The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford

‘This is the saddest story that I have ever heard.’ Thus begins Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece The Good Soldier.

John Dowell (the narrator of this story) and his wife Florence are leisured and wealthy Americans. They meet Edward Ashburnham (‘the good soldier’ of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora, who are English and of a certain class, in a German spa resort town. A nine-year friendship ensues. In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that his wife Florence and Edward Ashburnham are dead but we do not know why. Nor do we know the circumstances surrounding their deaths. What follows therefore is a tale of deception, intrigues and the dawning realization of how mismatched the couples are.

What’s interesting here is how John Dowell chooses to tell this story. Since he is looking back to the past and trying to make sense of what has happened, the narration is not linear in the way traditional novels are. It is a very rich and layered story and as the novel progresses, the explanations and motives of the characters become clearer. Or do they? After all, we only know one point of view and that is John Dowell’s.

The other strength of the novel is how psychologically complex the characters are. For one , they are well fleshed out. But because of the narrative style, we find our sympathies for the characters constantly shifting. And that makes the novel ripe for multiple interpretations.

This is a tremendous novel, brilliantly written and Ford’s crowning achievement; a fact the author acknowledged too.

Indeed, in 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Good Soldier 30th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2015, the BBC ranked The Good Soldier 13th on its list of the 100 greatest British novels. Truly well-deserved and a classic.

Frontispiece from the Folio Society Edition

Mad Enchantment – Ross King

For an art junkie, a trip to Paris is incomplete without a visit to the Musee d’Orsay. This is after all the mecca of Impressionism, that art movement in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, which was reviled by critics in its early years but revered much later. Musee d’Orsay displays a host of paintings by Impressionist painters such as Renoir, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro and the father of them all – Claude Monet.

But this is not the only museum that showcases Monet’s art. The Orangerie Museum is dedicated to Monet and more so for displaying his famous water lily paintings. It is these paintings which form the subject matter of Ross King’s engrossing book ‘Mad Enchantment’.

Bloomsbury Publishing Hardback Edition. A Replica of Monet’s Water Lilies Painting in the Background

This then is a biography of not only Monet but also the history behind the creation of these water lily paintings or Monet’s ‘upside down paintings’ as they were so called. King goes on to show a bit of Monet’s early life as a painter, the essential ‘Frenchness’ of his art as he painted canvases of the Normandy coast,  wheat stacks, and the Rouen  cathedral to name a few.

King touches upon the significance of light in these paintings. Essentially Monet worked a lot outdoors and that too on many canvases at a time so that he could capture that fleeting play of light in his work.

Monet extract
An Extract from ‘Mad Enchantment’

Ross then goes on to show how besides painting, Monet also developed a strong interest in gardening. This is significant as it prompted Monet to cultivate a water lily pond in his garden at Giverny with the famous Japanese bridge across it.

This water lily pond then became a subject of his art for much of his later years. The idea for a ‘Grand Decoration’ was conceived; a slew of water lily paintings on much larger canvases. These would be displayed in a circular room, which Monet called his ‘flowery aquarium’ thereby giving a sense of peace to the observer.

Monet pond
Photographs of the Pond When We Visited Monet’s Garden in Giverny, France. The Inspiration for His Water Lily Paintings.

But the path to realize this ambition was not always easy. King explains how Monet had to suffer the difficulties of the First World War, periods of self-doubt, loss of some of his family members and contemporaries, and his own diminishing eyesight…to create these masterworks.

King’s prose flows smoothly and makes this biography fascinating and eminently readable. A must read then for anyone remotely interested in art and art history.