Having finally finished the first draft of the novel about London, Like Fire Unbound, it’s refreshing to forget about it for a while and instead go back to obsessing about Ford Madox Ford and his 1915 novel, The Good Soldier.
I can’t think how many times I’ve read this. It’s the novel that is lodged most firmly inside of me and finally I’ve decided to embark on a new project based upon it. This will involve a line-by-line examination of it, which I’ve already started, the typed notes on my iPhone already yards long.
Most people know of the two most familiar descriptions of The Good Soldier: a) it is the novel about passion b) it is the definitive example of the “unreliable narrator”. There are of course plenty of other ways of looking at it – is it a modernist classic or an impressionistic harking back to Henry James? – and now I’ve started to think about it properly and read more widely, I’m more overwhelmed than ever by the scale of Ford’s achievement.
Graham Greene, who was a big fan of the novel, once said something along the lines of, reading it is rather like watching the construction of the most beautiful Gothic cathedral, brick by brick.
For those who haven’t read it, the novel tells the tragic tale of two doomed couples in early twentieth century Europe, one British and one American, whose intertwined lives leading up to the outbreak of World War One end in the most unimaginable hell.
The novel is constructed as a disjointed first-person account by our unreliable narrator, the America John Dowell. Ford uses this mechanism to build an unbelievably complex text which belies its fiendish complexity by a seemingly simple narrative. The text is so complex that it has produced a whole ream of semiotic interpreters, some of whom have even identified a subterranean novel lying within it which actually sets out a murder story entirely absent from the surface storyline. It is one of the few novels where almost every sentence contains at least one clue deliberately planted by the author. It is utter genius.
Writing of it in 1927, Ford said: “Great Heavens, did I write as well as that then?”
Yes he did. And so now it’s head first into FMF land and who knows what will emerge at the other side?