27 August 2009
Now let me get this straight… Hah, as if: it’s one of the most tortuous narratives I’ve ever read. And I’ve finally decided that the way Ford tells it is a deliberate reflection of the narrator’s torture.
At the end of Part 1, i.e. about 50 pages in, we’ve more or less got to the bottom of the situation the narrator has recently come to understand. He tells us early in the book that a few weeks ago, following the death of his wife Florence, his two best friends told him about an affair between her and one of them. That’s the start of one of several different time-lines: the narrator’s present horror, based on what he’s only just found out. Then we get a long description of the start of what seems like a beautiful friendship, something like nine years ago: Leonora, the confident and outgoing one, flings herself down at the next table in the spa restaurant, having decided the narrator and his recovering wife are going to be their friends.
Then… then it starts to get difficult. The narrator, over forty or so pages, has to tell us about the affair between his wife and Leonora’s husband. (He’s the good soldier – try to keep up.) Later on he tells us that Leonora had a particular motive for that… but we haven’t got there yet, and I’m not convinced I can quite put my finger on her tortured logic anyway. And there’s that word again: the narrator isn’t the only tortured one, because Leonora, we find out following a barbed remark by Florence, is – wait for it – a Catholic, and she spends her life saving her husband from himself. This doesn’t mean she tries to stop him having affairs – she’s content to accept that he’s congenitally incapable of keeping his hands off other women, possibly (I forget) knew it from the start – but she does worry about scandal and the bankruptcy it would probably lead to. And…
… And what? As well as needing adultery in the way that other people need food and drink, our good soldier is inveterately crap with money. So, before the story even starts (it’s easy to lose track of when things happen in this book) he’s either gambled it away or he’s paid it all out to blackmailers. Leonora’s job, she thinks, is to retrieve the financial situation and make sure he doesn’t do anything he might be blackmailed for. And she’s succeeding, up to the time when the narrator and his wife appear on the scene. There’s a harmless little mistress, her passage to the spa booked by Leonora herself. The money, through careful management and friendly tips from passing financiers, is ok…. And then along comes Florence. Somehow (don’t ask me exactly how, because I’m not going to read it again) Florence gets in the way. The harmless mistress dies – she, at least, was a real invalid – and Leonora decides that what is needed is a time-consuming affair between her husband and the narrator’s wife.
That’ll do. I might have missed out some details but, basically, by the end of Part 1 the narrator is frankly admitting that Leonora is no more than a pimp, that until a few weeks ago he knew nothing about it, and that his wife and two best friends have acted out a huge charade for him over a period of nine long years. Phew. What I’m wondering is where the story can go from here. It’s set in an upper-middle class expatriate world (the narrator and his wife are American, the others are Brits) in the years leading up to the First World War. Ford has fun describing the mundane meaningless of their lives – the narrator knows exactly how pointless it is – and… and what? Maybe it will turn out not to be true, that Leonora and the good soldier tell him this story for particular motives of their own, and the rest of the book unravels these. Maybe time moves on, and Part 2 opens with the declaration of war. This seems much more likely – except that the narrative is firmly fixed before the war, and ‘the saddest story’ he writes about in the first sentence must have already happened…. Hmmm. Maybe it’s time to read on.
… which is at least short, thank the lord. Our man tells us about Florence, and he’s pretty frank about her. Nothing else in this section is pretty, though: she only married him for convenience – to get herself out of an intolerable situation in New England – but he doesn’t realise this until it’s spelt out for him in words of one syllable years later. She really wanted to be a lady of the manor in England and took our man as the next best thing: at least he could get her to Europe, and from there… who knows?
On the back cover is a quotation about the novel from Graham Greene, which should have set bells ringing: this is the tale of sordid people and their sordid lives. It’s no good in this section when our man insists on how lovely the good soldier is – Edward, he’s called – helping old ladies across the street even if that means funding them to the tune of hundreds of pounds. He’s one of those rich characters Fitzgerald got right in The Great Gatsby: they go on their untroubled way, basically, buggering up everybody else’s lives. The plot is so simple our man summarises it for us in a few sentences. Florence is another of the Gatsby rich, and her family do everything they can to warn our man off. But he won’t listen, elopes with her to Europe and is fooled into allowing her to use her (entirely imaginary) heart complaint to lock herself behind closed doors every night. With her lover, expressly shipped over from the States.
