As I was saying when I recently reviewed Ford Madox Ford’s novel, Parade’s End, I hadn’t read anything else by him since I was a senior in college. Then I read The Good Soldier, which Ford wanted to call The Saddest Story, as one of the forty-two novels I needed to have “under my belt” to take my comprehensive exam.
Well, now I’ve read it again, and I have fairly good idea about why it is so deliberately confused and confusing, and I also think that in the spring of 1972 as I read a novel a day to catch up I can’t possibly have had much insight into its perplexing inconsistencies. The Oddest Story, I would call it, not without some grudging admiration and suspicion.
Here’s how it goes: An American millionaire named Dowell narrates a story in fits and starts about how his wife Florence betrayed him with a feckless English gentleman named Edward whose wife Leonora knew all about it without telling Dowell for years. Upshot: Florence and Edward commit suicide. Leonora marries a dolt from a nearby country estate, and Dowell, fed up with life, buys Edward’s old estate and lives there by himself, grousing his way through this sad, sad tale.
He is, our Dowell, an “unreliable narrator,” not through cunning, more through an absent-mindedness and species of carelessness found in royalty and the very rich. But he is also an “unreliable narrator” because Ford wanted to write what became a kind of pre-modern novel, a vague, wandering tale, not at all stream-of-consciousness, more stream-of-forgetfulness, impressionistic. He is blessed with a strong prose style. (Ford was close to Conrad, a great master of prose style.) And yet that prose style is prone to fey contradictions as in: I loved him terribly. And yet I don’t know why I loved him. Actually, I hated him. But for all that, he was admirable, you know, terribly admirable, the kind of man upon which a nation can depend, if not a wife. (I wrote that, by the way, but it’s a pretty good imitation.)
So at spas and on estates the story of this quartet loops around, a kind of wild lariat in Dowell’s hands, putting nooses around the delicate necks of young women, married and unmarried, and choking the life out of them before, in the end, it does itself in, too. You see the philandering Edward didn’t just have at Florence, Dowell’s wife. There were others, several of them. He was, in Dowell’s estimation, the best of men, the epitome of the good soldier, just not when it came to his self-indulgent sentimentality.
Am I saying you should read this novel? I am not saying that. I am wondering why, fifty years ago, my professors thought I should read it. In the particular edition I have just finished, there is abundant commentary in agreement with my professors–what a masterpiece, how brilliant–and one (to me) peculiar dissent.
Let me go into this a bit and expose my suspicions. The praise from many well-known literati (Joseph Conrad, Rebecca West, etc.) may have been the result of Ford’s unbelievable helpfulness to the literary world. He was a great, great supporter of indigent writers, underestimated writers, writers who would become great, truly great. And I suspect they all went along with this peculiarly affected experiment of a novel out of loyalty. In fact, I think that often happens in the literary world (shame on me, I know, but I’ve heard writers are human, too; being one, I can testify to that.)
And yet, to my discomfort, the dissent came from Theodore Dreiser, one of the worst novelists, if not the worst, on my canonical list of forty-two. Dreiser, in his novels, wrote so badly that I would want to gargle and shower after an hour reading him. But the damnation Dreiser offers in the selected comments appended to this Barnes & Noble Classic is, to my astonishment, very well written, and I agree with it. He says there might be a worthwhile story in The Good Soldier if someone who knew how to write wrote it.
Hmmm. What was I saying? I hate Dreiser, but I love Dreiser? Dreiser wrote appallingly but Dreiser wrote trenchantly?
Let me shoot this review right now with a final bullet: The Good Soldier is important because it marks a transition from Edwardian writing to modern writing; it’s pivotal in that sense, but dear lord, Dreiser was right: it wasn’t Ford’s best novel, even if Ford and all his cronies and all my professors thought it was.