Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Saddest Story Ever Told

"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.

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.
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.)

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!

Update :

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.


Rob said...

Sharon - we talked about this novel, which I agree is mesmerising. I've taught it for years, and it never fails to impress students. This year, several of my students explored the idea, first put forward by a critic called Roger Poole, that Dowell is, far from bumbling, a cool, calculating customer, who benefits hugely by the events of the novel. It's an intriguing thought - Dowell as murderer??

Anonymous said...

Unreliable narration - no author has done it better? What about Nabakov?


bibliobibuli said...

rob - yes, was thinking of you this morning when i read this piece. i need to read the book again as i have forgotten so much ... isn't it annoying how novels just slip away.

rajan - good question! can only go on "lolita" and yes, HH is an excellent example of an unreliable narrator. but it sounds as if you might like to give this a shot and see for yourself! certainly though, this is a very much earlier example - wonder if nabokov was also influenced by it?

bibliobibuli said...

probably nabokov's "pale fire" is a better example and i've yet to read it.

wikipedia has a very good list of novels and films with unrelaible narrators

Burhan said...

William C. Williams was influenced by Ford M. Ford!

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

TGS is a book that is well-worth reading and rereading. My husband and I spend our days comparing the Dowell-esque aspects of our characters.

Dowell does beat up on Julius and admits it as candidly as he admits that he worries that the caviar won't reach him as it goes around the table. But of course we are from Oklahoma, and as you all know, there are more British gentlemen tucked away in the Oklahoma panhandle than in all of London, Oxford, and Cambridge!

bibliobibuli said...

there are more British gentlemen tucked away in the Oklahoma panhandle than in all of London, Oxford, and Cambridge! had no idea!

Anonymous said...

Sunt, Really? Tell us more.

Sharon, I guess the gentlemen are hidden by the corn as high as an elephant's eye.

Sorry couldn't help it - we almost did Oklahoma in school, and I always have to burst into song when I hear the word Oklahoma. I could go on about what British gentlemen get up to in Oklahoma.

Anonymous said...

John Lancaster's 'The Debt To Pleasure' had an unreliable narrator. And it was a fantastic book.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks. that's one i've missed tho' i think someone mentioned it before here ...

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Thanks Sharon, just dug it out of my personal library of unread books. Lately I've been catching up on my unread non-fiction books - books that I bought with good intentions and feel guilty about every time I come across it. The Good Soldier I picked up used somewhere -- in fact, I just remembered that Raymond Flower passed it on to me. He was off-loading from his stash while visiting Penang after an extended stay. Thanks for making that reconnection for me. Did you ever meet Raymond Flower? He wrote mostly nonfiction, including Raffles, the Story of Singapore, which has excellent photos of Old Singapore.
Robert Raymer

bibliobibuli said...

hi robert - am happy if i can get one or two folks even to pick up this excellent and often overlooked book. will be very interested to know what you think. i do need to reread it myself too ...

bibliobibuli said...

oops sorry forgot to add that no, have not heard of raymond flower but am interested to find out more.