The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford, 20/4/13
‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’ – what an opening line. And it only gets better:
‘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, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.’
It’s difficult to think of a most masterful opening paragraph. There’s that audacious first sentence, which immediately sets the tone and piques the curiosity; then there’s the immediately mystery of Captain and Mrs Ashburnham, and how exactly they will turn the narrator’s tale into a story of such sadness; and then there’s that extraordinarily perceptive summary of what it’s like to be English. I’ve read this paragraph again and again and the intricacy with which it sets off its story is as tightly constructed as a Rubik’s cube.
The story is narrator by an American, John Dowell, who relates his wife’s affair with the dashing former solder Captain Ashburnham. ‘You ask how it feels to be a deceived husband,’ he says. ‘Just heavens, I do not know. It feels like nothing.’ It feels so dreadful, in fact, that Dowell cannot bring himself to tell us, and the story is full of diversions and digressions and hints that build up to an almost unbearable sense of tension until Dowell is at last willing to reveal the affair and its consequences. Dowell is a classic unreliable narrator, telling the story of the friend who betrays him, yet his unreliability is not because he intends to deceive but because he can hardly bear to admit his story to himself, let alone tell it to anyone else.
Ford Madox Ford wrote The Good Soldier in 1915, and it’s difficult to imagine it being written now. The book unfolds at a leisurely pace and the reader’s interest lies in the psychological unravelling of the main players, rather than actions or events.
It was to have been called The Saddest Story, rather than The Good Soldier, but its publisher claimed it would be impossible to sell under that name. Ford Madox Ford was appalled when the back-up name he’d suggested in a telegram was the name under which the book finally appeared. The Saddest Story would be even less likely to be considered publishable nowadays, and I wonder if publishers would be willing to countenance books that wallow in this amount of unleavened grief.
The Good Solider in its tone and its emotional intensity and its bone-deep feeling of tragedy feels like a deeply old-fashioned book, although it describes a subject that must be at least as common today as it was in the Edwardian era – albeit with a reduced level of social stigma. But then the betrayal of passion is a subject that suits melodrama, even though it’s unthinkable this subject would be given a similar treatment if written today.
Random Thoughts on Time 15/8/13
Our reading packet this week was about time. I would never have considered time as something writers have to think about, but it is remarkably easy to get bogged down in the simple act of moving forward an hour, or from morning to night, or from the moment when you make yourself a cup of tea to the moment when you rinse out the cup. Who knew it was so fucking difficult?
My story, such as it is, is based over the course of a week, and in a way I reckon it’s harder to move through short periods of time than it is to move seasonally – when, for example, you could denote the passage of time by a seasonal object, a Christmas tree or a Halloween pumpkin, although it’s true that that would be remarkably corny and is probably best avoided, but I guess you could use daffodils for summer and storm clouds for winter, etc, although in retrospect those are no less corny, but at least you could get away with a single word as a time marker rather than having to yack on about the faint morning light bathing the street in a pale glow, etc etc etc.
But the reason I raise the issue is because my son came up to me today, when he was supposed to be getting ready for bed but wasn’t, and said, ‘You know the one thing you can’t live without in your life?’ I assumed the answer was Manchester United, because somehow with him the answer always is Manchester United, but then he said, ‘Time. Because everything is connected to time.’ He thought about it and added, ‘World sport is dominated by time. Because everything could have turned out differently if there was more time.’ And this made me think of time differently: not as a tiresome period of transition that has to be dealt with as quickly and invisibly as possible, like the dull vegetable that has to be eaten before the exciting pudding, but as an integral part of the plot: everything hinges on time, it shapes plot and it shapes character, and if time were different everything else would be different too. So now I feel more benevolently towards time and would like to try to write about it in a more playful and interesting way.