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Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Book Review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier, published in 1915, is one of the most powerful Modernist texts I have come across. It's fairly short at under two hundred pages but I would urge anybody reading it to digest in as few sittings as possible. It's one of those novels where every word matters and you're expected to analyse every action dictated to you.

The novel tells the tale of an English gentlemen, Edward Ashburnham, and his wife (Leonara) as seen from the perspective of narrator John Dowell. The Ashburnhams seem like the perfect couple, the traditional concept of 'good people', but their marriage is a lot more complex than at first sight. Slowly, as you progress through the novel, you discover that Dowell himself in the most interesting of characters, the unreliable narrator who frequently contradicts himself. The narrative flow means the reader is trapped in Dowell's head, travelling back and forth in time with him as he sees fit. It may make the text difficult to follow at times but it is certainly reminiscent of a person searching their own memories - recollections rarely occur in a linear manner. Dowell explains his predicament at the beginning of Part Four (there are five sections to the novel):

I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair - a long, sad affair - one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognises that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told in the best way a person telling a story would tell them. They will them seem most real. 

That last line sums up the danger of the novel: things seem real but, with Dowell as your only portal, they may very well not be. It's up to the reader to analyse Dowell's motives as best they can. It might make reading the novel a little challenging, but no one ever said Modernist texts were easy to read. I enjoyed the book. It reminded me of my love for Modernism, prompted by an unit on my undergraduate degree. Although The Good Soldier is considered to be Ford Madox Ford's greatest work, I certainly plan to read more of his books in the future.


Amateur Reader said...

An astounding book, isn't it? This one really taught me a lot about how to read fiction, and not just Modernist fiction.

Last year, a couple of other bloggers and I had a great time reading the Parade's End books, written on entirely different principles than The Good Soldier. I did not write much about the books, but bibliogeaphing did, and has read on with Ford.

CharmedLassie said...

That section on Ford seems very interesting. I've scanned it and bookmarked for proper attention later. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

What I found about this one, from a writing perspective, is that it teaches you to be meticulously aware of characters and their motivations, and everything associated with them. I'm still thinking about Dowell, which is fairly unusual for me as I move through books quite rapidly.