I’ve read a boatload of books since I started this blog a little over three months ago–can you believe it’s been that long? I can’t. The books I’ve read I have not only mentally acquired, in a sort of virtual bookshelf in my head that I draw from constantly, but unfortunately also physically. My books only add the mess that is my room. The Good Soldier is presently sitting at the top of my mountain of books. This novel is not one of the many books I’ve sought out, rather it sort of found me. I’m glad it did, because even now, after some time has passed since reading it, I feel comfortable saying it has been my one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. The Good Soldier is a mess of confusion, but there’s so much to love about it.
The Good Soldier follows two wealthy couples, the Ashburnham’s and the Dowell’s, at the turn of the century. The novel is recollected entirely out of order, in a sort of almost Faulkner-esque manner, but the confusion functions organically and seems natural to the story–whereas Faulkner’s confusion, profound and Nobel-prize-worthy as it may, is distorting and bewildering to the point of inducing the reader to tears. Ford Madox Ford is upfront with his readers. His narrator, known simply as Dowell, blatantly states that he doesn’t know whether to “to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from the distance of time” (14). He finally settles on telling the story as if he were sitting “at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite” (15). I’m glad he did because it made me feel as if someone was actually dictating to me a story.
This story presents an interesting conundrum: because of the narrator’s relaxed nature, much of what he says is contradictory. I quickly discovered in my reading that I was dealing with an unreliable narrator, but I must say I quite like his unreliability; it adds depth to the story. There’s something sort of realistic and poetic about people and their tendencies to contradict themselves. It is in their contradictions that we can find the real truth, the whole truth. Maybe part of Dowell’s aversion to stating things plainly–to avoid any confusion–is that he’s not entirely certain how he feels or even what’s going on. For instance, Dowell claims that “I loved Leonora always and, today, I would very cheerfully lay down my life, what is left of it, in her service. But I am sure I never had the beginnings of a trace of what is called the sex instinct towards her” (18). Yet, as the novel progresses, and Lenora finds a man who makes her happy and Dowell is left alone, he changes his tune. He says, “Leonora rather dislikes me, because she has got it into her head that I disapprove of her marriage with Rodney Bayham. Well, I disapprove of her marriage. Possibly I am jealous. Yes, no doubt I am jealous” (137). Perplexing, right? If Dowell really wasn’t interested in Leonora and if he loved her, why wouldn’t he want to see her happy? This situation is only one of many where I felt like there was more going on than what Dowell–or Ford–was telling me.
Pairing nicely with his use of confusion and contradiction, Ford also uses a whole lot of irony in The Good Soldier. For starters, Leonora, a ‘devout’ Catholic, goes to a priest for all of her marital advice. For a woman struggling with intimacy, it’s funny that she’d a priest for answers. She’s wholly unhappy with Edward. Maybe that’s a little bit of an overstatement, Dowell flips back and forth when describing Leonora’s opinion of Edward so it’s hard to determine what she really feels. Though he seems to perfectly sum up Leonora’s feelings when he writes, “Leonora loved Edward with a passion that was yet like an agony of hatred” (78). Love isn’t supposed to be agonizing, is it?
The irony doesn’t end there. For me, one of the most intriguing ironies of the book lies in the Nancy Rufford affair. For context, Nancy is the child of Leonora’s best friend; Leonora and Edward took her in at the age of thirteen and are her guardians. Edward Ashburnham and Nancy are close. Nancy admires him and appreciates his company. As Nancy ages, their relationship is seen as less and less appropriate. Leonora allows Edward to have multiple affairs, but oddly this is where she draws the line. Then Leonora suggests to Dowell, after the death of his wife, that he should marry Nancy. I find it odd that Leonora approves of Dowell marrying Nancy, yet, any sort of companionship between her husband and the girl is out of the question. Ford forces his readers to contemplate right and wrong by presenting them with ironic situations like this one.
The Good Soldier is called “the finest French novel in the English language” by John Rodker and for good reason. Ford’s prose is enigmatic and exact all at the same time. Take a look at my favorite passage from the book.
“I have come to be very much of a cynic in these matters; I mean that it is impossible to believe in the permanence of man’s or woman’s love. Or, at any rate, it is impossible to believe in the permanence of any early passion. As I see it, at least, with regard to man, a love affair, a love for any definite woman–is something in the nature of a widening of the experience. With each new woman that a man is attracted to there appears to come a broadening of the outlook, or, if you like, an acquiring of new territory. A turn of the eyebrow, a tone of the voice, a queer characteristic gesture–all these things, and it is these things that cause to arise the passion of love–all these things are like so many objects on the horizon of the landscape that tempt a man to walk beyond the horizon, to explore. He wants to get, as it were, behind those eyebrows with the peculiar turn, as if he desired to see the world with the eyes that they overshadow. He wants to hear that voice applying itself to every possible proposition, to every possible topic; he wants to see those characteristic gestures against every possible background. Of the question of the sex-instinct I know very little and I do not think that it counts for very much in a really great passion. It can be aroused by such nothings–by an untied shoelace, by a glance of the eye in passing– that I think it might be left out of the calculation. I don’t mean to say that any great passion can exist without a desire for consummation. That seems to me to be a commonplace and to be therefore a matter needing no comment at all. It is a thing, with all its accidents, that must be taken for granted, as, in a novel, or a biography, you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity. But the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported. For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.” (127)
I would call myself a guarded romantic and I suppose it is in my romanticism lies the reason I like this passage so much. The first idea presented by Ford, about it being impossible for love to be permanent and absolute, is mildly disheartening, but he saves it in the second half–in the last sentence to be exact–when he says, “We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.” This statement that is eternally true; across all of the books I’ve read, I’ve seen proof of it. From August Wilson’s Fences to Shakespeare’s Othello and even my latest read, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it can be seen clearly that as humans all we really, truly, and deeply long for is love. While I’ve had many realizations this year–more than I’ve had in my entire life–I think that realizing the importance of love and loving has been the biggest one.
Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is a must read–at the very least it’s a must watch. It contains some interesting insights about life, some ironic observations that force us to think. Recently I’ve thought a little bit on why I read. Life doesn’t have an instruction manual; I read to figure life out. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. Instead of being a How-To manual, The Good Soldier acts as a How-Not-To manual. Yet, in the process of reading it, I learned a little about life, love, and people. What else can you ask for in a novel?