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The Good Soldier

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Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier [London; 1915]

A delight to read from beginning to end, even as the sturdy moral and psychological façade of the opening chapters slides irrevocably into betrayal, deceit, cruelty, and insanity -- all of which has already happened. In a sense the novel functions as a synecdoche for the end of the settled, pious, and technocratic nineteenth century, a declaration that the madness and horror which sprang into being during World War I had always been there under the surface, and that only inattention and willful blindness had kept it out of sight.

This was my first time reading The Good Soldier, but I kept thinking about two books I've read frequently before: Howards End (which does believe in settled piety, though only mystically), and Brideshead Revisited (which believes in settled piety as a sneering rebuke to modernity). But it was Ford's prose rather than his themes that really recalled Forster and Waugh to me: the exquisite if bloodless prose of the English middle class that came of age before World War II. Although Ford here is supposed to be writing in character as an American -- a Philadelphian, even -- an act of cultural ventriloquism which he entirely fails to achieve, and is reduced to throwing in a colloquial "I guess" every dozen pages as a reminder.

That's not the point, however: of course the narrator is American in order that Ford won't have to nail down any specifics of British legal, financial, military, or even social mores. At such a remove, the story turns into a kind of fairy tale about people's emotional rather than physical lives. The latter is always improbable, and would be sheerest melodrama if Ford's intricate unreliable flashback superstructure were straightened out into this-happened-then-this (as Theodore Dreiser preposterously recommended) -- but the emotional lives are perfectly credible. At least until the final third, when a pure-minded young virgin turns catatonic at the revelation of human sexual frailty; but this too is part of the fairy tale, a symbol of traditional religion's inability to cope with modern psychological revelation and social frankness.

I haven't read Parade's End, and I don't know that I will (British military stories always sound unbearably tedious to me), but I'm definitely ready to accept Madox Ford as part of my personal canon, someone I want to read more from.

August 19, 2018