I don’t know why should care about these idiots – including our man, who tells us a) that if he’d forced the issue early on she would probably have accepted him in her bed and b) the years of his sexless marriage were the happiest of his life. (Can you believe this? Should we? Is any of it true?) It gets worse: in a gymnastic leap to the end of the sordid little affair – which turns out to be the end of just about everything for our man as well – Edward has just begun to realise how much he fancies the girl he and Leonora have been sort of looking after for about ten years. He realises she’s not a little girl any more; Leonora realises the affair she’s kept going for nine years will come crashing down if she doesn’t do something about it; and… she’s not quick enough.
Before we know it, our man, stuck in conversation with some unspeakable old buffer in the hotel, sees his wife coming in. She’s been out with Edward, obviously – and his new interest, not so obviously. She doesn’t look good – and she looks worse when the old buffer is the first one in the ten or twelve years they’ve been married to recognise her as Florrie the slapper from way back. Gasp. What’s a girl to do? Crack open the phial of – of whatever it is, and swallow it quick.
Are we nearly there yet? (No, since you ask.)
First four pages of Part 3
I’ve been an idiot. The thing I’ve had trouble with is the narrator’s habit of telling us things as though he doesn’t understand what’s going on – and subsequent chapters show that he’s known all along but simply wasn’t telling us.
I mention this now because at the start of Part 3 he’s definitely playing some sort of trick on us. He’s pretending he doesn’t know what on earth possessed him to blurt out just after Florence has topped herself ‘Now I can marry the girl.’ He means the girl Edward fancies and this statement, allegedly, comes out of thin air. Yeh, sure. Now I’m beginning to wonder if he was the one who planted the poison in the phial, that his story of assuming that she had taken amyl nitrate for her fluttering heart was simply concocted – and that his story of years of blissful happiness is just a smokescreen to cover his own tracks. When he saw Edward going after the girl he had to act quickly. And, shit, maybe the whole story that Florence’s heart condition was a fiction was itself a fiction. (Funny how tortuous stories like this one tie syntax into knots.) But why would he blurt out his deeply-hidden motive like that?
The rest of Part 3
If we thought we might begin to get some insights into the narrator and the new girl, well, no chance. Instead, he turns the focus entirely on to Edward and Leonora. He sets another time-line running so we get their back story – all the way back, in fact, to the time before they’d met. It’s another of his slow revelations: if we thought we knew what was going on in the German spa (and all the other places they met over nine years) we were wrong. This ’saddest story’ isn’t the narrator’s own, it’s theirs.
We find out about the manoeuvres, amounting almost to a business deal, that led to their parents marrying them off, their across-the-board unworldliness, Edward‘s total lack of sense with money. Then we get the series of what only really amounts to misunderstandings that lead, eventually, to them becoming like strangers. We get taken right up to the moment before Florence comes in and spoils everything. Of course, everything is already spoilt before then. However noble both of them are – the narrator is careful to makes us realise that’s what they are – their lives are a mess. We’re to understand how the almost virginally naïve Edward unexpectedly finds himself in a position to have deeply serious and meaningful relationships with a series of women. He doesn’t mean to, honest, but Leonora has gradually (or suddenly) morphed into a kind of asexual minder. However much Edward might admire her, it’s spelt out quite explicitly that she no longer does anything for him in the underpants department.
There are times when I don’t quite know how convinced Ford wants us to be by this. The narrator pleads his case too strongly – despite several paragraphs in which he speculates about their motives and then decides that he’s probably wrong anyway – so I wonder if it‘s a device, that we‘re to take what he says with a pinch of salt. He lays the style on incredibly thickly as well: people aren’t just miserable, they’re mired in unbearably dire straits, and the trowelling on of the prose seems to make us want to care. But I still don’t, I’m afraid. 40 or 50 pages from the end I‘m still looking for something we can get out teeth into rather than these endlessly rambling – his word – clarifications of what led to the events in Part 1. A few chapters ago I was speculating that we aren‘t getting the true story about him, but in this section we get no deeper than the fairly superficial level he’s always used to describe himself.
