First impressions: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Having read some of the finest novelists of the modernist generation, from Conrad to Woolf, I drifted towards Ford like a caver exploring cracks in the earth. Ford, it turns out, is a particularly deep hole: a seemingly endless cavern in which the reader can lose himself… and his will to live.

Let me explain. The Good Soldier, regarded by many as Ford’s masterpiece, follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Edward Dowell and friends. The two couples at the centre of the tale fall in and out of love with several characters, including each other. Dowell is ostensibly telling the entire story; this is where Ford’s craft becomes apparent. Dowell is an arguably unreliable narrator, an inconsistent and confused storyteller. His narrative unfolds in the same way that we encounter life: that is to say as a blend of the present and images of what we have previously experienced. It is a truly remarkable device; Ford is the master practitioner.

Because his accomplishment is so complete, Ford has also crafted an astonishingly bewildering, destabilising and irritating novel. I do not mean that it is bad; on the contrary, precisely because Ford leaves readers with an entirely realistic impression of his characters, he has written a very fine novel indeed. But it also means that it is difficult and challenging. Very rarely is such a novel an intellectual joy also.

I cannot make sense of everything that happens in this book – my memory is infected with Dowell’s failings as a storyteller and human being. But that is simply reflective of life, for we do not remember every detail. The novel is, in my mind, an incomplete set of images, a series of impressions… for that reason it is beautiful.

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