What a spectacularly good book, how unspeakably cruel, how beautiful! What a titanic achievement, what flawlessness! What stupidly blind, incandescently passionate, seethingly brutal, harrowingly evil, innocently pure characters! I’m transfixed, mesmerised and utterly seduced. Ladies and gentlemen: The Good Soldier by the incomparable Ford Madox Ford.
On the surface, this is the story of a nine-year friendship between two couples, one British, one American, who spend six months of each year together at the German health resort of Nauheim in blissful happiness. Much of this blissful happiness is entirely thanks to the blissful ignorance of one half of the American couple; the novel’s narrator, American-at-leisure John Dowell, a somewhat dull but ultimately good man who chooses to tell his complex story as though he were telling it to a silent listener in front of a fire: with digressions both narrative and chronological, and with lies that he either elaborates on or chooses to strip bare when it suits him. The first part of the novel tells the story of things as they appeared to him at the time (utterly unspotted and unblemished); the rest of the novel as they really were (unspeakably cruel and horrible). This being Ford, it is of course infinitely more complicated than that, and he mixes things up just as he chooses with all the technical mastery and emotional genius that he would later demonstrate in Parade’s End. The Good Soldier is just as powerfully introspective, and profits considerably from the benefit of a first-person narrator. Ford’s construction of his narrator’s voice is masterfully realistic, and, together with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, remains the only first-person novel in which I have felt a genuinely strong sense of the narrator’s voice and have been 100% convinced that it’s the character and not the author who is talking to me. This novel being subtitled A Tale of Passion makes the plodding, dispassionate John the perfect person to tell its story, as the lives of the other protagonists are brutally mauled by passions both grand and devastating on their parts. Let’s meet them.
When John and his wife Florence arrive at Nauheim, the situation is already less than ideal. John’s wife is an anglophile, culture-obsessed, social butterfly child of old money from Stamford, Connecticut who’s managed to trap him into a passionless, sexless marriage because of a heart condition she miraculously acquired during a gale on the crossing from America just after their marriage. This has transformed John’s life into one of intolerable stress and constant, totally sincere terror that his wife might die, and he spends most of his time steering her conversation away from any subject that might put strain on her heart. So, their arrival at Nauheim to seek treatment for this heart condition that Florence may or may not have brings the young couple into the glamorous society of the Ashburnhams; a devoted couple comprising Captain Edward Ashburnham, an exceedingly well-bred Englishman capable of casting a magnetic and ultimately fatal spell on every woman in every room he walks in to, and his wife Leonora, who gives every appearance of being a truly exquisite woman – both physically and spiritually – who is religiously devoted to her husband, and he to her. I should also mention their young ward Nancy, an unconventionally-attractive-bordering-on-grotesque ball of innocence and fun, approximately twenty-two years old, who always visits Edward and Leonora during the last fortnight of their stay in Nauheim. It is a long friendship totally lacking in substance, with each couple knowing precious little about the other beyond the obvious fact that they are ‘good people.’ Despite this oddness, which was apparently quite a normal state of affairs at the time the novel takes place, John speaks with great emotion and sincerity about his affection for Edward and Leonora, how happy this friendship made him, and how much he loved them without ever really knowing much about them. He inflicts this idealised version of events on the reader just long enough for us to realise that the poor man has been blind as a mole, before we begin to be caught up in wave after successive wave of truth, each so powerful, so moving and so cruel that when a character buries their face in their hands and piteously groans ‘Oh God,’ with all the heartfelt misery of a person with nothing further to live for, we find ourselves groaning with them, each character trapped in their own vision of hell while inflicting something similar on others. This murderous, cruel story takes place in the same medium of polite speech, rigid social convention and Edwardian opulence that so revolted us in Parade’s End, creating a nauseating, suffocating atmosphere that resembles being trapped screaming in a dark cellar with no hope of help, because if help eventually arrives, it will refuse to hear.
The person who probably does the most screaming from the cellar (though tempered with a considerable amount of stopping his ears from the other side of the door) is the good soldier of the title, Edward Ashburnham. He’s a pathologically kind person, kind to the point of insanity. A lenient local magistrate, he loves giving struggling tenants remission on their rent, diving into the ocean to save drowning sailors, sympathising with those in need, comforting heartbroken people and being a ‘splendid fellow’ all round. He’s a hopeless, not overly bright romantic who likes to read sentimental novels. He fancies himself violently in love with each woman he has an affair with, which leads to a string of exhausting, infinitely long passions for married women, including Florence, whom he cavorts with for nine years without her husband noticing a thing.
It’s only when the real love of his life turns out to be Nancy and he makes an honourable, heart-breaking resolution that the girl, who looks up to him as a father, should never know of his love for her, that he begins to torment himself to death in his herculean attempts to leave her well alone, something that Leonora seems perversely eager to help him with. Though the situation half kills him, he’s far from a brooding Romantic hero: it’s his willingness to believe he is that causes half the trouble and that makes it impossible for him to blame the state of his marriage entirely on Leonora. Though a rather stuffy Irish Catholic, Leonora’s one passion in life is, regrettably, her philandering husband and she tragically has no idea how to show it, having spent most of her sheltered life alternating between a convent and a secluded mansion.
She doesn’t understand or sympathise with her husband and therefore has no idea how to keep their marriage from disaster. She takes merciless control of Edward’s life following a catastrophic love affair that wipes out most of his fortune, but her desire to control him soon transcends his financial affairs and extends to his love affairs too: she believes, idealistically, that when Edward realises how much she has helped him, he will return to her. All this turns their marriage into an agonising, gladiatorial and above all wordless war for control: in private, there is no communication between them, and Edward, though admiring Leonora greatly, eventually finds himself hating her passionately when her love of control begins to extend to Nancy. Eventually, finally, inevitably, everything blows up in a whirlpool succession of monstrous griefs and untellable agonies, and we’re left contemplating the tepid, scorched aftermath of a roaring inferno.
I think the ultimate message of the book is the horrible fact that was true in Ford’s day and is true now, one that he dwells upon with great sorrow: society sees passionate people as a dangerous liability. Brilliant, incandescent people need to be sacrificed, immolated, their light strangled from them, so that ordinary people can go on with their ordinary lives unmolested and unmoved, safe from the titanic presences, expressive faces and smouldering eyes that challenge them, inspire them, provoke them, and worst of all, remind them.
Ford pilots this labyrinthine story with exquisite skill, each word resembling a tiny, beautiful grain of sand that put in the wrong place or substituted would cause the entire novel to cave in on itself. Everything is perfectly balanced, perfectly executed and perfectly controlled. Ford doesn’t even hold our hands as we surf wave after perilous wave of powerful language without once stumbling or feeling like we’re about to drown. And yet, our emotions, particularly our compassion and our pity, are kept at an incredibly high pitch; we cry, scream and die a thousand deaths, as the characters do. Love and passion become synonymous with death, horror and disease, and innocence is murdered right before our eyes. And every step of the way, you can’t stop yourself from continually asking the same, terrible question: how can people do this to each other?
This is by far the best book I have read in this very short year, and I can’t help suspecting it’ll be at the top of my best reads list when 2013 comes to an end.