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.

Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

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


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today