©1979 Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; (P)1986 Recorded Books, LLC
The original title of the book was "the saddest story," and it is. It is a classic of early 20th century English literature, ahead of its time in its shifting back and forth in time and in the use of what is known as an "unreliable narrator" as the story is told in the first person by someone who only gradually realizes that most of what he had believed about his life is false. It lends itself very well to be read, as the narrator says he will write this as if he is telling it to someone else, and this narrator was, I thought, excellent. It is a bleak look at personal relationships that, on the surface, appear normal but are not at all what they seem.
One of the great English novels. Bridges the gap between the Victorian world and modernism. Don't let that academic-speak put you off: this is a powerful piece of writing that's as accessible as it is artful.
The saddest story my aching arse....
Ford may have given readers the ultimate *unreliable narrator* in 1915 when he published The Good Soldier. For all of my reading, I don't recall ever coming across a narrator half as guileful, or as entitled, as John Dowell -- or is he so inconceivably dim-witted and naïve the story IS actually sad? There in lies the brilliant pinpoint on which this story is balanced, and masterfully so by author Ford Madox Ford. Though, there was the peer group of his day that would have taken to task anyone that thought the writer *masterful*, or anything other than *unreliable* himself. His own *wife* -- or should we say biga-mistress (seems Ford didn't have any problem *marrying* or carrying on affairs in spite of his legal marriage to another never being dissolved) wrote that Ford had "a genius for creating confusion," and he himself stated that,"he had a great contempt for fact." So, it is with that insight to this author that one should approach this story; this is the magic that turns just an OK story into absolute brilliant writing -- and a top notch mystery in disguise that requires an efficient reader.
A wealthy American couple, Dowell and Florence, and a wealthy English couple, Edward and Leonora meet at a spa during an extended stay in Europe and become friends. Interestingly, Dowell narrates the story directly to the reader/listener, as if it is a tale he was told, "the saddest story I've ever heard in my life." Immediately you assume he was told this story and is just now recounting it to the reader, but as he goes on we learn it is his wife Florence and the Englishman, Edward, that have an affair that leads to her heartbreaking death on her and Dowell's honeymoon.
Dowell's story continues to twist like a hanky wrenching out the tears. But, is it her reported weak heart that killed the young bride...(weak enough that she warns her new husband she is unable to have sex because of her condition) or is it suicide (her medicine bottle smells strongly similar to a particular acid)? So it goes... where nothing is as it first seems, nothing can be taken at face value. The outward grace, the breeding, the money, the passion, blend into a swirl of colors that lose definition and become a muddied mess. Even our narrator repeats often, "I don't know, I don't know!," sharing doubts as to his competence to recall what happened.
The profiles of these characters are intriguing; illuminated by Dowell's shaky perspective they become outrageous, even contrarily uncivilized, extravagant, and completely without principles. I could only conceive of this caliber of persons by reminding myself, "how reliable is this narrator/participant, what hidden agendas, sociopathic befuddlements contort the players and twist this supposedly sad tale?"
If you were a keen-eyed detective taking Dowell's testimony, you would listen carefully to this one...ignore your colleague's protests of his innocence...put a tail on him...watch for those insurance policies, secret bank accounts, more missing bodies of people he crossed paths with...sit back and wait for this Keyser Söze fellow to make a wrong move. Or; did poor Mr. Dowell just tell you, truly, the saddest story you've ever heard...? This is a classic that needs to be read competently to be truly appreciated. If so, you'll see The Good Soldier draws out the kind of reader participation, where the text is "open to the greatest variety of independent interpretation" -- what Barthes said was the *ideal text.* Gosh, what a masterpiece; if I wasn't so disgusted by the whole lot of them, I'd turn around and read this again, right now.
My interests run to psychology, popular science, history, world literature, and occasionally something fun like Jasper Fforde. It seems like the only free time I have for reading these days is when I'm in the car so I am extremely grateful for audio books. I started off reading just the contemporary stuff that I was determined not to clutter up my already stuffed bookcases with. And now audio is probably 90% of my "reading" matter.
The narrator begins by alluding to heart problems that allegedly run in his wife's family, but the novel is concerned with a very different kind of heart problem. And that distinction sets the tone for our hapless narrator destined to be deceived by those closest to him. The structure of this novel is deceptively conversational. Ford even alludes to this conversational storytelling style, but make no mistake: every digression and flashback is calculated to serve the author's purpose.
The reading is brilliant here as Frank Muller captures the tone of the narrator who is removed from all the drama going on around him, who may or may not have been too stupid to notice, or simply may not have been involved enough in his own life, or may be something else. I assumed the title referred to Captain Ashburnham, but now I'm not so sure. It seems to be at least as apt a description for the narrator.
