This week I read Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” a book I’d long heard described as an overlooked classic. I have to agree — it’s amazing that this book isn’t as widely known as books by Ford’s jazz age contemporaries. But maybe that’s also better, as you can approach it without preconception and expectation. This book is a shocker with quotable phrases on every page.
Once I got past a seemingly slow start, this soapy story of love and loss (and loss and loss) among the seemingly genteel continental crowd drew me in like any horror thriller or mystery novel. The body count certainly rivals a mystery novel, and some of the incidents of casual cruelty and other seemingly innocuous yet hazardous interactions evoked a sick feeling in my stomach. Ford does a really great job of making these people seem real, and all of them are hurting…that is to say, they’re all in pain, and they’re all hurting each other.
We start with a quick few brush strokes of introduction of the narrator Dowell, his wife Florence, and the Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora. The relationships and interactions spin out from there to create a small solar system of people all orbiting Edward, the supposed “Good Soldier” of the title (although the title is ambiguous.) The brush strokes grow finer and finer until you’re feeling life along with these people. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it. It helps that the narrator seems to be losing his grip on sanity (or at the very least, getting angrier and angrier or maybe drunker and drunker) as he tells it.
This is a book that deserves to be read at least twice, even though it’s painful to read at times. Between its famous opening sentence (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”) to its gut punch final sentence, which seems innocent but in context is one of the most horrifying things I have ever read, it delivers thrills, chills, and even a few laughs.
Note: the description of this book is way off. It’s not an anthology or an introduction to classic literature. It’s just a great novel well worth reading.