Anton Chekhov: The Short Stories
David Stuart Davies takes a look at a Russian master of the short story. ...
‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’. The opening sentence of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is justly famous. But perhaps it is famous just because it is a disastrous way to start a novel; the promise can surely never be kept. But then, look again – there is no direct promise to the reader. The sadness is all with the narrator: ‘the saddest story I ever heard’. And not only is the narrator hearing the story – he is also telling it, and he is participating in it. So this first apparently so simple sentence contains as many ironies as Jane Austen’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’. But here, in a novel published in 1915, the ironies are modernist, involving multiplicities of narrative, perception, and reality. Some of the strategies involved, such as the withholding of information by an unreliable narrator, are familiar from nineteenth-century fiction. But the further variations introduced by a modernist sensibility and technique include a lack of chronological and narrative coherence, apparent contradictions in the information we are given, a self-reflexive concern with the act of telling a story, and a powerful sense of ennui and emptiness in the (recounted) act of living itself.
One difficulty about writing about this novel is that, though information is so often deferred within it, that very act of deferral is central to the work’s power. Thus, though there is not in any sense a standardly unfolded story, the giving away of information (a spoiler) in this blog becomes more rather than less important, because of the complicated way in which information is withheld or imparted in the novel. The notion of ‘spoiling’ in such a text is itself interesting, since Ford frustrates standard narrative satisfactions at every turn, thus deliberately spoiling his own story. Even so, I’ll try not to give too much away for the reader.
We’re told one powerful thing right at the start – apparently incontrovertibly: this is ‘the saddest story’. And the narrator John Dowell (to be distinguished from the author Ford, but Ford gets in there a-plenty) reiterates this phrase at key points through the novel, as if to affirm it both to himself and to the reader. Now we need this assertion at the outset, because when we are introduced to the key characters, the couples John and Florence Dowell, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, and as their lives are unfolded, we could be forgiven for asking why we should care about these characters. They are rich and careless, they spend their lives meaninglessly, they drift from place to place. Even though Captain Ashburnham is a soldier in India with responsibilities to his men, and also the custodian of an English estate, his responsibilities are passed over lightly. In the period of time highlighted in the novel, these four characters pass listlessly across the face of Europe – or, as Ford puts it so much better, they are wanderers ‘upon the face of public resorts’. They remind me of a couple I saw once, many years ago, in a Michelin star restaurant in France; they were Parisians, and they were oblivious to the delights of the extraordinary and beautiful food, which I was marvelling at. For them, this standard of food was normal, and they were unmoved; and moreover they were determined to display their being unmoved.
Not to be moved is the central tenet of behaviour for the Ashburnhams and the Dowells. The first view we have of Edward through the narrator’s eyes skewers this beautifully. He is entering the dining room of the Hotel Excelsior – perhaps a place similar to my Michelin restaurant:
His face hitherto had, in the wonderful English fashion, expressed nothing whatever. Nothing. There was in it neither joy nor despair; neither hope nor fear; neither boredom nor satisfaction. He seemed to perceive no soul in that crowded room; he might have been walking in a jungle. I never came across such a perfect expression before and I never shall again. It was insolence and not insolence; it was modesty and not modesty.
This is at the start of the novel; and here, towards its end, is Leonora, his wife:
You must postulate that what she desired above all things was to keep a shut mouth to the world, to Edward, and to the women he loved. If she spoke she would despise herself.
The narrator, Dowell, meanwhile notes:
But upon my word, I don’t know how we put in our time. How does one put in one’s time? How is it possible to have achieved nine years and to have nothing whatever to show for it? Nothing whatever, you understand.
While his wife Florence has erected a great canvas tent around herself based on her having a ‘heart’ (a heart condition), which necessitates the prevention of any form of excitement – including sexual relations with her husband. Meanwhile, Edward and his wife Leonora, we are informed, do not speak to each other at all except in company, where they present an idyllic front.
So why indeed should we care about these people? They give not a fig for the ordinary working people they brush up against, the waiters, the ‘darky’ servant Dowell abandons after his many years of service, the tenant farmer Leonora forces out of her husband’s farm. And the people under Ashburnham’s care that he seeks to look after, that he ostensibly cares about – the men in his regiment, his tenants, their children (‘he was a perfect maniac about children’), the illegitimate children he may himself have fathered – these are simply adjuncts to his code of practice.
