The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

June 28, 2010

I read this book before reading Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. I am only writing this review now because I had not been entirely what to say on finishing The Good Soldier. It is an outstanding work full of memorable quotes, intense scenes, and engaging characters. I hesitated to write anything, then ended up reading What I Loved which contains so many parallels to this work that I lost confidence that I could separate my appreciation of the two works.

The two books involve entangled families in which the story is related by a male protagonist trying to make sense of what went wrong in the families’ intertwined histories. The non-narrating male lead is a charismatic good guy who, nonetheless, remains emotionally remote from, if not everyone, at least the reader. The narrator seems more able to relate the emotions and significance of his counterpart’s wife than his own. And both involve psychological intrigue of a darkly disquieting nature.

Other than these points of contact, however, the novels are completely different. Well, nearly so.

John Dowell is the narrator of The Good Soldier and tells us early why he is telling this story:

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unkown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; of, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The tragedy is the dissolution of the small coterie made up of the two couples and the lesser satellites they trap into orbit. Almost immediately in his narratirion, John tells us that there will be no unscathed survivors. Everyone is either dead, insane, or irrevocably broken. As for John, he tells us:

I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking-room will ever be other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths.

And John is the one that gets off somewhat easy. Three others are dead.

The whos, hows, and whys of the trio of deaths leads the reader into a labyrinthian social circle from which there is no safe escape. Captain Edward Ashburnan, the “good soldier” of the title, provides the central gravitational pull of the group.

Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear [his regally charming appearance and abundant carrying cases] was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier….How could he arouse anything like a sentiment in anybody?

…Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists – all good soldiers are of that type. Their profession, for one thing, is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy…..He would say how much the society of a good woman could do towards redeeming you, and he would say that constancy was the finest of the virtues. He said it very stiffly, of course, but still as if the statement admitted of no doubt.

What John Dowell does not see, the reader can see almost immediately. Captain Edward Ashburnham has a suave bearing and an understated instensity that women adore. Once they have fallen and Edward has caught them, he is loathe to let them go. This sort of fidelity is, of course, immensely attractive to the opposite sex. And, as if to retain his mistresses’ hearts with secure permanence, Edward worships his wife.

John is a somewhat dull and impotent character who does not understand why Edward is so compelling as he, John, remains a steadfast friend even after Edward’s death and the revelation of painful truths. In circumstances which will make the average reader cringe with revulsion at Edward’s conduct, John gives him a pass. Edward is that kind of man, he has that sort of effect. And, in the end, he may have that effect on the reader too.

The alternatives to Edward are John, in his drab guilelessness, the conniving and disgusting Jimmy, or solitude. Edward is a respectable man, a man to emulate, to envy. The others are only to be pitied. Of course, John does not realize this. He gropes through life unable to decipher the quiet maneuverings of man. His naivete is the tool through which Ford promotes the central theme of the novel, which, if it is not the ephemeral quality of truth, is the duplicity inherent in civilization.

Through a narrator who is constantly having to revise his understanding of the world and the people around him, Ford demonstrates the contingency of knowledge. By the time the story is finished, as John tells us early on, other people begin to appear to John as “incalculable simulacra among smoke wreaths.” The theme is driven home with beautiful language and an intricate plot, much as in Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The strength of this work relative to What I Loved is that The Good Soldier relies on a naively trusting narrator observing more worldly wise companions to demonstrate the fragility of truth. Hustvedt’s relies on an pathologically deceptive character for similar purpose. Thus, The Good Soldier is more powerful in demonstrating that ordinary social intercourse undermines the childlike view that appearance is reality, whereas What I Loved relies on the extraordinary to do the same.

This is not to say that What I Loved does not have its strengths as well, but I believe this review has helped me determine what it is about What I Loved that did not quite work for me. Or maybe it did work, but I took less pleasure in it. In important ways, the works are not similar, but opposites.

But finally, what I have to say is this: If you have read and enjoyed The Good Soldier, you should pick up What I Loved for a delightful comparison. If you have read and enjoyed What I Loved, or if you have not, but have yet to read The Good Soldier, I highly recommend you do. This book is a classic for a reason.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

January 9, 2010

I am reading David Mitchell’s novels in order and, while only two books in, I am quite enjoying the experience. I happened across Alexander’s Bridge when looking for books for my Kindle and, as I adore Cather’s writing, I downloaded it. Upon completion, I had read three of her first four novels. Any remaining anti-completionist tendencies on my part were overridden by the fact that The Song of the Lark, the missing piece of my “The Prairie Trilogy” puzzle, is oft touted as Cather’s most autobiographical novel.

