“Literary impressionism.” After the contemporary reviews, that’s what the Norton Critical Edition of The Good Soldier has a whole section on. Several later essays by academics precede one Ford wrote himself while at work on Parade’s End and a selection from his Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, and they don’t do nearly as much to illuminate the topic. Here is Ford in the latter, writing on the “general effect” that should be aimed at in literature, that is to say, impressionist literature:
We agreed that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind. A novel must therefore not be a narration, a report. Life does not say to you: In 1914 my next door neighbour, Mr. Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminum paint….If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr. Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the city of Liège you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr. Slack—then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity though whisky you think would be much better for him!
(See how easy it is to understand when Ford explains it in the very style itself? Because it’s general effect is so good!)
After lots more of the same, Ford ends, “And, if that is how the building of your neighbour’s greenhouse comes back to you, just imagine how it will be with your love-affairs that are so much more complicated….”
Unlike in Parade’s End (or, as he refers to them, “the Tietjens novels”), which he was writing much later, around when he wrote these opinions on literary impressionism, a third-person narrator does not carry off this general effect in The Good Soldier. Instead, Ford uses a first-person narrator, John Dowell, to tell his story in the most realistic way possible.
Dowell is a main player in the action that would make up the novel if it weren’t a piece of literary impressionism. In fact, the action that makes up the novel is Dowell’s telling of the action—the story of two couples, two love triangles, five lives destroyed. Writing for the same reason “it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people, to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote,” he constantly justifies the form his tale takes—a rambling, fractured, evolving narration.
I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down—whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from this distance of time, as it reached me from the lips of Leonora or from those of Edward himself.
So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of the country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair—a long, sad affair—one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.
Dowell is almost amazingly clear about Ford’s literary philosophy. Never leave a false impression through an unrealistic level of organization! It would be so much easier that way, though.
You are to remember that all this happened a month before Leonora went into the girl’s room at night. I have been casting back again; but I cannot help it. It is so difficult to keep all these people going. I tell you about Leonora and bring her up to date; then about Edward who has fallen behind. And then the girl gets hopelessly left behind. I wish I could put it down in diary form. Thus: On the 1st September they returned from Nauheim. Leonora at once took to her bed. By the 1st of October they were all going to meets together….
No, that’s no way to tell a story at all.
Have I actually explained what Dowell does for Ford? So: Ford’s object is not to tell you what to think, but to relate perceptions—impressions. An author shouldn’t do the judgmental work of analyzing and explaining those facts, just of presenting them. Dowell is the perceiver, the medium for the perceptions Ford needs to get to us. Dowell is sitting in a room by the sea telling us the whole story as he perceives it, and actively working to make sense of it, and questioning the sense he makes of it, and dealing with a major problem of literary impressionism, the unknowability of reality.
I mentioned that the Tietjens novels pull this off in the third-person, which is pretty awesome when you think about how many of these books don’t work that way. In the two works of Conrad’s I just read, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, he uses his narrator Marlow to similar purpose. Marlow is quite a contrast to Dowell, though, a fit subject I think for a future post.