He’s careful to remind us how Edward and Leonora have told him about all these intimate details in the weeks prior to his own retelling of the story. Fine. But is the fact that I’m finding it a bit hard to believe simply a problem I have to live with? Or should I be thinking, Pull the other one? Since the bombshell of his outburst about being free to marry the girl he’s been suspiciously silent about all that, muddying the waters with bland speculations about how hard it is to know somebody beyond the impression they want to give us. What I’m hoping is that some big revelation in Part 4 will show him for what he really is. Like, in addition to wondering about Florence’s death and the way you could have knocked him down with a feather after he realised she’d taken poison… how does the younger girl end up dying so soon after? So far he’s told us nothing of that beyond teasing references to the fact that she’s dead.
Is he telling this story from Death Row? I hope so – but I suspect I’m looking for the wrong kind of plot. As the narrator would say, I might be wrong.
Part 4: to the end
Should I start with a list of what I got wrong? Or a list of the reasons why I would have been wrong-footed by what seems to be Ford’s attempt to replicate the inconsistent workings of the memory? And does that second question sound like an excuse?
What I got wrong was nearly everything. For a start, our man’s hidden depths turn out not to exist: however disappointing it might be, what we see, more or less from the start, is all there is. All those habits of his – mixing up his facts, misremembering who said what and when, neglecting to mention key events until we’re completely thrown when he does get round to telling us – reveal no sinister motive on his part. It appears that Ford wants us to believe that this man is so shell-shocked by the revelations we ourselves don‘t find out until near the end, that his memory is a ravaged no-man’s-land and we shouldn‘t believe anything he tells us. He warns us often enough, like a one-line chorus, about how he might be wrong. This isn’t a murder mystery, it’s a tortured exploration of what well-meaning human beings can do to one another if they make a few wrong choices.
Which means that the other thing I got wrong was the shape of this novel. It never moves forward along the one-dimensional line of a whodunnit, and I should have been warned by the way Part 2 simply goes back to explain a bit more clearly what led to the events of Part 1. The pattern of those two sections carries on, more and more intensely: early on our bemused narrator presents us with a finished story which is then peeled away, layer by sordid (or sad, or tortured) layer. It becomes horribly fascinating by the end, like watching one of those show autopsies. There’s certainly something pathological about Leonora’s obsession which, in the final section, turns her into a monster. Ford has a lot of fun describing the hellish torture she goes through – and she ends up consigning three other people to their own little regions of hell. She’s ok by the end, married off in what is presented as an act of cynical selfishness. Everyone else is screwed, or dead. Fine.
So how do I feel about it? Bemused and a bit disappointed, really. The main problem is that I’m not at all bothered about the characters. The narrator is, as far as the novel’s structure is concerned, its central, pivotal point. We get the story in the way we do because of what has happened to him – and yet he’s never at the centre in any other way. He’s outside all the action, living an unimaginably mundane life while his wife shags whoever she wants and his new best friends take no account at all of any of his emotional needs. In their story – which is the interesting one – he’s a cipher, a zero, and that doesn’t change after the final trick that Leonora plays on him. It wasn’t he who said he was free to marry the girl, as he originally remembered it, it was Leonora planting an idea in his head to get her out of her husband’s life. But when her ruse works all too well and he wants to marry the girl and settle down in a big house near his best friends, she puts a stop to it and sends the girl off to India and raving lunacy.
What I’m saying is, he’s a fallen leaf eddying here and there on the random currents that other people – Florence, Edward, Leonora – launch him on to. So we don’t care about him…. And that leaves the others. Florence is a fairly stereotypical figure: the cheating wife who wants anybody except her husband. We’re not bothered about her. Leonora is more complicated. Or is she? Maybe she’s just a simple soul whose unquestioning Catholic faith – with its attendant crew of ‘spiritual advisers’ – sets her on a course that does everybody’s head in, including her own. She’s tortured for most of the book but, well, what an idiot. Ford has to pile a lot of extra baggage on – torturing headaches, a nervous breakdown – to make us feel for her. Doesn’t work for me.
