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Harriet

Goodness! This is one of my favorite novels of all time. I reviewed it on my blog a while back and this is part of what I said:

Any amount of telling the plot would not give you any idea of why this is such a wonderful novel. It is much admired as a modernist text, mainly, I suppose, because of Ford's brilliant narrative technique. Dowell is naive to the point of foolishness, and his inability to perceive the raging passions that are going on right under his nose is both funny and deeply pathetic. His admiration for Edward knows no bounds, even after he has finally understood that Edward is an incorrigible philanderer. As for his method of telling the story, it is quite remarkable -- he rarely goes in a straight line, backtracking when he feels like it or jumping forward, and is well aware of it, as he says at the beginning of Part Four:
"I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to the idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair -- a long, sad affair -- one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognises that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression".
It's taken me quite a long time to read this book because of the richness of it -- I couldn't manage and didn't want to rush through it. I'm tempted to start again at the beginning straight away, though, something I very rarely do. I feel like saying -- if you only ever read one more novel again in the course of your life, let it be this one. A bit over the top, maybe -- but do please give it a go.

Of course, as one comment on my blog pointed out, there's been lots of critical discussion about how much Dowell really knew -- was he quite such a buffoon as he appears? Anyway, it will be interesting to see what others have made of it!

Dark Puss

My reponse to The Good Soldier is exactly the same as Cornflower's and I found reading this book to the end quite a struggle. It all started promisingly when I discovered that my University library had over a dozen unborrowed copies on the shelf. That was perhaps the high point. There is some good writing, there is however some writing where I wondered if Ford was trying to decide whether he was moving into comedy or tragedy but just couldn't make up his mind. I don't care whether I empathise with the characters in a book in order to enjoy it (that doesn't mean I don't empathise on occasion) but like Cornflower I was mentally shouting "get a **!!$$$ grip" too.

As always I am glad to read a book I would not have chosen and I regard that aspect, even when I'm left feeling disappointed, as an absolute strength of the CBG and long may it continue in that vein.

Barbara MacLeod

I read the book not having ever heard of the author. After I read it I tried to think about why he was not well known and why that book just didn't sit right with me. It took a while for the penny to drop (*see below).

My conclusion: some people are story-tellers and some people are not. Just like some people can tell a joke and some (including me) cannot. That's the way it is. Now ... some story-tellers can write it down successfully (Karen Blixen, among many others) and ... some cannot. Ford Maddox falls into that category.

What is worse, is that he compounds this basic lack-of-talent with a sylistic device of "I am going to sit by the fire and tell you a story" and then interjects his authorial voice with "Well, I am not quite sure if I have got that right. You decide." Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless!

I am prepared to accept forgetfulness in a story told of past years but in this book it simply weakened my credibility. I did not shut the book but I can see the answer to my question and why I, also, had no trouble getting a copy from the many copies in the library!
________________________________________

* To put things into perspective: After I finished Maddox I had moved on to read another book I had never heard of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and translated by Lucia Graves. "Wow! This man is a born story-teller!" (and, indeed, he says that of himself on his website.)

I put up a July 24th post here:

http://off-at-a-tangent.blogspot.com/2011/07/shadow-of-wind.html

Susie Vereker

I, too, struggled to finish this book. While admiring the author's style in parts, I found the characters so unappealing, self-deceiving and self-centred that I was reluctant to spend time in their company. Maybe the author wished to illustrate that a philanderer can be a good egg. But while other fictional Alpha philanders achieve much, the eponymous good soldier seemed weak and helpless.

B R Wombat

I'm with Harriet on this one. I think it's simply one of the best books I've ever read and is the work of a genius. I cannot imagine how Ford did it, such is the complexity of the narrative and managing to keep Dowell's wonderful voice going for such a sustained length of time. Marvellous stuff. I'm really sorry that so many others didn't like it.

Harriet

I'm glad I'm not alone here!

