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on 2 October 2014
"This is the saddest story I have ever heard" is a somewhat off-putting opening sentence. It is hard to feel very sorry for snobbish, convention-bound people who feel hard up even when holding large estates, employing servants and swanning round foreign hotels, with the lack of any occupation to give them a sense of proportion.
At first, I was even more deterred by the style, the mannered, at times almost querulous tone which I would have expected from a Victorian spinster aunt, rather than from a character I could never quite believe was an American male. Just when I was wishing I did not need to read this for a book group, I was struck by the description of the "good soldier" Ashburnham's luggage: "the profusion of his cases, all of pigskin and stamped with his initials...It must have needed a whole herd of Gaderene swine to make up his outfit". Even if this novel is not intended to be a farce (which would have saved it for me), it surely includes some sharp notes of mocking parody.
First published in 1915, this tale of two "perfect" couples whose friendship over more than a decade masks a web of deception, hypocrisy and guilt, since they are unable to keep to the moral and religious conventions to which they feel bound, has been described as "the finest French novel in the English language" and is highly regarded by some as "stylistically perfect". I accept that it is an early example of "stream of consciousness" - of the well-punctuated variety - and what has been called "literary impressionism", as the author plays games with us through his distinctly unreliable first person narrator. In the midst of his self-confessed ramblings, the American provides us with some original, often vicious insights, belying his claimed lack of observation bordering on stupidity over what is really going on under his nose - although is he really as passive in the affair as he makes out? He shifts back and forth in time, revisiting scenes to peel off yet more layers to reveal that each incident was not quite as he implied or stated earlier, or to show how it might appear differently to the various characters concerned. Although he does this quite skilfully, providing a few unexpected shocks on the way, there is a good deal of repetition of details. A fairly thin story seems overlong, and the heavy emphasis on telling the reader at great length what to think - even if this gets contradicted at times - is less satisfying than the style we have come to prefer - showing events for us to draw differing conclusions.
Perhaps this is worth reading as an early twentieth century classic, but I cannot say I really enjoyed it. Arnold Bennet, who lived at the same time as Ford Madox Ford, creates for me a much more real past peopled with more convincing complex characters over whom it is easier to feel moved.