“The Good Soldier is a novel which extorts admiration” The New York Times
“For all the author’s clever manipulation of words, he has given his story nothing to compensate for its artistic feebleness.” Boston Transcript
“His avowed method is to tell it all as if he were on one side of the fireplace…and a listener opposite him…But frankly Mr. Hueffer is so terribly long-winded…[that] the longing to go and do something else would be too strong… long before the tale was well afoot…” Times Literary Supplement
“The infinitely artistic development of events, their slow growth and inevitability, the turning inside out of characters to show amazing linings, have no hint of tediousness…” Observer
As a writer, I find it heartening to read these contradictory reviews of The Good Solder by Ford Maddox Ford (aka Hueffer).
I read the novel on my new kobo, but then I turned to a physical book (see the link) because it included these reviews and a number of critical essays as well. Let me first quickly summarize what I got out of the essays. The Good Soldier is a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It’s a social novel. It’s a Freudian novel. The narrator is an idiot. The narrator is insightul. The narrator can’t be trusted as far as you can throw him. The soldier of the title is a tragic hero. He is an idiot. Love is ridiculous. Love is epic. Passion is admirable. Ha!
I would like to write a book as deeply investigated and hotly debated as this one. Written during the outbreak of the first World War, this is a novel about two enmeshed couples, marital affairs, passion and the forbidden object of passion. One of the marriages is between a tart and an asexual man (the narrator). The other marriage is between an uptight woman and a man who is generous of spirit and body (courtly knight or lech, depending on your view). But the beauty of this book, for me, isn’t as much in what it’s about as in how the story is told.
Using quite different techniques, Ford does the same thing I did in The River Midnight, ie as the book goes along, he provides the reader with information that sheds new light on a previously revealed fact or incident that makes it seem entirely different than on the first encounter.
Ford does this through an unreliable first person narrator who shifts back and forth in his telling, commenting on his own reactions then and now, in the sort of rambling, random way that people actually tell stories. The writing is careful, subtle, and very funny. The narrator does seem like an idiot at first, but as the novel goes along, I found him to be clever and insightful. The story moves from comedy to tragedy, from the farce of incompatible marriage to the sad torment of people who could be good in other circumstances treating each other with merciless cruelty because they ought not to be together and are helplessly trapped with each other.
And yet, even there, when tragedy is at its peak, there is a note of comedy in the obvious hyperbole of the tragic outcome. I don’t want to say too much here and reveal the end, but if you do or have read this, tell me what you think of the pen knife and the madness of “shuttlecock.”
The Good Soldier is an Impressionist novel, and I gather from the essays in the Norton Critical Edition, that Impressionism as a literary movement followed painting by about 20 years. Ford himself says (p 263)
Impressionism exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass–through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a 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.
He does it brilliantly. According to Wikipedia:
The Good Soldier is frequently included among the great literature of the past century, including the Modern Library 100 Best Novels, The Observer’s ‘100 Greatest Novels of All Time’, and The Guardian’s ‘1000 novels everyone must read’.
I would agree with that.