A Distinctive Experience
Posted June 1, 2007on:
Like some other SoC participants I approached The Good Soldier with negligible expectations. I knew that it had a brilliant first line and I had skimmed enough of the first page, before I checked it out at the library, to assume it could be an absorbing read. My early thoughts bore out — it was a brilliant novel and an absorbing read, primarily because of the aesthetic experience it provided rather than for any revelations or insights. As Karen posted in the Metaxucafe forum thread, at heart it was about two couples comprised of individuals who, at the end, did not love each other and not even themselves. On the surface that can make for an aimlessly depressive read and it is only Ford’s skill as a writer and his unconventional narrative choices that made it something memorable, if not ageless.
I only came to this conclusion firmly about a week after I had finished it. For a great deal of the first part of the book I wasn’t sure if I had a handle on precisely what was going on. The jumps back and forth were disorienting and I worried that my mind was more focused on the sensation rather than the practical details of the story. In some parts when John would refer to Edward being with that “girl”, the one that he hinted was Ashburnhaum’s true love, I would not be sure who precisely he was speaking of — it could not have been the young woman he kissed on the train and it seemed equally unlikely that the soldier’s wife Maisie Maiden, with whom he had dallied with and whom Leonora had slapped. When Leonora attempted to share her grievances with John at the castle tour, apparently under the impression that John knew of his wife’s infidelity, he departed from the story to personally reflect on what he felt now about the matter, being better informed. He described a dream he had.
…upon an immense plain, suspended in mid−air, I seem to see three figures, two of them clasped close in an intense embrace, and one intolerably solitary. It is in black and white, my picture of that judgement, an etching, perhaps; only I cannot tell an etching from a photographic reproduction…And they are in the sight of God, and it is Florence that is alone…I pray God that he [Edward] is really at peace, clasped close in the arms of that poor, poor girl!
I had no idea at the time who this “poor girl” was as Nancy Rufford had not been then properly introduced. That was only one of the times he alluded to her and I would often skip back to see if I had missed something. Ford’s technique of jumping back and forth in the story time line also forced me to often skip back a few pages to see if I had a real grasp of where the previously rendered event settled into the overall sequence of events. Even the bits of dialogues were separated by these digressions, and so were minor servings, a few lines told of here and there and never lasting for long. Essentially it read as though he took from a pile one image, described it at length, include his own observations, and on sudden recall of something else drop the first and dig around for another. To take that further the end product was a collage made up of assorted images placed helter skelter on the background of Provence, the estates in England and New England.
I got the hang of it by the time I reached the section that fleshed out Leonora’s personal history, but what crystallised it for me was Ford’s essay “On Impressionism”.
The point is that any piece of Impressionism, whether it be a prose, or verse, or painting, or sculpture, is the record of the impression of a moment; it is not a sort of rounded, annotated record of a set of circumstances — it is the record of the recollection in your mind of a set of circumstances that happened ten years ago — or ten minutes. It might even be the impression of the moment — but it is the impression, not the correlated chronicle.
In the Broadview edition’s introduction much was made about the well crafted construction of the novel but at the beginning it all seemed something more fluid. “Construction” seemed to rigid and definite a word to describe a narrative that appeared so permeable. (Or do I mean malleable?) This was heightened by Dorrell’s detached and at times nakedly manipulative narration of the entire affair. As a reader I had nothing but my own faculties to conclusively decide just what the heck was going on, how I should be reacting to things. Ford took a deliberate, pronounced departure from the proceedings on one level and ironically this made me unsure as to whether I was truly enjoying the experience. Ironic because, if its anything I hate, it’s a nosy, moralising author who can’t help but clumsily interject his/her opinions into the narrative, or use characters as mouthpieces for her irrelevant opinions. But usually, even when a writer isn’t boorishly judgemental, the way events play out usually and intentionally guides your feelings on way or another, whether or not your opinion is the one the author expected. Not so here as just about everyone lead a miserable existence, though Leonora’s end was mildly less miserable than the others (and she deserved it).
It took a lot of thinking and a pair of Ford essays but I’m happy to say that I appreciated The Good Soldier. Not passionately, in the way Mrs Dalloway entranced and uplifted, I could not say that I loved The Good Soldier but I found it distinctly affecting, its style meaty and complex, and effortlessly re-readable.
I find it even more laughable now that James Salter’s crummy novel about some kid bonking his way across France — ok I haven’t read it but you don’t know how boring that Paris Review excerpt of his novel was — was ever thought to be impressionistic. Really! Those amateur fragmentary sentence and artificial (in the worst sense) contrivance of mystery and painterly descriptions, impressionistic? What have those critics been smoking, or more pertinently, reading?