The Song of the Lark is delicious. The first half or so of the book is classic prairie Cather. Some say “you can safely skip the last section if you think the book is too long”, but that is going a bit far. It is true, however, that the first and last sections seem almost like different books. But beginnings first.

As the book opens, Thea Kronborg is a small girl in a small town, Moonstone, Colorado. Her father is a minister. She has pneumonia and her mother is giving birth to her brother Thor. Dr. Archie is there to help with the birth and does what he can for Thea as well. He has a special affinity for Thea, an affinity that only grows as she gets older. Other adults, like railroadman Ray Kennedy and Spanish Johnny are also drawn to Thea. She is different, she shines.

Thea has musical talent to go with her youthful charisma. Her early years are spent in competition with another local girl, watching after her baby brother, and enjoying small town life in Colorado. Both the landscape and its inhabitants are beautifully rendered. Cather is at her best and most typical here. She offers both poingancy and humor. With respect to humor, she writes the following while describing Ray Kennedy:

Ray was a freethinker and, inconsistently, believed himself damned for being one.


He had the lamentable American belief that expression is obligatory.

At another point, Thea’s mother is talking with another railroader:

”You fellows grumble too much,” said Mrs. Kronborg as she corked the pickle jar. “Your job has its drawbacks, but it don’t tie you down. Of course, there’s the risk. But I believe a man is watched over and he can’t be hurt on the railroad or anywhere else if it’s intended he shouldn’t be.”

Giddy laughed. “Then the trains must be operated by fellows the Lord has it in for, Mrs. Kronborg. They figured out that a railroad man’s only due to last eleven years, then it’s his turn to be smashed.”

Each of these scenes is carefully chosen by Cather. As in Alexander’s Bridge, Cather carefully foreshadows bigger events only more adroitly. She manages more surprise in this work. But the plot is neither the primary nor the secondary draw. Fighting for equality with Cather’s descriptive prowess are the ideas she presents, her recreation of the birth of an artist.

Underneath the small town striving of the townspeople and Thea’s rival, there are bigger currents. Thea is not simply talented, she is driven. This is where her charisma lies. She wants more out of life, more out of others, but, mostly, more out of herself.

Dr. Archie plays an important role as her advisor and intellectual role model. After a disturbing incident involving a mistreated tramp, Thea confronts Dr. Archie with the town’s hypocrisy. She wants to know:

”Do people believe the Bible or don’t they? If the next life is all that matters and we’re put here to get ready for it, then why do we try to make money or learn things or have a good time. There’s not one person in Moonstone that really lives the way the New Testament says. Does it matter or doesn’t it?”

Dr. Archie gives his worldview, including a respect for “all religions” combined with a recognition that living up to their demands is impossible. In its immediate context, the advice seems almost banal. Crucially, however, his view is both practical and historically optimistic:

“…[W]e have only about 20 able waking years. That’s not long enough to get acquainted with half the fine things that have been done in the world, much less to do anything ourselves. I think we ought to keep the commandments and help other people all we can. But the main thing is to live those 20 splendid years to do all we can and enjoy all we can.”

“…[T]he failures are swept back into the pile and forgotten. They don’t leave any lasting scar on the world and they don’t affect the future. The things that last are the good things, the people who forge ahead and do something. They really count.”

As Thea grows up, the reader soon realizes she has taken that advice to heart and it is advice that matters. She intends to get everything out of her “20 splendid years” that she can. The later portions of the novel focus on Thea’s artistically mature interpretation of this advice. She lives the life of an artist with “older and higher obligations” than those of the citizens of Moonstone.

These later sections are not as easygoing and charming as the earlier sections. As Thea progresses into adulthood, we see less of her and hear more about her, often through Dr. Archie. But, towards the very end, the novel swings around to Thea again. We get to see the driving forces of the artist and views on art that are almost certainly Cather’s own. These final parts of the novel are essential, I think, to what Cather was trying to achieve and to gaining insight into Cather’s artistic vision.

Thea and Dr. Archie sit together as she tries to explain:

“…There are many disappointments in my profession and bitter, bitter contempts.” Her face hardened and looked much older. “If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you there is such a thing as creative hate, a contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.”

