‘Good Soldier’ details affairs

When I started this column, I made a few rules for myself. One of the things I decided was not to include books I read for class. I didn’t want to turn the A & E page into an extension of English class.

Well, as they say, rules are made to be broken, so now I present to you Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” a classic worth breaking my personal code for.

At the outset, “The Good Soldier” seems like any piece of pre-World War I literature: dry and motivated by long-defunct social concerns. Yawn.

It details the personal relationships between two married couples who met at a spa for those with heart ailments. However, as the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. Deception, secrets and sexual immorality hide behind a veneer of respectability in this saga.

Dowell, the narrator, reveals in a nonchronological and often contradictory fashion the story of his life with his wife, Florence, her affair with Edward and Edward’s marriage to Leonora, as well as his various adulterous affairs.

Because of the way in which the story is told, by the time everything is revealed there are no surprises left to the reader. Most of the novel comes as detailed descriptions of things hinted at earlier in the tale.

As was customary at the time, “The Good Soldier” is full of rambling prose and obscured meaning, but its style is conversational and it’s easy to get a sense of Dowell as a person, although he is one of the least active players in the novel.

The characters are each tragic in a personal way, and they have deep flaws. These aren’t the boring flaws of Greek tragedy — hubris and so on — but real, shudderingly awful and utterly understandable pitfalls.

This is a book I loved despite myself. I wasn’t expecting to be pulled headfirst into a world of quiet intrigue, but it happened. I was enthralled from page one.

Anyone who likes the style of the 19th and early 20th centuries will love this book. The characters put me in mind of a period drama like Wharton, while the situations they face were more reminiscent of a licentious French novel like “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” It captures human tenderness and human malice, and does both very well.

“The Good Soldier” can be dense and is not what I would call uplifting. Ford’s mastery of the modern invention of sarcasm makes the book at times darkly funny but always somewhat gloomy. Its beauty envelops (just like one of its dangerous heroines) but it holds a mirror to humanity at its most repulsive.

A reader wanting a happy story should look elsewhere, as should anyone hoping to turn his or her brain off and escape into a quickly rolling world. It takes a considerable amount of brainpower just to keep the characters straight and the events organized. 

“The Good Soldier” has endured through the times and I know why. It’s worth reading for pleasure if you have a passing interest in classic literature.


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