Julie Fredericksen

Meh! This read was a very frustrating experience for me. I don't think I have the chronology straight even now, but I don't care enough to work it out. No less an eminent person than Theodore Dreiser called it irritating. He said The Good Soldier had the makings of a good story with a "beautiful theme", but overall he gave it a bad review (printed in the back of my Barnes & Noble classic edition).

He offers a "mere suggestion" to Mr. Hueffer (FMF) that "he should begin at the beginning". Nevertheless, he hastens to say, "a good story may begin in many ways". But, he adds, "once begun, it should go forward in a more or less direct line, or at least that it should retain one's uninterrupted interest. This is not the case in this book. The interlacings, the cross references, the re-references to all sorts of things which subsequently are told somewhere in full, irritate one to the point of laying down the book."

He also is less than kind to the narrative or characters. One is "never really stirred" by the latter. He adds that the narrative is "cold" and "never never truly poignant". I agree with his estimation of this book 100%.

Julie Fredericksen

I wholeheartedly agree with you about The Shadow of the Wind.

Julie Fredericksen

Oops! Dreiser used only one "never" in "never truly poignant". I guess it was my subconscious mind that wanted to say "never never!"

Sandy

I did struggle to read this book and found the narrative style did not suit my taste, although I can appreciate the amount of effort that has gone into creating the impression of disjointed story-telling.

I came to believe quite quickly that the Dowell's naivity is assumed and that this situation is far form the case. Sadly for me, this subterfuge on the part of the narrator remonded me of 'Gillespie & I' and remembering how much I enjoyed that book did not help!

Thanks for the chance to read an author whom I would not have discovered myself - I always regret not finding enjoyment where others clearly have.

Anji

Wow there are some strong opinions out there. For me it started out so well I did feel Dowell's distress. There was some fine writing. It was definately a confessional of sorts but as the story progressed the words 'soap opera' or 'bodice ripper' sprung to mind.

I had to remind myself that this was a book of it's time where the social situations were different.
I couldn't really believe that Dowell was that naive.

I did finish the book and it was nice to try an author that I wouldn't have pick myself. Sorry Harriet I can't say that it has become a favourite or that I would read it again.

Rhys

I agree with Harriet too and I think that this is one of the most accomplished novels ever written. One of the themes in the book is Idenitity. Who are we? Do we really know ourselves or do we truly ever know other people? How do we make sense of what happens to us in our lives? How would I for example try and explain to anyone else who I am and what has happened to me in my life. All very thought provoking. And as a theme what else is novel writing about if it is not to try and work out who we are and what life is all about.

ctussaud

This book is like black pudding; you either love it or loathe it and there is no "middle of the road" stance available. I would love to be in the Harriet camp, since this book has been on the shelf for ages, being 'saved up' for a treat read. If it had not been a reasonably short read, I would have given up on it as well. You do not need to like the characters in a book to enjoy reading it (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote springs to mind here) but when the characters do not appeal, either the plot or the writing must.
It might happen that with a second read the scales will fall from my eyes, but I am not minded (at the moment) to read it again.

Lindsay

Harriet D has this right - this is a masterpiece. It is pretty down at times (but, hey, there's an awful lot of modern misery lit you all lap up!), but the reactions which puzzle me are about the difficulty of following the narrative: yes, that's true, but that's deliberate, not a failure of writing ability (he could write the socks off most "born storytellers" in Barnes & Noble, that's for sure) - this is how we see and learn about the world, in a fragmented, disordered way, full of bias, gaps and contradictions, and he's using it to teach you about the characters, the world you live in, and the failure of men and women to live up to the rules, even when they are their own rules. Eliot said that poetry now had to be difficult, and while I don't agree with that, difficulty is sometimes essential, not just because of the material being hard hard work, but because your journey as a reader is important too - he could have laid it out for you, he thought you would get more out of it if you didn't walk the straight and easy way. Modernism needs work - and reading this is as hard as looking at Picasso - but the rewards can be tremendous. We musn't be ashamed of needing to learn to read.

