Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

 

I took this one off the shelf at the library the other day because it was my lunch break and -- gasp! -- I'd left my book at home. The horror! But The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford was a) on my Classics Club list and b) short, under 200 pages, so it seemed like a win-win. It's a very short book, and yet I could talk about it for hours. 

Essentially, this is the story of two Edwardian-era couples with extremely dysfunctional marriages.  Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, a British couple, meet an American couple, John and Florence Dodwell, at a German resort, and begin a friendship that lasts for years. The narrator, the hapless John, has no idea that his wife Florence has been carrying on an affair with Edward for years, until both Edward and Florence are both dead. In a rambling narrative, the reader gets the story of the couples' friendship and the subsequent affair, just as though one was sitting down having a series of drinks with John and he was recounting the tragic story in person (possibly on a veranda in the tropics, with an ocean view and some nice cocktails, or seated in deep leather chairs in a gentleman's club.)

What seems a straightforward, though tragic story is eventually revealed to include a lot of twists and turns, with lies and hypocrisy and characters you just want to shake or smack upside the head. The ending left me flabbergasted and full of questions, and I so wish that I had chosen this book to discuss back when I belonged to a face-to-face classic book discussion group a few years ago. 

This book was published 100 years ago, in 1915, and I imagine it was groundbreaking for its time, mostly because of the style of writing -- I wouldn't call it stream-of-consciousness, but it doesn't really follow a linear progression. It digresses and rambles, but it's still really insightful and beautifully written. The Ashburnhams are trapped in a loveless marriage, yet they are loathe to admit it or even consider divorce. The Dodwells are from old moneyed families from the northeastern U.S., but I imagine that's fairly similar in regards to the upright, "stiff upper lip" sort of attitude of most of these characters. 

As I was reading it, I immediately recalled another book that really stuck with me, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, which I finished just a few weeks ago. I can definitely see how Ford must have influenced Greene -- the two books are almost companion pieces, with Greene's being the flip side, the adulterer instead of the cuckolded husband. The marriages of these characters are both tragic and heartbreaking, but at the same time, I felt like the characters mostly deserved what they got, in the end -- yet another case of fascinating train wrecks. 

12 comments:

  1. Right, definitely not stream-of-consciousness because the text is so clearly written. It is an artifact consciously created by Dowell for whatever purpose he has in mind.

    "Insightful" is an interesting word to use. But you are right, the narrative is insightful. The question is which insights are true and which false, which of the false ones are deliberately planted by Dowell and which true ones are accidental, and how the ratio perhaps changes as the narrative goes along. What does Dowell know and when does he know it?

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    1. I thought that the roundabout way of the narrative was really interesting. I suppose it's why it's considered to be influential. I know it's one of the Modern Library Top 100.

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  2. After being curious about this book for years, I've just added it to my Classics Club list. I had no idea it was so short and I'm intrigued with the idea of it being a good companion piece to The End of the Affair. Very interesting review, thanks!

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    1. I had been put off because I thought it was supposed to be a difficult read. It took some time for a short book, but it was very intriguing.

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  3. I've never read Ford Madox Ford, but you've made me want to check this book out and see if I like him. Especially since it's this particular novel's 100th anniversary. Great review!

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    1. That's right, it's 100 years old! I'm also curious to read Parade's End, which is more than 800 pages long -- it's actually four parts of the same story, but it's in one massive book which is a little intimidating. My library has the audiobook which is 30 discs long!

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  4. I read this for a classics challenge a couple years ago. Although the details are foggy, I remember it being an awesome example of an unreliable narrator.

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    1. Yes, I had heard that and was very wary of what he was saying. I really liked it though.

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  5. I...honestly thought this book was about soldiers. I have been avoiding it at a low level for years because I didn't feel like reading anything military. I feel really silly now. :p

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    1. Well, Edward actually IS a soldier, but he's not really on active duty. I think it's called "The Good Soldier" because he's supposed to be a good egg, a model soldier, when he's really not. I think it's ironic.

      I meant to mention this in the review and I forgot!

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  6. That's a category? "fascinating train wrecks"!
    I have to admit, I've been curious about this author precisely entirely on his name. (Trying this again(THIRD TIME!), I have the WORST luck commenting here - just so you know, I do read your blog!)

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  7. Wanting to smack characters...definitely. In fact, I dislike all of the characters so much, I couldn't really like the book. It's funny you say it reminds you of Graham Green's The End of the Affair, because it reminded me of Greene's The Heart of the Matter. My review: http://tinyurl.com/yd6xjuxb

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