It wasn’t the best title. In the bleak days of World War One, the last thing the public needed was a book entitled The Saddest Story. Ford’s publisher urged a more tactful approach, to which a disgruntled Ford sarcastically replied, “Why not The Good Soldier?”
It’s an ironic title considering the moral fog that overwhelms the plot. In the fading twilight of Edwardian ideals, the melancholy narrator, John Dowell, reflects upon his encounter with the Asburnham’s – a couple whom he holds in high esteem. However, first impressions dominate reality and Dowell struggles to make sense of the labyrinth of memories before him. Embodying the role of the unreliable narrator, Dowell sympathises when he should despise and remains cheerful when he should mourn. Yet when memory, time and space intersect in both detailed and vague accounts of what happened, how sure can we be in judging a character who like us, is desperately trying to make sense of the past?
Although classified today as a Modernist work of fiction, The Good Soldier remains the result of literary Impressionism – a technique that Ford advocated in both the visual and literary arts more than John Ruskin, Walter Pater, or any of his other contemporaries. Ford’s 1914 essay ‘On Impressionism’ is an insightful read alongside the novel and synthesizes his thoughts on the importance of this literary style. Ford found its value in rendering ‘those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass.’ Through glass you notice the reflection of the face of a person behind you. ‘For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.’
Through this window of dualism, Ford presses the trivial anxieties of the English upper-classes; religion, sexual desire and social codes become ridiculed against the backdrop of a world on the cusp of tragedy.
But for all its powerful prose, The Good Soldier can be an irritating experience, not least for it mosaic narrative. How can deeply personal observations express an illusion that seeks to escape any trace of the author’s voice? Paradoxically, an image described with three words can be simultaneously distilled and precise. These contradictions only make for a dense experience when reading; rereading complex sentences you only discover completely differing emotions to those you had before.
With these colliding blurs and constant shifts of psychological perception, it’s hardly surprising that Ford’s writing translates brilliantly onto the screen (as Tom Stoppard’s revitilization of Parades End for the BBC proved last year). What is surprising though, is how few of these adaptations there are and how many of his works there are to choose from. Why another rendition of Pinter when you could have The Fifth Queen afresh? That seems to me to be the saddest story.
The Good Soldier is availible now from Oxford World’s Classics.
words: Ben Meagher