All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: THE GOOD SOLDIER (1915) by Ford Madox Ford
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The Independent Culture
Plot: ''This is the saddest story I have ever heard,'' begins John Powell, the rich but dim American narrator. There are three other main characters: Florence, his wife, apparently an invalid incapable of sexual intercourse; Leonora Ashburnham, a Catholic of strong principles and astringent personality; and her husband Edward, ostensibly a gentleman of the old school cursed with a dicky heart. The quartet have muted fun for nine years on their regular holidays in Nauheim, a German spa town for the physically indisposed. Then, in 1913, the Ashburnhams bring with them their ward Nancy Rufford, and, inexplicably, Florence kills herself. Gradually, Dowell learns the truth: for nine years Florence, in the pink of health, has been enjoying an affair with Edward; Leonora has been monitoring his extramarital engagements from their inception. Florence kills herself because she realises Edward is getting steamed up about Nancy, who has just emerged from a convent education. Edward, appalled by his latest depravity, commits suicide. Nancy goes mad and Dowell nurses her, just as he nursed Florence. Leonora remarries and emerges triumphant.

Theme: "You may live with another for years and years in a condition of the closest daily intimacy and never know what goes on in your companion." Layer by layer, Ford reveals the mysteriousness of other people: individuals are frenetically driven by loneliness and lust but strive to appear buttoned- up and well-mannered. The "real" world dissolves into a series of peculiarly angled points of view.

Style: The story creeps out crabwise. Dowell changes his mind, tinkers with events, re-adjusts the reader's judgement. Ford invigorates his narrator's cliches with the injection of melodrama; the polished flatness of the prose mirrors exactly Dowell's sophisticated naivety.

Chief strengths: The tone is inextricably both pathetic and funny. Dowell's plight should evoke sympathy; but his baroque obtuseness and lack of self- reflection transform him into a clownish cuckold. Ford also unstabilises the notion of character: Edward Ashburnham is an uptight gentleman farmer beloved by tenants and a potential child molester. Uncomfortable for him and the reader.

Chief weakness: Ford's compulsion to gild the lily in several coats of emulsion diminishes some of the final impact: only Hamlet has so many casually violent deaths.

What they thought of it then: 1915 was not an auspicious year for experimental fiction. Conrad, Ford's old chum, remarked with unhelpful elusiveness: "the whole vision of the subject is perfectly amazing".

What we think of it now: Too clever. "Ford is obstructed less by his defects than by the effusiveness of total ability" (V.S. Pritchett). Damned as "a minor masterpiece".

Responsible for: Graham Greene's hommage, the equally underrated The End of the Affair.