Thursday, October 11, 2007


"I don't attach any particular importance to these generalizations of mine. They may be right, they may be wrong; I am only an ageing American with very little knowledge of life. You may take my generalizations or leave them."--John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier

Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) has emerged as one of my favorite novels of the twentieth century. It's not a novel I read during that formative era of reading, pre-thirty, when many of my tastes were formulated. It's just as well, perhaps. Because to reach an appreciation of the novel it was probably necessary that something else occur: an appreciation of the novels of Henry James. And that didn't happen, for me, until I was in grad school. I believe I first read The Good Soldier for generals. I've since read it three times for the class Modern British Fiction. Each time, I think, I have a slightly different response, but my admiration for the novel only increases.

I mention James because Ford's novel is to my mind the closest, in some ways, to the kinds of anatomies of well-to-do couples that James made his province. But if Ford's novel is like a James novel, it's a James novel in which something has gone horribly wrong. In class last week, commenting on the suicides that are necessary to the novel's melodramatic trauma, I quoted the last line of Hedda Gabler, uttered in response to Hedda's suicide: "Good God, people don't do such things!" In Henry James novels they don't. In The Good Soldier, they do. And that in itself is indicative of the ways in which Ford's novel is deliberately not a James novel. Ford assumes his readers are readers of the James novel, then twists it toward the era of wholesale slaughter that was "The Great War," a time in which a draft of The Good Soldier, called "The Saddest Story," appeared in the belligerently avant-garde journal BLAST along with a manifesto largely composed by Pound and featuring images of Vorticist art -- like analytic Cubism but with bolder lines, more jagged and machine-like and energetic -- by Wyndham Lewis and others. In other words, Ford's novel is right there in the same creative nexus that would help push to get Joyce's Portrait published and proselytize for Eliot's poems up through "The Waste Land." This is the era in which the modernist greats are doing their best early work. And Ford's novel is right up there with the best of that period.

I'm sorry to say The Good Soldier is the only novel of Ford's I've read, so I don't have much personal sense of where his career goes from there. But because this novel does what it does so well, I haven't felt my lack of knowledge as a great gap. In fact, I think it lets me maintain a conviction that The Good Soldier is quintessential Ford. I don't know what I'd do if I had to balance the voice of its narrator John Dowell against voices of other Ford narrators. It's something, no doubt, I should get around to doing, but it's not as if I confuse Dowell with Ford. The beauty of The Good Soldier is in the mastery of that narratorial performance: the tale as told by Dowell is mostly the point of the whole thing. Its exfoliating effects are achieved by Dowell's slow burn -- his "off-hand" imagery that always is much more deliberate and meaningful than his tone would suggest. His persona is benign, garrulous, sincere; his intents are either borderline demented, extremely devious, or so pathetically unequal to the task -- his own major claim -- that one is at times reminded of Dostoevsky's Underground Man and his relentless profession of emotions that show him to be perversely proud of how contradictory he is. In Dowell's case, so much depends upon his own interminable analysis: the novel ends up a kind of "no exit" space in which, indeed, hell is other people and Dowell gets closer and closer to the brink of the abyss the more squarely he looks at the life he has led with his wife Florence and their friends the Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora.

That it is hell we are in no doubt. Leonora's Irish Catholicism insists upon it. Adulterers shall be punished, not only in the next world but in this one as well. The novel's epigram is "Beati Immaculati" -- blessed are the immaculate or undefiled -- and the persona of Dowell goes a long way to creating the most wryly satiric version of the sexlessness of James novels that one could conceive. Dowell, a virgin, must register the extent to which passion, with deliberate invocation of the passion of Christ, is a state of agony one suffers on earth, suffers for not being "immaculate." The Jamesian novel, while never giving us "the sordid details" of any marriage, lets us know something of the infinite variety of ways in which persons suffer other persons and suffer from other persons. Ford's Dowell is also rather remarkably bland when it comes to the sordid melodramas of philandering husbands, duplicitous wives, forthright courtesans, naive mistresses, and romantic convent girls, but, unlike James' ubiquitous and urbane narrative voice, Dowell's presence creates a flawed perspective, a psychological "no man's land" in which ultimate allegiances are up for grabs.

"Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men's lives like the lives of us good people . . . . broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?"

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

I must have read that one too early. :-)

Coetzee's "Youth" includes discussion of his work on a thesis on Ford in England in the early 60s. Well, he mentions it and talks a bit about it; "discussion" is exaggerated.