This passion for excellence, this hardness on herself and others, is what sets Thea apart as especially beautiful. There is a coldness, though, to the beauty.

”You can’t try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that doesn’t matter, then nothing matters.”

And this, I think, is why someone can say that the second part can be skipped. It has little of the warmth of the earlier sections, when Thea is a passionate girl. Even as readers, we are as enthrall to this girl as are so many of the townspeople. As a mature artist, she loses not only relationships that no longer serve, she loses readers who care more for the performance than the artistry. It is not unlike a rocket. The initial launch is spectacular and gripping, the later stages of flight through the atmosphere are even boring by comparison. But in order to reach the moon, those later stages are necessary. The full beauty of the novel is only apparent near the end. Cather’s achievement is remarkable. While My Antonia remains my first Cather love, The Song of the Lark is outstanding.

*This is a review of an audiobook.

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

November 20, 2009

I have much enjoyed Willa Cather’s work and this little novella was no exception. While Alexander’s Bridge is a decidedly minor piece in her oeuvre, Cather’s incredible skill in capturing mood and character is on display. Still, the flaws are real. The story is a little too neat and the climax a bit contrived.

The novella is a deviation from Cather’s other work in that the primary settings are Boston, New York, and London, rather than the American west with which she is so closely associated. There is a western connection, but it is slight. It was pleasing to see her capture imagery besides the plains of Nebraska and other western states. She has an eye for setting and landscape that she puts to good use in this novella, though most of the novel is set indoors.

At the center of the story is Bartley Alexander, a superstar bridge builder in the prime of his career. The novella opens with his former teacher, Professor Lucius Wilson, having just arrived in Boston to visit. Wilson nears the appointed address in time to watch a woman enter:

Always an interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance. She was a person of distinction he saw at once, and, moreover, very handsome. She was tall, carried her beautiful head proudly, and moved with ease and certainty. One immediately took for granted the costly privileges and fine spaces that must lie in the background from which such a figure could emerge with this rapid gait.

Wilson follows the woman into the house to which he was headed. The woman was Mrs. Alexander. Bartley is working late, which suits Wilson fine. He relishes the opportunity to spend time with the elegant Mrs. Alexander.

Mrs. Alexander sat looking into the fire with intent preoccupation, and Wilson studied her half-averted face. He liked the suggestion of stormy possibilities in the proud curve of her lip and nostril. Without that, he reflected, she would be too cold.

Wilson evening is all but spoilt when Bartley does come home. Mrs. Winifred Alexander leaves the men to chat. Bartley is heading off to England shortly to fulfill the demands of his career. Alexander is working on a major bridge in Canada, where he met Mrs. Alexander. The bridge has the greatest span of its type and will be quite a legacy for Bartley. Yet, he is not content.

“After all, life doesn’t offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you’re getting on, and suddenly you discover that you’ve only been getting yourself tied up. A million details drink you dry.

Your life keeps going for things you don’t want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don’t care a rap about. I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I’d have been if I hadn’t been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too.”

And this is the crux of the problem. Bartley is a man at the top of his game, but he feels the crush of responsibilities and the dwindling years of life. He longs for his lost youth. He is in a midlife crisis.

Men are not terribly imaginative in dealing with this particular psychological phenomenon. Bartley is a man’s man. He was exceptional in his younger days for his energy and drive. The next afternoon, when Wilson again has Mrs. Alexander alone, he describes Bartley as having “a powerfully equipped nature”.

“And, after all,” said Mrs. Alexander, “that is the thing we all live upon. It is the thing that takes us forward.”

Wilson thought she spoke a little wistfully. “Exactly,” he assented warmly. “It builds bridges into the future, over which the feet of every one of us will go.”

“How interested I am to hear you put it in that way. The bridges into the future — I often say that to myself. Bartley’s bridges always seem to me like that. Have you ever seen his first suspension bridge in Canada, the one he was doing when I first knew him? I hope you will see it sometime. We were married as soon as it was finished, and you will laugh when I tell you that it always has a rather bridal look to me. It is over the wildest river, with mists and clouds always battling about it, and it is as delicate as a cobweb hanging in the sky. It really was a bridge into the future. You have only to look at it and feel that it meant the beginning of a great career.”

In this novella, every image is laden with meaning. Mrs. Alexander’s observation of the bridge’s “bridal look” is no accident. While the novella threatens to devolve into melodrama at times, Cather’s hand is sure. She even manages to put in references to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, evoke Miss Havisham, and otherwise pepper this short work with factual and literary allusions. As her first published novel, Alexander’s Bridge demonstrates great promise.

