in my personality that, when I read such puffery on the back of a book, I immediately assume the contrary: that the book is probably one of the fifteen of twenty most boring novels produced in our century. However, the list of authors who agree with the statement is impressive; William Carlos Williams, Louse Bogan, Allen Tate, Jean Stafford and Graham Greene. Their recommendation made me re-consider my instinctive reaction and coupled with finding a new, interesting edition of The Gold Soldier, I began reading this novel about a week ago.
They were right. The Good Soldier is a masterful work of art. I don't think I've felt so deeply about a group of characters since reading Chekov for the first time. Written in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, Ford felt that it was his best book. After a period of time working as Joseph Conrad's assistant, he poured all that he had learned from that great author into a novel based partially on his own personal life. Initially greeted with little enthusiasm, it has come to be an important early work of modernism coming some 18 years before Joyce's Ulysses. I mention Joyce because Ford Maddox Ford has that same preoccupation with the contrast between appearances and reality; between convention and passion. This theme is at the heart of his novel.
“The Good Soldier” (not Ford's choice for a title, he wanted “The Saddest Story”) tells the tale of two couples who, on the surface, seem to be "good people" who live lives of wealth and culture. Underneath, however, they are seething with lust, jealousy and guilt. In the hands of a less imaginative author, the story might have descended into melodrama. Ford wrote the novel in a style he calls "Impressionism", which is essentially a story composed of impressions and images of events rather than a literal description of events.
In “The Good Soldier” the author's point of view is that of the main character, John Dowell, who is also the impotent husband in the ménage. What is impressive is the authors’ complete command of form and content; how each detail adds to the whole and how carefully he presents his characters as both caring and hateful people at the same time. This is the kind of novel that chapter by chapter becomes irresistible. By the end of the book, the story of these sad people is made even sadder since the author has so carefully crafted empathy for each character. You know why they act the way they do at the same time you wish they wouldn’t act that way. The tension between these two perceptions in the reader is delicious and deeply involving.
If there are flaws in this masterpiece it would be that the author seems to share the masculine point of view. But then again the novel is like a hall of mirrors and the male narrator's own point of view is called into question throughout the novel. So, even the male narrator is flawed and unreliable. Another reason to think of this as a modernist novel – the flawed narrator is a major trope in modernist fiction.
I urge you to read this brilliant novel. It’s not without it’s difficulties though and you’ll need a good edition with plenty of footnotes. I’ve chosen the edition produced by Canadian publisher, Broadview Press. Similar to the Norton Critical Editions, it includes a good introduction, chronologies (of the author and the events in the book), footnotes, essays and writings by Ford Madox Ford that help to shed light on the complexities of this subtle and beautiful book. Every item included in this edition is helpful and informative. However, I was disappointed not to see my favorite essay by Mark Schorer in the book. Titled “An Interpretation” it is the single most helpful essay I’ve read on the novel. Fortunately, it’s included as the introduction to the Random House/Vintage edition of “The Good Soldier” which is still currently in print.
The design of the Broadview edition is very well done. I love the cover photo of “Miss Anderson” by turn-of-the-century photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn. Reminds me very much of the Lenora character in the novel. Her steely gaze from the cover photo stayed with me as an image for her. Perhaps that’s why I chose this particular edition.
I’ve decided to create an audio book of “The Good Soldier”. I’ve begun reading the novel aloud for the Librivox.com site. I hope to make it available here at this site as well when it is completed in a month or so.