The narrator keeps referring to this as the "saddest story." It is indeed sad in a sorry sort of way. These characters are their own worst enemies. Ford does an outstanding job of showing how these people, lacking any real purpose in their lives but having money to burn, still manage to ruin what should have been a carefree existence. Would you and I do better if we had their resources and the ability to live life unfettered by worries and responsibilities? I guess Ford is saying that without real worries and responsibilities, human nature will force us to invent imaginary ones.
So here we have a lost generation before Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Here we have a noir long before the movie genre was popularized. And here we have existential despair long before Sartre. Ford was amazingly prescient at showing the spiritual malaise that would inform the 20th century.
This is a book about a man trying to explain how his marriage turned out to be different from what he'd thought it would be. It's intriguing to listen to how he gradually comes to piece things together, and how he comes to understand another married couple that he and his wife are friends with. He is insightful and clueless at the same time, but you, the listener, will have no trouble sorting things out. The characters come across so clearly, that I could easily believe they are based on real life people. I'm not sure why, but the first half of the book seemed written in a very modern way (clear and frank), and the second half seemed more old-fashioned (more drenched in woe and hand-wringing, and dealing with matters of religion in the front-and-center way they used to). I liked the first half a little better, but it was all good. The narrator kept saying what a sad story it was - and it was sad - but I found it more intriguing than gloomy. It was far from sending me into an unsettled funk. In fact, a lot of people might find it useful information.
The Good Soldier is a well told story of a man who discovers a deception. The deception is revealed in a layered manner, realistic in its treatment of its characters. It is very similar in style to Lawrence Durrell, although it is far more accessible than the Alexandria Quartet.
The Good Soldier is not for everyone; certainly not for someone looking for passive listening entertainment.
This was perhaps one of the worst books I've ever read....yet.... It was the worst, because, I think at some level I like to like at least some character in a book I read....or at least relate to them. Every character in this book was detestable. The narrator was one of the most pathetic creatures in all of literature. This was a tragedy, only in the American sense of the word...not in the Greek sense...for there wasn't an ounce of hubris. They say pride goeth before the fall....this was just the fall.
So why did I give it 3 stars, instead of one. This book was incredibly well written....and way ahead of it's time in narrative. The narrator rambles unbelievably...I would say he is one of the worst story tellers....but through him, Mr. Ford shows himself to be one of the best. He reminded me of the "idiot" from Faukner's The Sound and the Fury, or the way things unfolded in the movie Memento. The story unfolds, so oddly, it is really quite incredible....and all of this after he has essentially told you the end of the book at the beginning....Yet the full import doesn't hit until later....and then it hits again...and again...and again.
The story was totally depressing...the characters, totally without redeeming qualities....what happens...pretty awful....yet somehow the art of telling this story...was quite a sight to behold....or listen too.
Before when I talked about the Narrator, I meant the character in the story who tells the entire story. The narrator of this book, Mr. Frank Muller, was quite outstanding. I hated him....he had a smarmy aristocratic condescending tone....which exactly matched the character who narrates the book! His voice, his attitude, his intonation, was perfect for this book.
So basically it was a perfectly told story that I happened to hate, yet will probably not forget for some time to come.
Business Physicist and Astronomer
The Good Soldier is a book that might require several readings or listenings. I listened to sections over and over---and actually started from the beginning several times. Modernist writing requires this kind of effort from the reader If you are willing to make the effort, even enjoy making the effort, you'll have a true literary experience with this book.
It will make you uncomfortable. It's edgy. You'll see glimpses of the dark of yourself.
A good book, excellently written. You will alternately love and hate the characters and take sides and then turn on your hero and wind up perhaps not liking any or loving them all again at the end, who knows? That being said, while the skill in writing remains, the shock of stripping away the layers of proper English etiquette and society are probably somewhat lost. The modern reader won't be dropping their monacle in alarm that Ford Maddox Ford "went there", thinking "no he can't" or "he daren't" or that sort of thing. So a bit dated, but structurally adept and interesting. Well-narrated and you can do it in a day or certainly a week. Perhaps not brilliant, but intelligent and stirring. I would compare Ford I think to Virginia Woolf, who I like better, especially Mrs Dalloway, of similar size and length, and Faulkner, for the psychology aspect and the twists and the turns. For a deeper, darker, longer, more ferocious whirlwind, try "Absolom, Absolom!", one of my favorite books, if you don't think this will float your boat.
Even Frank Muller, the superb reader, could keep my interest in this book. It is just dated. My wife gave it to me because it was one of the few readings by Muller I had missed, and I could not get through it. Sorry.
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