"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." What could be more simple and declaratory, a statement of such high plangency and enormous claim that the reader assumes it must be not just an impression, or even a powerful opinion, but a "fact"? Yet it is one of the most misleading first sentences in all fiction. ... And if the second verb of the first sentence cannot be trusted, we must be prepared to treat every sentence with the same care and suspicion. We must prowl soft-footed through this text, alive for every board's moan and plaint.Julian Barnes in The Guardian reminds me that it's high time to revisit Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, surely one of the best ... and most underrated novels in the English language and very much ahead of its time.
I couldn't remember the details of plot till I read Barnes' article, but I can remember all too well the sensation of the ground shifting beneath my feet. Unreliable narration? No author has done it better (though more recent authors Kazuo Ishiguro in Remains of the Day or Zoe Heller in Notes from a Scandal do it very well indeed).
Barnes points out that it is a novel which has strongly influenced other British authors. He mentions :
... fellow-writers who have been vocal in his cause, from Graham Greene to William Carlos Williams to Anthony Burgess.My money is on the unnamed author being Ishiguro! (If I'd been lucky enough to interview him, I'd have asked him just that question! Honest I would.)
And among the living? Well, here are two examples. About 10 years ago, while writing about Ford, I ran into one of our better-known literary novelists, whose use of indirection and the bumbling narrator seemed to me to derive absolutely from Ford. I mentioned this (a little more tactfully than I have stated it here), and asked if he had read Ford. Yes, indeed he had. Would he mind if I mentioned this fact in my piece? There was a pause (actually of a couple of days) before the reply: "Please pretend I haven't read The Good Soldier. I'd prefer it that way."
More recently, I was talking to Ian McEwan, who told me that a few years ago he'd been staying in a house with a well-stocked library. There he found a copy of The Good Soldier, which he read and admired greatly. A while later, he wrote On Chesil Beach, that brilliant novella in which passion, and Englishness, and misunderstanding, lead to emotional catastrophe. Only after publishing the book did he realise that he had unconsciously given his two main characters the names Edward (as in Ashburnham) and Florence (as in Dowell). He is quite happy for me to pass this on.
The Good Soldier isn't at all an easy read, so I hesitate to tell you to rush out and buy a copy. I struggled to get into the book and tried several times before I managed it (a friend I lent it to said the same thing) but once the first few pages had passed, I found it one of the most satisfying novels I've ever read.
Barnes says Ford is not so much of a writer's writer (which he is often called) as :
... a proper reader's writer. The Good Soldier needs The Good Reader.Am I recommending this book to you? No. Not unless you are a fan of the other British authors listed above and ready for the challenge. But I reckon it's essential reading for the novelist - established or budding!
How did the novel get its title when it isn't about soldiers or war at all? It was as the result of a joke, Gary Dexter reveals in the Telegraph.