What's the saddest book ever
The saddest story
"Nobody misjudges this novel," noted Goethe about the "elective affinities", "a deeply passionate wound that shies away from closing in healing, a heart that fears to recover." According to Goethe's account, the story almost thwarted its own success, because the execution of the main idea "threatened to cross the artistic frontier".
How does Ford's narrator guarantee that he will respect the limit of art? Doesn't the saddest story have to go beyond the limits of propriety? Or put another way: Can the saddest story still be a story? A story has a form, is never just crying, contains relieving, retarding moments. At least the beginning and the end must be different. No matter how bad it turned out, it might have turned out differently, and once you think about it, you might be comforted.
Ford's novel was published in London in 1915. According to the author's wishes, he should have identified himself as "The Saddest Story" in the title. The author wanted to merge with the narrator; the siren song should already reach the book buyer who only glances at the title page. Ford's publisher found the title inappropriate. What story could 1915 be sadder than the mass deaths in the trenches? The book was given an alias: "The Good Soldier". One wonders, however, whether the patriotic camouflage didn’t have to offend those who took part in the war: the hero of the title, who embodies all the virtues of the English national character in his athletic body, is an adulterer and a spendthrift. The German translation gives the book its seductive title back. That it once again surpasses the saddest story and transforms it into the saddest one is consistent in the sense of the poetics of exaggeration that drives the narrative. Sometimes, however, Fritz Lorch and Helene Henze, who first presented their liquid transmission in 1962, take too much out of themselves.
Sentimental in the book is the name of the helpless worldview that continually produces superlatives. The good soldier is characterized as a "sentimentalist", as a wandering knight who only wants the best. And the narrator diagnoses the same tendency towards sentimentality in his own case. In Lorch and Henze, the "sentimentalist" appears as a "sensitive person". This affects the passive element of his existence, the dependence on impressions and moods. But sentimentality as a way of life also includes an active, violent moment, arranging things according to one's own comfort, a terrible simplification according to the literary model. Edward is what Ford calls his soldier, a rich country gentleman in the prime of life is good for a novel hero because he talks like a novel hero. He lives in his own made-up reality. The novel, whose first-person narrator proclaims in the first sentence that every other story pales next to its story, makes the same claim to exclusivity as the romantic egoist.
Admittedly, the narrator tries his best to hide his sentimentality. "This is the saddest story I've ever heard." If he were to announce the saddest story that has ever happened on earth, one would despair of his power of judgment. The measured objectivity betrays an immoderate subjectivity. The narrator speaks in his own name, but not on his own behalf. He heard the story and, paradoxically, hearsay is better evidence of the truth than one's own experience. This is the saddest story that has ever happened to me: There was no magic in such a beginning. The reader would think twice about entering a circle of private meanings and trivialities. But since Ford's narrator speaks as the listener, the reader himself becomes the listener. As a reader, he can close the book at any time. As a listener, he sits across from someone else, gets entangled in a relationship that he cannot painlessly end.
With the gesture of the epic poet the narrator wins the trust of the reader: he reports a memorable incident which is so memorable that the listener will in turn tell someone else. In this way the narrator draws the reader into a confidentiality that he can no longer escape. It turns out at once that the narrator is telling his own story after all. John Dowell is the husband of the woman who was driven to suicide by Edward Ashburnham, the good soldier. What kind of man is it who has only heard of the catastrophe in his marriage?
Ford was forty-second when The Saddest Story was published. The grandson of the painter Ford Madox Brown had grown up among the Pre-Raphaelites, a literary prodigy for whom writing was so easy that he was denied the great success for a long time. Ford, who never tired of imagining his own life, claims to have sat down on his fortieth birthday, December 17, 1913, to create a masterpiece, a masterpiece in the sense of the old craft, but according to the rules of modern art . He wanted to show what he could and put into practice those aesthetic theories that he had developed in collaboration with Joseph Conrad.
One of these theories was the belief that the writer writes with authority only about what he has experienced himself: he must be a man of action. "The saddest story" is an allegory and parody of this heroic legend by the artist. The narrator is the writer's doppelganger, who has to draw everything from his own experience, but has not experienced anything because his life is writing. Dowell, the American who lacks all the youthfulness of his people, is exactly the opposite of a man of action, inactivity in person or rather in non-person. Just as his friend Edward Ashburnham, who stole his wife, stands in his memory as the archetype of the virtues of the Christian knight, so he himself embodies the deadly sin of acedia, the indolence of the heart.
