I tried to read this novel a few years ago but couldn’t get into it. Last month, I watched a film version and discovered that the story is much more interesting than it first appeared.
The first line of the novel is justly famous (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”). I didn’t think it was as sad as that. It is the story of two couples who meet at a sanitarium around 1905. Their lives intertwine over the next ten years or so. There are love affairs and deaths. Mainly, there is the voice of the narrator, telling the story as if he were sitting in a cottage before a fire with the night wind howling outside (that’s how he describes his method).
He is the husband in one of the couples, relating events that he didn’t understand at the time. He confesses that he doesn’t know much about the world. His story jumps around, eventually revealing who was in love with who, who was being misled, and who was terribly unhappy.
The narrator is often confused and unreliable, but not always:
“Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people — like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords — broken, tumultuous, agonised, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?”
“Mind, I am not preaching anything contrary to accepted morality. I am not advocating free love in this or any other case. Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly-deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and to madness. But I guess that I myself, in my fainter way, come into the category of the passionate, of the headstrong, and the too-truthful… He (the “good soldier”) seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance.” (5/10/12)