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March 18, 2008

Booksmart: Forgotten Fiction (Classics You Might have Missed)

The Good Soldier: By Ford Maddox Ford. First Published 1915.The Good Soldier(By Ford Maddox Ford. First Published 1915.)Of course, no one in real life has a name as solid and rhythmic as Ford Maddox Ford, whose actual name was Ford Hermann Hueffer. That was much too Germanic-sounding, so as his career got humming, the author decided upon the more felicitous Ford Maddox Ford. Similarly, “The Good Soldier” is neither about war nor about a good man. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” is its ominous opening sentence. Except when it’s not. Ford’s tale of adultery and hypocrisy is, in truth, more mad than sad. Edward Ashburnham — the British soldier of the title — and his uber-efficient wife Leonora take up with Americans John and Florence Dowell. John Dowell, profoundly mismatched with his own wife, narrates the foursome’s pre-World War I summers together in Germany. What on the surface seems idyllic is underneath roiling with deception and angst. The charismatic Edward can’t keep from pursuing women whose charms surpass Leonora’s: “Perhaps he could not bear to see a woman and not give her the comfort of his physical attractions.” And who is the chief object of Edward’s affection? It turns out to be none other than John’s wife. John himself is the only person who remains (willfully?) oblivious to it all. John tells his story in retrospect, after he has learned the ugly truth from Leonora, thus providing the elaborate mixture of sentiment and skepticism that distant narration allows. He is bitterly cynical about all that he ignored, at the same time idealizing Edward, wishing him still in his life. Ford takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to a new power. —Mary Welp