SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Of the inconstant heart
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
The Good Soldier is a novel about brittle social graces that mask savage hatreds.
Three weeks to read two hundred some pages, but that’s the kind of book it is. The Good Soldier - A Tale of Passion by Ford Madox Ford has the unhurried cadence of the beginning of the twentieth century when readers could ind ulge themselves, say on a ship journey, reading on the deck all afternoon before it was time to go down to their cabins, open their steamer trunks and dress for dinner. But let me not give you the impression that it is one of those placid books, a tale of idyllic romances or generational family feuds. It is a true tale of passion, a headlong dive into the mysterious depths of the human heart, layered with contradictions, riven with inconstancies.
A few crucial words about the author: Born Ford Hermann Heuffer, Ford produced a large number of books of all sorts (he described himself as “mad about writing”) and edited literary magazines that supported the work of writers like his friend Joseph Conrad, Hardy, and Joyce. It was on his 40th birthday in 1913 that he started The Good Soldier “to show what I could do”, intending it to be his last book. And show them he did, producing a classic that has often been described as a perfect novel, a masterpiece of a narrative in which every sentence needs to be read twice to check for hidden traps, insinuations, hints and deceptions. In his personal life, Ford was indecisive and emotionally complicated. While his wife refused to grant him divorce, he lurched from one love affair to another- the novelist Violet Hunt was followed by the painter Stella Bowen and then by the writer Jean Rhys. His fickle nature and unreliability in matters of the heart clearly seeped into The Good Soldier.
At first sight the story is simple enough: The American narrator, Dowell and his wife Florence meet another wealthy English couple - Edward and Leonora - who are so obviously “good people”- at a German spa and strike up a close friendship. Their “intimacy was like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we unanimously should choose…”. Florence and Edward are both supposedly suffering from weak hearts. When finally they both die not, as we learn later, from their so called weak hearts but by committing suicide, Dowell is told by Leonora, who has known all along, that the two had an affair for nine long years. Dowell then begins to unravel the whole wretched reality, almost reluctantly, as if he would rather not know. His intention is to do it calmly, as if he is “at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul” opposite him. But very soon he begins to bumble as the facts seem to come upon him even as he tells the story. The graceful surface cracks open and out pours all the slime of deception. Good graces hide terrible hatreds, relationships are blackmail, love is a lie and sentiment is just selfishness. His wife never really had a weak heart; she invented it to keep him from the marital bed since day one, reducing him to a lifelong nurse. The perfectly social English couple hasn’t spoken to each other in private for years. The good soldier, Edward, appears to the naïve Dowell as “a hardworking, sentimental and efficient professional man” and seems to approach each of his many love affairs with a deep passion and duty, but is actually quite merciless in these matters. And his cold and seemingly “normal” wife, when she finds she has finally lost him forever, pushes him over the edge so that he cuts his own throat with a small penknife.
Dowell is the ultimate epitome of “the unreliable narrator” in fiction. He keeps to no chronology. He rushes back and forth over time and place as memories assail him or as revelations occur, leaving in his wake an “intricate tangle of references and cross-references” as he tells the “saddest story I have ever heard.” But this is not something he has “heard” (though Ford maintained that it was indeed something he had heard) but a huge deception that he has actually lived through. And ultimately one realizes that the narrator is confused, lost, torn and bleeding. (“I don’t know. I know nothing. I am very tired.”) Still unable to put blame where it belongs, he concludes that the “passionate, the headstrong and the too truthful are condemned to suicide and madness” while the “normal, the virtuous and the slightly deceitful” can flourish.
And towards the end of this carefully constructed though seemingly confused dark tale of human passions emerges the plaintive plea that seems to be as much of the narrator’s as that of Ford himself: “Is there any terrestrial paradise where amidst the whispering of the olive leaves, people can be with whom they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people……broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?”