Theirs is, then, a life of perfect pretence and surface. But below that surface there do beat actual hearts (rather than ‘hearts’); passions spurt out in unlikely places, as (fittingly) when the two couples go to see Luther’s written Protest. With the same power as that protest, this moment marks a frightening rupture in the perfectly preserved smooth skin of their lives. ‘I was aware of something treacherous, something frightful, something evil in the day’, says the usually urbane narrator. Meawhile Leonora’s ‘shut mouth’ utters: ‘I can’t stand this … I must get out of this.’ Of course, when such moments come they are the more felt for their previous suppression. Even the narrator admits, ‘I was horribly frightened’.
So we have a complete mismatch between external behaviour (and what that supposedly indicates of what lies below) and the actuality of what lies below. But here is the real originality of The Good Soldier. On the surface of the narrative, we have two couples who are ostensibly living the good life, sometimes the cultured life, certainly the moneyed life, and apparently a happy life. Below the surface, all is turbulence, distress, high emotion sometimes amounting to melodrama. So tight is the seal between the outer and the inner that it strikingly demonstrates the impossibility of knowing any mind or heart other than or own.
Now this poses a problem for the novelist, since other minds and hearts are his bread and butter. So Ford must also change the standard form of the narrative to be able to capture that unknowability, and make it interesting. An omniscient narrator would clearly contradict such a notion. A first person narrator, such as Dowell is, would usually know what he had seen and experienced and report that. But our narrator here seems to know considerably more than he has been able to see or experience, even allowing for his having been told much by the main protagonists. Further, he is speaking from hindsight, so that through the whole of this narrative he knows all as it played out, as he observed it, and as it was told to him. Yet he wrests the narrative so far from its original chronology, giving a titbit of (sometimes highly significant) information here, holding back something momentous there, that we can’t be sure as readers whether we know something or not. As he himself says at the start of the final section of the book:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so it may be very difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair – a long, sad affair – one goes back, one goes forward.
We readers represent that silent listener, and this is a novel that involves us as readers more than most. The gaps and ellipses in the narrative, the very back-and-forthness that the narrator intimates here, mean that we have to have our wits and our imaginations about us. We have an unusually powerful interpretative role. But finally, I think, we are also engaged with these characters. This is a novel in which several characters suffer real and deep despair and die by their own hand or by an accident in which they are complicit. If even here they are not allowed the full drama of their end, it is because Ford relentlessly uses bathos to remind us of the absurdity as well as the tragedy of human existence, and indeed of its end. One deeply unhappy character falls head first into her travelling trunk, the only sign of her ‘sticking out beyond the bed, a small pair of feet in high-heeled shoes’. Another takes prussic acid for a relatively trivial reason when she has been conducting herself in such a way as to seem to have no regard for close personal feeling. Another cuts his throat with a measly penknife (which must have been messy, but of course we don’t see the mess).
As Henry David Thoreau said, the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. And who is to say that lives of quiet desperation are less desperate in grand houses than in small; even, perhaps, they are more so, because the contrast between the outer and the inner life is greater. In The Good Soldier, Ford shows us those lives of quiet desperation whilst apparently demonstrating that we could know nothing of that from the surface texture of those lives, lives which appear to be shallow rather than deep. The power of his narrative is precisely not to allow us to feel that these are grand human endeavours, but see rather that they are small, pusillanimous ones. The quiet desperation remains real, as does the pain. As does, ultimately, their unknowability.
Wordsworth Editions publish both The Good Soldier and Ford’s great First World War tetralogy, Parade’s End. The Good Soldier was adapted for the then Granada television in 1980 and can be found on YouTube. Parade’s End was also adapted superbly for television in 2012.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience are also published by Wordsworth Editions.
Readers wishing to know more about the life and works of Ford Madox Ford should visit the website of the Ford Madox Ford Society http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/
Image: The Sprudelhof in Bad Nauheim - Shutterstock.com