Still, she improved a great deal from here. Living as we do in this world-wise time, it is easy to see the plot twists coming. Cather foreshadows a bit too much. And, yet, even if not surprising, the story is interesting and well told. Remember too, the term “midlife crisis” was not coined until 1965. If you enjoy Cather’s work, you will probably find this early piece a fascinating look into her development as a writer.

If you have not yet read Cather, I recommend you do. But you should probably start with My Antonia. It is more typical of her mature style, a greater accomplishment, and less predictable than this early work.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

August 13, 2009

I read Winesburg, Ohio on the recommendation of Kevin From Canada. I am happy to have taken Kevin up on the recommendation as the book is now a favorite. After reading it, I also recommend the book without reservations. But do not take my word for it. As Kevin recounts, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Roth, Kitteridge and many other highly regarded authors have been heavily influenced by and pay homage to this work.

WinesburgThe book is a strange mix of story collection and novel. I cannot say with conviction that it is a novel, but neither is it simply a collection of linked short stories. There is some common plot, but not all of the stories advance what common plot there is. The book sometimes comes close to a novel about George Willard, the town’s sole newspaper reporter, but it is not that. Each story focuses on a townsperson or two. Sometimes the narrator explicitly identifies the character to whom a given section belongs.

For instance, after beginning “The Untold Lie” with the tale of Windpeter Winters’ ignominious (or glorious, depending on perspective) death, the narrator intrudes:

But this is not the story of Windpeter Winters nor yet of his son Hal who worked on the Wills farm with Ray Pearson. It is Ray’s story. It will, however, be necessary to talk a little of young Hal so that you will get into the spirit of it.

George Willard does not appear at all in Ray’s story. The story in no way advances the plot with respect to George Willard. And yet the story is essential to the book.

The primary theme of the book, as the narrator has it in the introductory section entitled “The Book of the Grotesque”, is the “notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” In a separate, retrospective introduction, Malcolm Cowley suggests the true focus is on loneliness and isolation, particularly as a result of an inability to communicate. He says the narrator of “The Book of the Grotesque” has it wrong. On finishing the book, and before reading Cowley’s introduction, I thought the same thing. However, after ruminating on the matter, I think perhaps the deeper message is that of the narrator.

As a book about small town life, many of the characters long to leave for the big city and its excitement. Some do. Some return. But the impetus for wanting to leave is nearly always a loneliness and disconnectedness from their neighbors and peers. The characters are misfits. They all feel isolated in some way and have a catastrophic inability to communicate either their loneliness or the cause of it.

The brilliance of the book, I think, comes from the fact that this loneliness and inability to communicate leads the various characters to fixate on a single truth, to become defined in some way by it, and, as a result, to be rendered grotesque. But the grotesques are not ugly or disgusting. As we are told: “Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness.”

Cowley misses part of the point, I think, in suggesting merely that the inability to communicate has rendered them emotionally crippled and therefore grotesque. The inability to communicate does emotionally cripple many, if not all of the characters. But the crippling is not caused directly by the lack of communication, rather the characters’ inability to connect with others in some essential way causes the character to fixate on one truth. For Wing Biddlebaum, it is his belief that his hands caused his troubles, rather than a “half-wit’s” perverted dreams. The truth does become a falsehood. The character, trying to live his life by that one truth, now a falsehood, becomes grotesque.

The narrator, perhaps an older George Willard, is able to give voice to ideas and thoughts that the characters never can. The characters cling to those ideas precisely because they do not know how to communicate or, more often, lack the courage to expose themselves. By giving these characters a voice they otherwise lack, the narrator liberates them and makes them beautiful or amusing or simply painful. In the telling of the characters’ stories, each of their lives resonates with a fullness it could never achieve on its own. It takes a narrator to reveal the richness of each character’s life. We are able to see past the gnarled exteriors to the essence of the character.

I have probably gone on too long about what the book is about in some literary or philosophical sense. Anderson is able to reveal the emotional truth of his characters in a way that few authors do. His prose is not always polished, but he invests his stories with both emotion and depth. Mainly, though, the book is full of poignant moments, amusing situations, and thought-provoking passages. It is an easy and enjoyable read despite its depth. I highly recommend this work. The town of Winesburg, Ohio is a wonderful place to visit.