Susan E

I just finished this morning but want to add another voice of admiration. The layering and returns of the narrative and the themes reminded me very much of Henry James--Portrait of a Lady for example--with the contrast of social appearances and the sad unfolding of what lies behind them. I was drawn in by developments in the relationships of the characters as they shifted over time and memory. On a more modern note, I thought of philandering politicians and the public/private roles of their spouses--the Clintons, the Edwards, etc. One jarring note for me was the vial of poison Florence had carried with her--possible but improbable and unnecessary for the story. As a student of how fiction does what it does, i was fascinated by the narrative voice and what it does and doesn't say, what it does and doesn't reveal. Thanks for the opportunity to read this again.

Norm

I'm with Cornflower, heart, soul and polished boots. After reading The Good Soldier I posted this...

http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2008/11/introduction-to-a-literary-classic.html

... a mock scholarly introduction to a fictitious work, supposedly praising its strengths but trying to convey my own impatience with FMF's classic work.

Rob Spence

This is a masterpiece. I've read it several times, and teach it every year, and every time it surprises me. Brilliantly done - the confusion that people report is skilfully created by Ford, who always leaves some doubt in your mind as to exactly how stupid Dowell is. Roger Poole did a brilliant critique which argues that Dowell is actually a murderous criminal. The text supports it - but the text supports any number of other interpretations.

Cornflower

Oh, bravo, Norm!

Julie Fredericksen

Lindsay,

Your last sentence is quite the putdown. no? Those of us who didn't like the novel will appreciate learning we don't know how to read. For your information I do know how to read, analyze and critique literature. I have a degree in English literature. As for the book being difficult, that was not a hindrance to me. I have read and understood a lot of difficult poetry and superior literature, and found them immensely enjoyable.

So being deliberate in messing with the sequence of the narrative makes it okay? If you were sitting in front of a storyteller who told a tale "in a fragmented, disordered way, full of bias, gaps and contradictions", I would venture to say you would most likely get up and leave. As Barbara McLeod said, some people are storytellers and some aren't. Yes, a good story may be complicated, even difficult, but it is worth the hard read. "The Good Soldier" is not. It does not have enough redeeming qualities.

Julie Fredericksen

Good job, Norm! I enjoyed that immensely.

Tom Freeman

I read this book a few months ago. It came highly recommended, and if it hadn't, I might not have made it past the first couple of chapters. But I'm glad I persisted. Not a great book, but a good one, in its peculiar way.

Dowell's denseness is often frustrating, but if you can bear the way he meanders back and forth, skipping past the heart of the matter and occasionally brushing against it, the book's a decent (if extreme) study of a failure to confront reality.

And, towards the end, after the 18-month gap in his narration, Dowell seems to acquire a little more bite. The last chapter or two are almost as if Ford's satirising his narrator.

Take this: "The signal for the train's departure was a very bright red; that is about as passionate a statement as I can get into that scene." Well, quite.

And, superbly, this: "It was a most amazing business, and I think that it would have been better in the eyes of God if they had all attempted to gouge out each other's eyes with carving knives. But they were 'good people'."

I laughed out loud at that. Ford's mocking his character and taunting his reader all at once, the bastard. I think many readers would wish the characters had all done exactly this. The joke alone may not justify the long, painstaking set-up, but there are enough flashes of beautiful prose along the way to make it worth the effort.

Barbara MacLeod

Yes ... I wouldn't say that this novel was particularly hard work to read. Furthermore, another thing that didn't sit right with me was the tone. The narrator was American but I simply couldn't "hear" his voice, for example, would an American of that period say "What the deuce ..."?