Grotesquely enough, in the course of the story, Dowell goes into the delusion that he himself is a man like Ashburnham, a man of action who is only lacking in drive. In the last chapter he admits, "that I loved Edward Ashburnham, that I love him because he was just like me. Had I had the courage and manhood, and if possible the constitution of Edward Ashburnham, I would have done about the same thing as I did he." Dowell never consummated his marriage because his wife played him with heart disease. Ashburnham replaced him in the marriage bed, doing what Dowell wanted to do, or more precisely what Dowell imagines he wanted to do. Ashburnham is Dowell's creature.
But can you believe this creation? Dowell describes his friend as a Don Giovanni, who could not help but protect unhappy girls, and yet this foolish Leporello assures us that the sex drive is overestimated. The reader, whom he occupies as a listener, would like to call out to him that he should not infer others from himself. But when Dowell closes in on others and discovers the womanizer in his chest who is only lacking courage, masculinity and constitution, then he makes himself even more ridiculous. It is impossible to take the narrator seriously and yet remain tied: this is Ford's feat.
Doubts about Dowell's statements are in order from the start, but an examination of those doubts is again referred to Dowell's report. One might think that Dowell's Pre-Raphaelite predilection for strong colors and dramatic confrontations puts things in the wrong light. But how do you want to differentiate between shape and deformation? The exaggerations are indications of a realism that can be impressed by things. Conrad and Ford set the program of an Impressionist novel against what they believed to be the tradition of the English novel: against the omniscient narrator who can do anything. "The saddest story" is of course not a record of sensory impressions, but of consciousness. Dowell literally recapitulates the story of his marriage and friendship with Edward Ashburnham, revisiting them, but in the light of what has come to his ears since the death of his wife and friend. He really had to hear his story because he didn't want to see it. Edward and Edward's wife Leonora finally told him about it.
Ford and Conrad wanted to recreate the "indefiniteness" of human experience, an indeterminacy and limitlessness for which the Olympic narrator has no eye. Dowell's memory is both overly sharp and fuzzy. His friends appear larger than life, like fairy tale characters. He falls back into the naivety of his innocent years and gives the events a sentimental contour. He tries to describe what made an impression on him: looks and gestures. He was blind because he saw: because even Edward Ashburnham's eyes bewitched him, he overlooked that they were directed at his wife. Dowell lived in a superficial world of convention where questions were superfluous. In retrospect, everything becomes a sign for him.
Hints and omens give the novel its tension. Ford considered the surprise to be the narrator's most important contrivance. He has made his business here as difficult as possible by revealing the basic lines of the melodramatic plot from the start: It is not the unexpected, but what is announced that must surprise. Like the "Elective Affinities", "The Saddest Story" is an open secret.
Since the reader soon knows what the story is going to be about, he may wonder if it is as sad as the narrator claims. Edward Ashburnham, a landowner and military officer, has a series of affairs that his Catholic wife, Leonora, tolerated for the sake of saving their marriage. He pretends to suffer from a heart disease, because spa stays are cheaper than living at home in a manner commensurate with his class. In Bad Nauheim he seduces another simulator under the eyes of her unsuspecting husband. Edward's relationship with Florence Dowell lasts nine years. When he turns to his foster daughter Nancy, his wife's niece, Florence kills himself. Leonora urges Nancy to surrender to Edward in order to save his life. Edward sends Nancy away and cannot say goodbye. When Edward receives a humorous telegram from Nancy, he cuts his throat. Nancy is going insane. Leonora is getting married again. John Dowell, the narrator, inherits Edward's house and watches over the crazy girl, the listener who doesn't understand a word.
So much futility is certainly terrible, but really sadder than, for example, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet? One wonders what stories Dowell heard if he thinks these are the saddest of all. That he knows Romeo and Juliet can be taken for granted, for he visited Verona with Florence, and there she must have told what, according to Dowell, was perhaps only the second saddest story under Juliet's balcony.
Because that's how she always kept it: In front of the sights, she gave lectures on the memorabilia whose memories are linked to these places. Florence is the great storyteller. She made a fool of her husband with the fairy tale of her heart disease, and he takes revenge on the dead woman by reviling her as a character made of paper who had as little real value as a banknote.
