I first read this novel back in 2005 and remember being highly, highly impressed with it at the time, so I decided to re-read it last week.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

At one level it is the tale of two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples, one English, the other American, and their complex social relationships, as they spend time together at various European spa resorts in the years just before the outbreak of the First World War. At another level it is a portrait of the last of the English landed gentry and the decline of the feudal system which gave them their status and meaning.

It is also a sad tale of deception, adultery, betrayal and its consequences. So another way of summarising the novel would be to say that it explores the nature and complexity of human relationships: how little we often know of each other and how the little we think we know often proves to be less than accurate. The opening lines hint of some of these themes:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy – or, rather, with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them.

This is the beginning of our narrator, John Dowell’s account, which proceeds in a seemingly haphazard manner, skipping backwards and forwards in time, consisting of his memories, reflections, doubts and contradictory opinions. Durrell is perhaps the archetypal unreliable narrator. He seems to have known nothing about his wife, his friends and the affairs that were taking place under his nose for years. Are we to view him as simply being as astoundingly naive as he appears? Or is he in denial? Has he forced his real feelings away – into his sub-conscious, perhaps? Did he ever really love his wife? And what were his true feelings towards Edward? All is open for debate in this intriguing text.

Ford Madox Ford pioneered new techniques in his writing, and The Good Soldier is a great example of this. As well as the non-chronological structure of the tale, Ford constructs his novel from a complex patchwork made of layers of memories, images, scenes and vignettes that produce an overall effect somewhat similar to impressionism in painting. Indeed, I would say that the genius of The Good Soldier is not in its plot, which is fairly limited, but in the tone, the atmosphere, the structure – the shape, if you will – of the narrative.

Reading up a bit about the novel just now, I see that it has been hailed as stylistically perfect by past scholars, and I have to wholeheartedly agree. In the subtlety and play of the language, in the duplicity of meanings and possible readings, and in the ambiguity of the narration, this is a stylistic treat on a par with the best of Fitzgerald, Woolf, or Nabokov. Like several of my favourite novels, I don’t suppose this would be everyone’s cup of tea, but to me this is truly a most intriguing and brilliant novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

The instances of honesty that one comes across in this world are just as amazing as the instances of dishonesty. After forty-five years of mixing with one’s kind, one ought to have acquired the habit of being able to know something about one’s fellow beings. But one doesn’t.