Sentences — July 14, 2008, 11:26 am

“Written Rather Desultorily”

Liesl Schillinger, in a review this weekend of Rivka Galchen’s first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (FSG), mentioned a kindredness between Galchen’s narrator, a psychiatrist named Leo Liebenstein, and “the tormented narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier.” I was glad to see the reference, as I am when anyone mentions Ford’s novel, one very well loved, but no longer widely read.

Of its gestation and execution, Ford said that although he had “written rather desultorily a number of books–a great number,” it was only “on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do–and the Good Soldier resulted.” Ford wrote some seventy books in all, and given that only a handful have remained in print, the self-conscious application of effort to which he admitted for The Good Soldier is a rare case of parity between artistic will and aesthetic quality.

Such self-consciousness is appropriate, too, in a novel that attempts a consciousness of the self. For although The Good Soldier is often and to my mind misleadingly classed as an example of the novel of unreliability–in which the story the narrator is telling is at odds with the story the reader is gathering–it is actually a novel whose narrator is highly reliable, and not in the “reliably unreliable” mode.

fordmadoxford John Dowell, the book’s narrator, is telling the story of a period in his life when he and his wife were friends with another couple. If friendships, through time, are tested by the vagaries of life’s divergences and the consistent ways in which we tend to disappoint each other, friendships between couples are complicated further by a compounding of frames of reference and, at times, of conflicting desires.

Dowell, telling of the quartet’s tightly-knit time together, a period of many years, is telling two stories, but to my mind he is not deceiving himself. Rather, he is attempting to present the simultaneity of perspectives, false and true, that exist in any social interaction, to the end of showing that few of us can, in lived as opposed to remembered moments, see very far beyond ourselves.

As such, Dowell as narrator is not so much unreliable as he is, very typically, shortsighted. The Good Soldier is not a novel of unreliability but a pageant of shortsightedness, written down in all its little intricacies with unusual completeness and clarity. “Tormented,” in Schillinger’s adjective, is then a most appropriate description of Ford’s narrator, not to say Galchen’s, not to say our own narrations of our lived lives: the world as we believe it to have been is–typically–not quite what we were very sure it was.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2017

Echt Deutsch

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Boy Without a Country

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Behind the Fig Leaf

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Can Run …

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Never Would I Ever

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The March on Everywhere

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The March on Everywhere·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Photograph (detail) © Nima Taradji/Polaris
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
Defender of the Community·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Illustration (detail) by Katherine Streeter
Article
The Boy Without a Country·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
Asphalt Gardens·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a city that is rapidly pricing out the poor, NYCHA’s housing projects are a last bastion of affordable shelter, with an average monthly rent of $509
Photograph (detail) © Samuel James

Amount three New York men owe in restitution for stealing rock lobsters off the coast of South Africa:

$54,900,000

AIDS researchers were working to develop genetically modified tomatoes that naturally produce an edible HIV vaccine.

Trump said that he might not have been elected president “if it wasn’t for Twitter."

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today