The picture is telltale: Dowell has never had to earn money, it is he who has no relation to reality. Florence at least knew how to get herself into circulation and hold her own in business until Edward saw her course. Seemingly the least executed figure, Florence is the only modern character among saints and fools. The bravado of Ford's impressionist and symbolist painting is the excursion that brings the Ashburnhams and the Dowells from Bad Nauheim to Marburg. Florence tells Edward the whole story of the world: she is the seductress, just as Ford described the writing profession as a commercial seduction. "For example, she told him the story of Hamlet, explained the structure of a symphony, hummed the first and second themes to him, and so on; she explained the difference between Arminians and Erastians, or gave him brief lessons in the early history of the United States."
There is nothing random about this curriculum. The fact that Edward does not know the story of Hamlet, while in all probability he has read Romeo and Juliet in at least a prose version, says everything about him: he is not pale by any thought, incapable of reflection, a survivor of the feudal age, the last knight. The early history of the United States is about a break with feudalism. However, according to Ford's diagnosis, the passions that drove medieval Europeans were replaced in America by an idealism that turned a blind eye to life. Dowell is beaten by this idealism, while for Florence it becomes capital: she invents herself, seeks her luck in speculation.
The Arminians are a school of theologians who defended human freedom against the traditional doctrine of original sin in the seventeenth century. They don't win in the novel. The novel is the world of John Dowell, who considers himself a born servant and cannot discover any traces of freedom in the actions of others. If one regards Dowell as the creator of his world, then one can see him with Graham Greene quite differently from the gracious lord, the meek observer, who does not even allow himself to be carried away to condemn human nature. Even the doctrine of original sin would be too Arminian for this lazy God, making too much fuss about freedom. Dowell's love belongs to Edward, who doesn't suddenly discover his conscience when he rejects Nancy's sacrifice, but remains true to his chivalric ideal. The suicide dies as a soldier and is well behaved, Edward, like Goethe's Eduard, is "outspoken, charitable, even brave in the fall".
Florence also explains the form of the symphony to Edward, because Ford and Conrad wanted to compose their novels like sonatas, without authoritative comments, purely from the conflict of voices and the intertwining of motifs. Her idol was Flaubert, the master conductor who doesn't make a sound himself. "The saddest story" has four parts. These are the movements of a Brahms symphony: work on the motifs continues throughout.
One might think that "the very saddest story" is also a story of the sad figure. The narrator jumps back and forth, following the whims of his memory. He never tires of complaining about the informality of his speech, and it only wandered off further. Ford was particularly proud of the technology of the time jump. The reality effect of this memory protocol is due not only to the simulation of the associative intellectual activity, but mainly to the incredibly dense thematic and motivic work beneath the confusing surface structure. As time jumps, it drops forward references and back references everywhere. One could take the comparison with music very far: appearance of formlessness and factuality of form, feeling and construction are mutually dependent. Impressionism, too, is perfected in expression.
"Much has been put into it", wrote Goethe about the "elective affinities" that "will prompt the reader to look again". That’s what Ford did. Dowell once compares a love that one grows tired of with a favorite book that eventually becomes boring. "It's sad, but that's the way it is. The pages of the book become commonplace; you curve around the beautiful street corner too often. Yes, that's the saddest story." But that is exactly not "The Saddest Story": It is a book that calls for a return.
A novel with an omniscient narrator of the English tradition restored the world order: reading such a book required completion. The first version of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" was called "First Impressions". The moral of the story: First impressions are to be mistrusted, they are to be corrected in the light of the mature judgment. John Dowell, on the other hand, formulates the rule of experience that "first impressions" are not deceptive. It is true that the empirical basis for this judgment is so ludicrously narrow that one would hardly want to set one's authority against Jane Austen's. In fact, he has to admit, he only dealt with waiters, maids, and the Ashburnhams, and in the case of the Ashburnhams he had no idea what to do with them.But the reader remains dependent on Dowell's impressions, fantastic as they are; other eyes are not available to him, no objective measure of knowledge or morality.
The first impressions the reader makes while reading the novel decide everything. Should he have pity on the talkative and sentimental man who cared for a very healthy heart patient, but who has a heart that is afraid of recovering? When the reader returns to this book again and again, it really tells the saddest story.
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