Until quite recently I was barely aware of Ford Madox Ford. When people list the great writers of the early 20th Century his name usually merits only a footnote. However, a short article in a national newspaper appraising "The Good Soldier" as one of the great English novels prompted me to read it. And great it is.
That led me onto this weighty quartet, which has lived with me for the last couple of months. And it confirms my suspicions that Ford is indeed one of our greatest writers, whether he is currently fashionable or no.
One of my first reactions was that - notwithstanding the publisher's blurbs and cover illustrations - this is NOT a novel "about" the First World War. Yes, the war is an important theme, but it is by no means the only one. In fact the military action, such as it is, features only in the third of the four novels making up the sequence.
No, this book belongs in the pantheon of the great "social" novels - it stands up extremely well against Galsworthy, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Anthony Powell, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald and even Marcel Proust, who are Ford's true contemporaries. Indeed, it shares with those writers' works an experimental approach to exploring characters' psychological motivations and thought processes that was so characteristic of the 1920s "Modernist" movement. Rarely has a writer captured so well the way in which peoples' minds REALLY work - with confusion, doubt and sudden impulsive decision galloping along in rapid succession. Ford has a rare gift for bathos - broad comedy and real human tragedy can inhabit the same page in a way which can be unsettling, but always rings true.
This is very much a novel of its time - and especially - social milieu. Almost all the main characters are members of the English upper-middle classes, and the book charts mercilessly the unravelling of their once-secure world, as Britain shifts into the modern, post-Victorian era.
Structurally, it is equally impressive. Ford has a breathtaking ability to "time-shift" back-and-forth without ever losing the reader's attention; each chapter starts off with a major leap forward from the one before, so that we are initially unsure of what has happened in the meantime. Then, via a series of "flashbacks" and subtle conversations, the missing jigsaw pieces are slotted into place and the picture becomes clear.
Interestingly, almost every scene consists of dialogue, with one, two and occasionally three or four characters interacting in a single location - it is almost as if Ford had one eye on a possible stage dramatisation of the story. As such, it would - in the hands of the right screenwriter and director - make a superb TV adaptation. We've had "A Dance To The Music Of Time" and "Brideshead", so come on BBC/Channel Four - why not? (EDIT, September 2012 - thanks Mr. Stoppard!)
You'll have gathered by now that I love this book. It may not be to everyone's taste - Ford's use of language can seem slightly odd to modern ears, for example - but if you enjoy a book you can "live in" for an extended period, I urge you to give it a try.