Which leaves Edward. Give me strength. Somehow he gets led astray, somehow he fritters away almost all his inheritance, somehow he becomes involved in helping his wife screw everybody up. And yet he’s unerringly good – noble, generous, full of sympathy for every sad sack he comes across. Even the scandal we heard about in Part 1 was just a misplaced and misinterpreted act of kindness. Yeh, sure. When the narrator stands by and allows him to prepare himself for suicide I thought, bring it on.
And I’d nearly forgotten that there’s one more character, the girl our man wants to marry. But she isn’t mentioned until half-way through and disappears for 40 or 50 pages almost as soon as we know who she is. When Ford wants us to take an interest in her, and in the appallingly high price she pays for Leonora’s monomania, he has to pile on descriptive details about her shock of black hair and her own brand of Catholic weirdness. It doesn’t work for me. So she’s gaga at the end – after Ford has shoehorned in a convenient 18-month gap – and I don’t believe a word of it. Ford needs our man to be stuffed in a situation that’s a kind of surreal repeat of his marriage – beautiful woman nearby, totally unavailable – but, like so much else, her madness is just too convenient.
So why, as soon as I finished reading it, did I contemplate reading it again straight away? (Not that I’ll actually do so, not for a year or two anyway.) Dunno. Maybe it’s to do with the relentlessness of it, the overwrought earnestness – as if this story somehow matters: this is the human condition, friends, so welcome to hell. Ok. Except I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe in the driving force of Leonora’s Catholicism, the fatal flaw in Edward that was really only generosity stretched too far, the narrative in which memory plays tricks that are just too conveniently literary. It’s intense, it’s claustrophobic and, in the end, it’s preposterous.
However. Since I’m beginning paragraphs with questions… why is this novel so well-regarded? Why is it on literature courses, a landmark of 20th Century letters?
Ford does extraordinary things, especially for a novel written in 1915. As I said at the start, he wants us to be as disorientated as his narrator, and he succeeds in that. He’s after producing a tour de force, in which the all the reader’s expectations are at best shown to be wrong-headed and at worst are simply blocked. Perhaps one of the problems I have is Ford’s determination to tear up the contract between the author and the reader. You think you know what’s going on? he seems to be asking. Hah! Which, as a 21st Century reader I ought to be fine with,… But I‘m not. Ford wants to unsettle us, take us away from whatever we might be comfortable with. So, if we think we know what sort of world we‘re in early on, we‘re wrong. And he will do everything he can to convince us that the world he‘s conjured up for us, however bizarre, is completely plausible. Towards the end, especially, I get the impression that he’s bringing out all his persuasive big guns. As the American evangelists say, Believe.
The living novelist I’m reminded of by all this is another who uses the feints and false clues of the thriller-writer, and all his powers of persuasion to convince us of the plausibility of his plots: Ian McEwan. There are other parallels. They both push the boundaries of what is acceptable in novels, both appear to want to question the comfortable mores of a decidedly middle-class readership. And they both annoy the pants off me. Look at Atonement, another novel in which none of what we read is what it appears, factual accounts turn out not to be factual at all – and revelations are made that are designed to dumbfound us.
But I’ve already hinted at my main problem with The Good Soldier: the narrator’s understandably traumatised memory – as in shocked, bruised, wounded – is supposed to be the moving force behind the way this story is told. I said a few paragraphs back that it feels conveniently literary, and now I understand what I meant. It’s presented as though written by someone trying to piece together meanings out of a kind of moral chaos – but it reads like an author who is, basically, out to trick us. So we wonder, Who’s this guy trying to fool? And because there’s a narrator, he’s the one we’re suspicious of. And, for me, that completely gets in the way: the ground-breaking unreliable narrator technique simply doesn‘t work as intended, because we never feel his pain or his trauma, only his confusion. It isn’t anything like enough.