Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bad Hearts

Where to begin with The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford? For some reason I was surprised by the complexity of the book. It seemed like it was going to be a straightforward story, but it isn't. The narrator, John Dowell, sucks you in from the very beginning. John appears to be a charming man who tells us that he's going to tell this sad story, the saddest story he has ever "heard" as though we were siting in a comfortable chair by the fireside with a glass of brandy in one had and a cigarette in the other. It quickly becomes evident that the story is not one he heard but one he participated in.

The story is about John and his wife Florence, both Americans, and their friendship with Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, both British. Florence and Edward both have bad hearts and both couples are staying at Nauheim when they meet. The course of the story takes place over twelve years, but John doesn't tell it in order. He digresses, jumps forward and backward, hints, keeps secrets, drops surprises and is, generally an unreliable fellow when it comes down to it. Both couples are rather well to do, "good people," with the "good" part turning out to be rather ironic. We learn fairly early in the book that Florence and Edward are having an affair. It is not Edward's first affair, nor it turns out, is it Florence's.

Leonora knows immediately that Edward and Florence are having an affair. She has put up with Edward's affairs; she is the classic long-suffering wife. She is Catholic and Edward is not. Divorce is not an option for her. She loves Edward and wants him to love only her but fails time and time again. She is portrayed by John as being heartless while Edward (the good soldier) has a generous heart. John blames Leonora for what eventually happens to Edward. He also blames her for not telling him that Florence was having an affair. The affair went on for years and I wonder how John was so stupid not to notice anything. He is lost in his own little world, isn't even upset when Florence dies, and he calls Leonora heartless. John is the one with the real bad heart.

John expresses surprise early in the story about not be able to truly know anyone: "After forty-five years of mixing with one's kind, one ought to have acquired the habit of being able to know something about one's fellow beings. But one doesn't." Then toward the end of the story he asks, "Who in this world knows anything of any other heart--or his own?" But consider the source. John is so emotionally disconnected from everyone, including himself, that he would not be able to know anyone. One must make the effort to be at least somewhat engaged with life and people on more than a surface appearance level to be able to know anything. And since John isn't, he blames others for what he doesn't understand and takes some hefty swipes at women and Catholics.

John is right, it is a sad story. It is sad because when John has opportunities to change outcomes, he doesn't. He made me angry with his passivity. By the end of the book I was actively cursing him. I wonder though, how much of John's ignorance is real and how much feigned? There is no way to know for certain and it infuriates me in a delightful, bookish way.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

A Tale of Dispassion

This book reminded us of another selection by the Slaves, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in the way it shifts back and forth in time to tell the story. At several points in the book the narrator Mr. Dowell remarks that he has brought his story up to a point that he has already referenced. In the introduction, Mark Schorer likens the style to a hall of mirrors. The beginning of Part Four makes this explicit:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find his path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression.
We don't quite know what to make of this book. It was certainly not as smashing as we had expected. The story concerns two conventional, mostly sterile, marriages, and an affair between one of the women and the other man. Dowell does not find out his wife has been involved with his friend until after she dies. Through it all Dowell takes pains to assure his silent listener that the other man, Mr. Ashburnham, is a fine gentleman, a good soldier. Mrs. Dowell, however, is only one in a line of women with whom Ashburnham dallies.

The four major characters all seem as if they are wandering without moral compass. All that seems to matter is the pretence of happiness. Perhaps today, with the rampant popularity of divorce, we look back at such marriages differently. In order to find Ashburnham "the model of humanity," Dowell must have suspended certain standards. In spite of everything, he says,
It is impossible for me to think of Edward Ashburnham as anything but straight, upright, and honourable."
Yet we must take Dowell's word for it, because he never describes any of the innumerable wonderful deeds Ashburnham performs.

Dowell idolizes Ashburnham, wants to be like him, and indeed, he even comes to mimic Ashburnham's desire for a young lady. Perhaps he harbors a secret love for Ashburnham. His unwavering esteem for Ashburnham makes his judgement suspect. And he certainly relates many details about his wife's affair for having been oblivious to it until her death. These things make him seem an unreliable narrator. This begs the question: What is the point of an unreliable narrator? Without the balance of another point-of-view, how is the reader to understand the degree of the narrator's delusions? Or the reason?

Mr. Ford thought this his best work. We have not read anything else by him, so we cannot offer any comparison. This book is certainly well-written, with correct grammar and sentence structure and punctuation. This book also presents us with another narrator who feels nothing, and so the reader feels nothing as well.

Since the book began at the time of the ending, the ending seemed to come all at once. The characters lived on, but there was simply no more story to tell. All the change and lessons learned had come along the way, and all that remained was anticlimax. We have a decided preference for stories that end dramatically, with a conclusion that we suddenly realise has been pointed to from the very beginning. Though this novel is subtitled "A Tale of Passion," it could be better described as reserved. And though the narrator calls it the saddest story he has ever heard, there is more consolation than sadness.

Discussions about this book can be engaged at the Metaxucafe forum.

...cross-posted at Necessary Acts of Devotion.