The first time I heard of Ford Madox Ford was when I was reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I can’t remember the exact quote, but essentially Hemingway said readers shouldn’t bother with Ford’s novels. Then a few months ago I read J. M. Coetzee’s Youth. The main character of this novel is so impressed by one of Ford’s books that he decides to write his Master’s thesis on all of his novels. Unfortunately for the character in the book he realizes that many of Ford’s writings are rubbish.
Given this background I was surprised to see that Ford has two books on my 1001 list. And I actually owned a copy of one of them: The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. Ford’s original title for the novel was The Saddest Story. However, the novel’s release coincided with the start of World War I and the publisher didn’t think people would pick up a book with a title like that during a time of chaos and grief. Ford then sarcastically proposed, The Good Soldier. The publishers loved it.
Right from the outset I want to say if you are expecting a juicy story about love and passion, this isn’t the book for you. The word passion is in the title, but this book, for me at least, was depressing. The novel is about two couples. Both the English and American couples are rich and sophisticated. Edward Ashburnham, the soldier, from the outside seems to be the perfect gentleman with the perfect wife. Edward and Leonora meet the American couple, John and Florence, in Germany. Edward and Florence are receiving spa treatments.
It doesn’t take the reader long to suspect that both marriages are in trouble. John narrates the story and most of the novel jumps back in forth in time with little rhyme or reason. To add another layer to the complexity of this short novel, John is an unreliable narrator. Another aspect of the novel that is difficult to stomach is that none of the characters are all that likable. This novel is about adultery, jealousy, and social expectations.
You may think from the paragraph above that I didn’t like the novel. I didn’t. I mean I didn’t like the characters. However, Ford’s novel is brilliant. The confusion of jumping back in forth in time and the unreliable narrator came together perfectly. While I hated the characters, this novel is a wonderful character study. And if you like flawed characters, this novel has many. I won’t say everyone should rush out and buy a copy. It’s hard to recommend a book like this. I will say I won’t forget Ford’s abilities. He has one more book on the 1001 list and I’m curious to see if I’ll like that one.