Monday, June 16, 2008

The Good Soldier

From The Good Soldier (1915), by Ford Madox Ford
It is very singular that Leonora should not have aged at all. I suppose that there are some types of beauty and even of youth made for the embellishments that come with enduring sorrow. That is too elaborately put. I meant that Leonora, if everything had prospered, might have become too hard and, maybe, overbearing. As it was, she was tuned down to appearing efficient--and yet sympathetic. That is the rarest of all blends. And yet I swear that Leonora, in her restrained way, gave the impression of being intensely sympathetic. When she listened to you she appeared also to be listening to some sound that was going on in the distance. But still, she listened to you and took in what you said, which, since the record of humanity is a record of sorrows, was, as a rule, something sad.
In the midst of a narrative in which nearly every sentence needs to be vetted for its degree of disingenuousness, self-deception, or flat-out falsehood--a narrative that (as you can see from the effortless backtracking of "That is too elaborately put.") continually pulls up from under itself the tracks that it has mere moments before carefully laid--that passage strikes me as unexpectedly straightforward, true, and memorable. It reflects, of course, a perspective; a different sensibility might find human life to be not a litany of sorrows but a succession of surprising joys. But it is a believable, clear, and mostly honest perspective, a rare moment of seeming candor in a tale rife with misprision and deception.

Julian Barnes wrote well about the novel a week or so ago in The Guardian, prompting me to reread it after fifteen years away; I found its power, if anything, increased. I'll have more to say about it later this week if I get organized--and, I hope, about its relationship (and the relationship of its rhetorical stance) to Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, but for now, I'll leave you with Barnes's take on the novel's unforgettable first sentence, every word of which--Barnes's words, that is--is, unlike the fraught narrative in question, perfectly true:
"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." What could be more simple and declaratory, a statement of such high plangency and enormous claim that the reader assumes it must be not just an impression, or even a powerful opinion, but a "fact"? Yet it is one of the most misleading first sentences in all fiction. This isn't - it cannot be - apparent at first reading, though if you were to go back and reread that line after finishing the first chapter, you would instantly see the falsity, instantly feel the floorboard creak beneath your foot on that "heard".
The creak of the floorboard, indeed--a better image of that line is hard to imagine.

No comments:

Post a Comment