Ford Madox Ford
Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) published his most-loved novel, The Good Soldier, in 1915. He wanted to call it “The Saddest Story”, and so refers it to it throughout his text, but is it really “the saddest story” and is it really about a “good soldier”? This reader must answer both in the negative.
Ford was a very popular novelist in his day and is still well-regarded; so, he warrants our attention. His prose style is commendably unusual and interesting. He gives us a stream of consciousness narration, often from the narrator’s deepest thoughts, sometimes surreal, phantasmagoric, semi-drugged, a profoundly personal revelation of the detachment that the the author (and any of us) may internally experience, all of which yields to passages of moving metaphors, not necessarily of beauty but still moving and gripping. Then, the plot, like the human mind, leaps desultorily, spanning decades or minutes, back and forth as do our aberant thoughts, often devoid of warning, and bounces among myriad unrelated topics with no apparent concern for orderly development of the story line; so, we learn the story in minuscule bites, giving it almost the efficacy of a mystery, which it clearly is not. This unusual style, salted with sporadic, meritorious descriptive passages, holds our interest, for the most part.
Rather than help us understand its own era, TGS seeks to define humanity, as represented by two couples: Captain Edmund Ashburnham (the good soldier), his wife, Lenora, and John Dowell, the narrator (aka the author) and his wife Florence. To unfairly summarize the plot, which likely was frequently relived in your and my neighborhood in whatever era you and I or anyone lived, each character has many predictable virtues and vices. The Good Soldier, although kind to animals, etc., is a philanderer of Gothic proportions, bedding any female this side of sheep, including the narrator’s wife. In the end, the author strains credulity by having the pusilanimous Good Soldier and, separately, the narrator’s wife, commit suicide. While his characters are believable (believably average people), since the author never inspires the reader to like, much less become attached to, any of them, the book left this reader yawning and relieved to escape these characters. In Dickens, Hardy, Dreiser, Mitchell, any of the great Russians, et al, this is not the case. One loathes to see their works end, thus breaking the connection with the lovably imperfect characters. Although, the reader sees him/herself in some or all the characters at various points, TGS’s characters inspire no fielty or emotional attachments.
In TGS, we learn the workings of,one man’s mind: the narrator’s. While the author may have envisioned himself as having some of the attributes (and sex appeal) of the good soldier, Ford likely saw himself as the narrator, who gives us a nihilist’s view of life:
“We are all so afraid, so alone, so in need of an assurance of our worthiness to exist…I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone…Which is the right — fidelity or infidelity? Which is the proper or better man?…It is impossible to think of the permancy of any man’s or woman’s love…Who knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?…I call this ‘the Saddest Story’ just bedcause it is so sad…And why? For what purpose? To point out what lesson? It [life] is all darkness…”
Ford adds nothing new to these classic, apoditic conundrums. Yet, in his Dedication, he presages that he had here written a novel that could be “the finest novel in the English language”, as he there quoted one of his admirers.
The weakest part of TGS is the author’s grammar, i.e., his lack of it. He uses back-to-back prepositions without an object for either; run-on sentences and incomplete ones abound, and three dots inexplicably to end thoughts and paragraphs (rather than their accepted use to indicate words omitted from quotes); he also overuses hyphens, and he fails to fathom the role of commas in helping the reader grasp his ideas. In addition, his vocabularly is wanting (e.g. very few challenging words and constant reuse of the same word, such as “perfectly” four times in the same sentence and twice more in two sentences later), and he compounds the foregoing by making up words. Then, to show his self-attributed erudition, he pedantically inserts whole paragraphs in Latin or endless French phrases, which he never translates.
As a literary giant of his time, Ford earned our attention. So, I am grateful that I read TGS, the above comments notwithstanding.