Mr Cornflower

Some people think this book is brilliant; others find it tiresome. It is I suppose one of the consequences of the shifting, relativist modernism which the book announces and embodies that both reactions are valid. It is undeniably interesting as an exercise in technical virtuosity - the digressive, non-linear narrative, the arch self-referential tone like a pantomime actor turning to the audience and milking the laughs with a knowing aside - but I did rather feel from time to time that I was reading a brilliant 'Oulipo' spoof, you know the kind of thing, write a full length novel without using the letter 'e' or words of more than two syllables. Sterne did it better 150 years earlier in Tristram Shandy, but perhaps his task was easier in that he was writing in one relatively simple comic tone.

My reservations are not that Ford is stylistically complex or that the narrative voice is inconsistent and unreliable - the same could be said of Proust or Joyce - but that the stage machinery, the artificiality, is just too obvious. I do think it is a remarkable and striking book, and as Tom Freeman says there are flashes of beautiful prose along the way, but it is a rather hard and flinty road.

Susan in TX

Well, I had hoped to be part of the discussion, but life got in the way of reading. :) I'm a little over half way, though, and I fear I'm falling into the camp of just wanting to shake the characters. I'm persevering to the end regardless. Happy reading, all!

Martina

It is good to have the stimulus to read FMF for the first time. I am with Susan in my determination to read to the end even though there have been quite a few moments when I wanted to abandon ship. You can to be in awe of the achievement, while not finding it unputdownable.

Have to confess I had always assumed it was a war-related story!!! Showing my total ignorance here.

Sandy

Great Norm - I enjoyed that and chuckled my way through it. Go on - write the book and then I will not know how many time I will have read it either!

LizF

Well it certainly divided opinion!
I can't add to that, as despite acquiring a copy, I didn't get around to starting it. Now I am torn between being determined to read it to see what I think or consigning it back to whence it came (a charity shop) because it will be more of a challenge than I really want to take on.

Dark Puss

Don't return it and do read it!

LizF

Dark Puss, you are absolutely right. If a book divides opinion as thoroughly as The Good Soldier has managed to do, then I really should move out of my reading comfort zone and attempt it.
Who knows, maybe not having a degree in English will be an advantage.

Harriet

Nicely said, Lindsay.

Dark Puss

That's the spirit! I have two degrees in Physics, but whether that helps or hinders me in reading novels others can judge.

Lindsay

No, no Julie, not a put down at all, and I'm sorry if it came across like that. I meant, in the sense that I have to learn to appreciate lots of new (to me, especially modern) art - painting, writing, music - and I think there's a danger that people think it's OK to say Picasso or Schoenberg are beyond them, but they (me) can often learn, as I have with both those examples without any particular aptitude in art or music. But with reading, its seems not OK for something to be fundamentally difficult - and in some ways I think Ford is more difficult because the building blocks look normal - unlike, say, Joyce or Marquez - and can lull you into not realising what might have to be done. I have no quarrel with people who make that effort and either judge Ford to have failed, or just don't like it - my point is that I felt Ford was being castigated for failings which were actually his deliberate attempt to achieve a particular set of effects - you feel he failed, that's fine. I disagree, but that's the point of the discussion! And by the way, I'm learning to read every day of my life, even with authors I have read regularly for thirty years, including someone as difficult as T S Eliot or someone as "easy" as Austen! Pax? Best wishes, Lindsay

Eloise Grey

Like Cornflower I had trouble at the beginning, almost giving up. It felt like I was reading a rather experimental, whimsical book by a worthy Edwardian who was playing the writer. I suspended too much judgement and went with the flow of what seemed like a period piece. In fact, I found myself quite engrossed with the characters, the 'leisured existence' and the funny way what seemed outrageous in that era was quite different to what we'd find shocking today.

Like Rhys I enjoyed my perceptions of each character and the individual to be challenged and surprised. But, I can't say it was anything particularly masterful, compared to someone like Pirandello. The novel seemed to lose it's grip in the end as it raced to the unsatisfying conclusion. Having said that, I did enjoy the read. I think I'd have trouble genuinely recommending it to anyone unless I knew they liked to study literature.

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