Monday, September 08, 2008

The Good and the Great

I hardly know where to start in talking about Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier". Having read two contemporary prize winners in the week before, it wasn't that this novel was necessarily better, older, or more venerable than them - in fact, at times its language and style was a little tiresome - yet, when push came to shove I felt I'd read something of real substance, and its been a while since a contemporary novel has that to be said about it. We live in an age of froth and I think that it spills over into most contemporary fiction. It's hard, I know, since the first quarter of the 20th century provided more than its fair share of literary thrills - turning the Victorian novel personal in many ways. How can one deal with such archetypes?

Enough. Back to "The Good Soldier." It starts as "Wuthering Heights" does, with an apologetic narrator, but whereas that story is framed, this is told from experience. It's the most enigmatic of novels, not just the "saddest story" of that famous first paragraph. Where is the sadness in the novel? For those who haven't read it - it's the story of two couples, one American, one English, who have met for a number of years at a German spa. Each couple has an "invalid", and it these invalids who are the book's tragic love story. Yet, it is their caring partners - one of whom is our narrator - who are more intriguing. This is a story of passion, told through a prism of weakness. It unfolds slowly, as a story told around a fire. I don't believe our narrator is the key figure of the novel, nor the affair. It is - primarily - a tragedy - of emotions either smouldering or snuffed out on the anvil of a particular time in history. It is new America beholden to old Europe at the start of the conflagration - the Great War - that will then swap over those roles for a hundred years.

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