Revisiting 'The Good Soldier': How do our gardens grow?

On Books

November 07, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

I first read Ford Maddox Ford's "The Good Soldier," about 40 years ago. Last week, after that hiatus, I read it again. Revisiting memorable books is a practice I recommend enthusiastically.

Why that?

Self-exploration. Oh, how we do change! As we absorb more from literature and art, we discover more about people.

I remember "The Good Soldier" as engaging, even hypnotizing -- a tale of manners and a manner of life. Before I began to read again, I found my mind grouping it with the more intense social-fabric works of Evelyn Waugh, with the serious efforts of W. Somerset Maugham, and with Graham Greene's deeply -- but subtly -- moral story-telling.

I remembered it as compellingly fast-paced, as worldly-wise in a vague way, as a romantic adventure of a very grown-up sort -- delightfully ironic, if not quite funny.

Once I began rereading, I found myself as close to ecstasy as prose can take me -- for none of the reasons I had remembered.

Many of those general recollections were more or less confirmed. Some were skewed -- I think by naivete more than by faded memory. But what overpowered me in this reading were two quite different, brand-new reactions.

The first is the exquisite competence, the sublime artistry of Ford's command of the form. Fine, I have read a lot since then.

The stronger new impression, by far, is the profound revelation of basic human truths achieved by the most impressive of Ford's tools. That is his contrivance of the narrative voice through which the entire book is told.

That voice is superficially open and confiding. Yet no reader can possibly know with confidence whether the narrator is truthful or habitually lying, to the reader or to himself. He may be entirely forthright or deluded by weakness, or perhaps quite insane.

About that, bear with me a few minutes. First, a bit about the book.

"The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion" was finished in 1915, when Ford was 42. He had published his first novel when he was 17. Before he died in 1939, he had written some 80 volumes of fiction, poetry, biography, criticism and essays. Today, two fresh editions of "The Good Soldier" are widely available: Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century, 177 pages, $10.95; and Oxford World's Classics, 307 pages, $8.95.

The book centers on two married couples in the beginning of the 20th century. The Dowells are American; the Ashburnhams British. Edward Ashburnham is "the good soldier" -- he has been an officer in a respectable regiment, has resigned to live a good and manly life. They and their wives are roughly the same ages, wealthy enough to travel almost constantly in continental Europe. Having met, they are together much of the time for a decade. Early in the book, the narrator, who is John Dowell, recounts that the two couples have "nine years of uninterrupted tranquility."

From that point, it is impossible usefully to distill the action and events of the book. Suffice it to say that the novel affirms the book's and John Dowell's opening words: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." "The Saddest Story" was Ford's intended title, overruled by the original publisher.

There is a continuing, confiding sense of sadness, of loneness, of loss, of emptiness in Dowell's narrative voice from the outset. Early on, he declares: "I know nothing -- nothing in the world -- of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone -- horribly alone."

The lives of the four would be considered by most people today as more-or-less useless ones. They seldom if ever think much of purpose or intent or contribution. For all that, in a way, they are all the more visibly human. It is as if their indolence strips them of the complexities of economics or social purpose or politics.

As Ford's genius presents their confrontations with life, selves and each other, the story becomes, perhaps, the saddest he had ever heard -- or told. But its sadness is profoundly humane, and in that humanity there is redemption.

You are in good company if you argue forever about the nature of the narrator. There are grounds for similar debate about the purpose, the subject, of the book. Edward Ashburnham, the "good" soldier, may be a fool or a knave or a naif or a deeply principled person.

Those disputes are perhaps better left to academics, who consistently seem to make them boring -- which is almost always the case when one seeks to nail to the wall things that are alive.

So, back to my earlier point -- to the novel's pursuit of truth, which finally is, after all, the reason that novels are important.

"The Good Soldier" is about human suffering, and about stripping pretense from experience. It accepts life as chaotic, but not without the potential of purpose, and certainly not without principle. It is a tour-de-force demonstration of the artistic idea that the eternal elusiveness of the truth of experience can be most effectively sought by examining life through a single, shifting human prism: a sort of prose cubism.

Nothing is ever quite as it seems. The novel proceeds as an unpeeling of character, as slow, revealing plunges into the natures and wills of individuals. As each level comes freshly clear, the characters' positions in the reader's sympathy change radically. One player goes from hideously exploitative and cynical to profoundly sensitive and needful -- while others swap places.

As our perceptions change, the personalities, the characters gain in dimension, in depth, in humanity. They become ever more credible human beings. A truth about the infinite intricacies of character and awareness emerges.

As I read on, I found myself increasingly and dramatically aware of how I had changed since first I read it. Did Ford's book have a role in that? I may know better when I have read this magnificent pursuit of truth again.

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