Saturday 21 February 2015

The Good Soldier or The Saddest Story Ever Told by Ford Madox Ford was described by one of the author's friends as the finest French novel in the English language. Discuss. Or write the author a letter, as I used to say to students.

My dear F.M.F.,

Hard to know where the Good is, or the Saddest in your story. You are disingenuous, Sir. Un faux modeste. Faux croyant. Neither Good nor Saddest. Fractal, perhaps. This is not a story you heard, it's a story in which you were embroiled. You trip over yourself, recount from so many angles there is no more solid ground, let alone a minuet, while appearing to be a colourless, wealthy American telling this complicated tale to a stranger in an inn near the sea. Uncertainty is the key, constant undermining and recovery, as in much of life, which is why your book is such a seductive read. The sort of giddy subtlety you no longer find in the newspapers. You make a meal of not knowing how to tell your tale, lurid as it essentially is, dashing back and forth from one point of view to another, none of them – least of all yours – reliable; you share your frailty with your listener/reader, as if that let you off a lot of hooks, then resume the tale with an old world politesse. 'Did Florence commit suicide? I didn't know.' There's a great deal of slippage and unease. Fissures open every other line. You, our narrator disperse among the uncertainties as if you had no say in the matter. All this smacks of French difficulty or exception, a tricky relation between novel and reader, novel and writer, life and the telling. If you don't seek clarity you'll find it, weaving between events and their resolution, which is usually death and in one instance, madness. What is one to think of humanity?

Your J.K.

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