Saturday, March 3, 2012

Thoughts: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but, for the sake of bringing all readers up to speed, I’m going to mention it again. I have this silly goal where I want to read a huge portion of the books from the Modern’s Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels of all Time. Personally, I think the list is too focused on works by white, male authors, but, on the other hand, I think there’s a reason why the books made it into the list.

The Good Soldier is arguably one of the most accessible books in that list. You can legally download a free copy from Project Gutenberg, which I did months ago. I’ve been putting it off, because I thought the book would be boring. Alas, I was being an idiot again. I’ve been writing about the classics for more than a year, and I should have learned my lesson by now. The books I think are boring are often the ones that completely blow me away.

In a nutshell, The Good Soldier is about two married couples, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham and John and Florence Dowell. The Ashburnhams and the Dowells meet in a retreat for sick people in Nauheim, and become friends for the next decade or so. John Dowell, the narrator, thinks everyone around him is a good person, and remains blind to the deceptions and manipulations of those around him.

First of all, I have to say it’s a shame that Ford Madox Ford isn’t as well-known as Hemingway or Faulkner or any of those great writers. He’s just as innovative as the rest of them. This is basically what I want you to do right now: Buy or download a copy of The Good Soldier. You won’t regret it, I swear.

Anton Chekhov said that, when you mention a gun in one scene, you’re going to have to use it in a later scene. Ford Madox Ford was a master that. He mentioned all these seemingly insignificant people and conversations in some scenes, and, later on, you realize that they play an important part in the novel. These small details come together to form one breathtakingly beautiful picture.

The Good Soldier is like a fabulous read and a writing lesson put together. You want to know how to push the boundaries of plot in fiction? Then, read this novel. At first glance, the chronology of events seems so convoluted that it doesn’t make sense, but, once you analyse the novel, all the seemingly random events come together perfectly. For example, the narrator mentions one conversation early in the novel then he discusses something else. He expounds on that conversation later, like whetted your appetite for it early on, and you gladly eat up all the little details.

And the narrator. Ohmygod, where do I even begin talking about him? John Dowell is so naïve, so full of bullshit that you have to filter everything he says through your own eyes. You are left to fend for yourself, because the narrator is so freaking untrustworthy. He basically screws with your mind, because you have no idea what to think. Was Edward Ashburnham really ‘a good soldier’ or was he just a useless philanderer? You have to decide for yourself, because John Dowell, after everything, thinks he’s a good man.

This made me think about the way every single one of us sees the world. I think I once read somewhere (I forget where) that every person thinks of himself or herself as the leading man/lady of the movie of his/her life. It sounds like a cheesy analogy, but bear with me here. From our points-of-view, the world revolves around us, and the minute details of our lives are important to us, even if they’re not important to other people. John Dowell thought Edward Ashburnham was a good man. I can argue with him until I turn blue, but that won’t change anything. He saw things through his own unique filter, and it doesn’t matter if that filter is different from the rest of the population.

The Good Soldier is a brilliant book that reminded me why I love fiction so much. There are so many things that can be done with it, and so many avenues to explore. Ford Madox Ford simply experimented with narration, and I’m left breathless at the thought of what he could have done with the other elements of fiction.


mooderino said...

Never heard of this book before, but now I feel like reading it immediately. Good review as always.

Moody Writing
The Funnily Enough

Laura said...

I bought this a really long time ago (confession: Because it was a penguin modern classic with a silver spine, and I have a thing about those...) and still haven't read it because I also assumed it was going to be boring! You've definitely moved me closer to wanting to read it soon!

Zibilee said...

Ok, you have convinced me, and now I am off to see if I can find this one. You make a really good point about people feeling like they are at the center of their own universe, and I have noticed that for some time now. The trick is, to learn to see that you are not, in fact, the center of the universe! Great review today, Darlyn!

Jessica said...

how funny, I finished reading this a couple of days ago! will be ages before I put my thoughts on the blog though as I have abit of a backlist

I did think the writing was a little dry in that english pre first world war kind of way and the first third of the book I was just thinking 'oh for gods sake this is just about ppl having affairs' but then as you got more into it, you were right everything began to come together and it went deeper and past conversations suddenly became significant (if that makes any sense!)

Overall very clever and a classic

bibliophilica said...

The quote by Chekhov is one of my favorites. Chekhov himself is one of my favorites too.

I think your 100 greatest books goal is a good one. One of my book clubs was formed with that end goal in mind. We only made it through about a dozen before open rebellion led us to broaden our choices. :-)


Audra said...

!!! You have me so excited about this one -- I'm going to download it tonight! I've long wanted to read this one but your comments have me desperately eager!


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