The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The opening sentence of The Good Soldier
This book: it is so quiet, so unassuming that it sneaks up on you. You are maybe even sort of wondering why it’s a classic when it tells (you think) such a banal story. But in fact, while telling you one story, eventually another bleeds through. The presenting story: a man of a certain age, disenchanted with his life, his wife, and all the usual middle-age discontents, falls in love with a young woman. But in actual fact as the narrative progresses, a very different story emerges. This is a novel about the actual intentions and desires and impulses people feel inside themselves, and how they get expressed—or in some cases do not. There is the mask people wear and the presenting story we show to the world; some people think that is the sum total of who they are. Maybe for some it is. But Maddox Ford knows the two are not the same—that it isn’t simply what we do that matters, but why. In fact, the whys may be far more critical.
The narrator, John Dowell, tells the story of another man’s life, the ‘good soldier’ of the title*—Edward Ashburnham. At first it seems only to be a superficial description of intrigues between and among 2 couples and a young girl summering at a spa in fin de siecle Germany, but slowly we learn much more than polite society conversation will allow. Following this Dowell begins to tell his own story. But is his story true? And if his own story isn’t true, can you trust what he’s told you about Ashburnham?
(*FYI, This is not a novel about the military or war.)
This book has no less significance because it was written at the beginning of the 1900s—this is not a romanticized Downton Abbey period piece. The veneer may be old-fashioned, but the story and its insights are eternal. Maddox Ford is more ignored than he should be. Only recently has there been a surge of interest because he wrote a novel that was the basis for a popular 2012 BBC/HBO production, Parade’s End, starring the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch. The outline of both stories may seem similar, but I’d still urge you to read The Good Soldier. It is considered by most to be Maddox Ford’s masterpiece, and for good reason.