The Trees By Percival Everett

The Trees by Percival Everett, shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, is about the history of lynching and racist violence in America. The book imagines an ever-widening pattern of retribution for past atrocities. Trouble starts in the town of Money, Mississippi, investigated first by local law enforcement, then by Mississippi state police, finally by the FBI.

This sounds like tough subject-matter, and it is. But unexpectedly the book is very funny. Some of the dialogue, particularly amongst the denizens of Money, is hilarious. This incongruity is an introduction to the way the book challenges categories.

For example, there are categories of race, where bitter divides become increasingly meaningless:

Braden looked back at Dixie. “I heard tell that Dixie got a drop in her.”

“We all got a drop in us, you stupid peckerwood.”

Since humanity first evolved in Africa, this is undeniably true.

The trees of the book’s title are a symbol of lynching, in the sense that they were the site of these dreadful events. But trees also have very different connotations. The book uses the image of family trees to describe tangled patterns of relation that blur all kinds of apparent division, between black, white, rural racist, urban sophisticate, or whatever it might be. Family trees don’t suggest violent division so much as the links between us all.

What if a group sets out to avenge the awful behaviour of racists of the past, through retribution visited on their children or relatives? No doubt some of those relatives are just as bad as their lynching forebears, their true nature barely held in check. But family trees make it difficult to know where the limits of retribution should lie. Would you call a halt at grandchildren, nephews, nieces, or cousins three times removed? Where along the six degrees of separation does separation become wide enough? If retribution kept following family trees along every branch, would it end up coming back to the people who were abused in the first place? A hidden, mixed parentage of some of the characters, and the book’s shocking denouement, suggests this would be the case.

Actually the idea of a family tree could even link an entertaining, subtle, funny novel, to a highly sobering, uncompromising book about human relationships. The overall result is The Trees – funny, deadly serious, straightforward in its writing, highly sophisticated in its thematic structure, unsparing and humane.

The Ambassadors, By Henry James – A Symbol Of Home In A Foreign Land

An ambassador is a representative of home in a foreign country. The ambassador in this book is Lambert Strether, despatched by wealthy Mrs Newcome of Woollett, Massachusetts to track down her son Chad, whose year off in Paris, seems to have turned into a prolonged, and perhaps corrupting, residence. Mrs Newcome wants Chad to come back and face his responsibilities managing the family company. What the company produces is not entirely clear. It’s some kind of extremely mundane item, the nature of which Strether is hesitant to reveal. The ‘urinal cakes’ which made the fortune of Niles Crane’s social-climbing wife Maris, in Frasier come to mind. Anyway, if Strether can get Chad to return home to supervise continued profitable ‘urinal cake’ manufacture, the ambassador’s reward will be marriage to Mrs Newcombe.

Strether is at a difficult point in his life, in his mid 50s, a widower who has also lost his only son. His buttoned-down personality is a product of his background in wealthy, small-town America. Now, he finds himself in cosmopolitan Paris, trying to fulfil his mission with Chad, which turns out to be a lot more complicated than he bargained for. In the company of European friends, it transpires that Chad has not been corrupted, but improved. Strether comes to see that dragging the young man back to Woollett might not do him, or the people he has met, any favours. So what’s to be done? Helping him with this tricky question is a woman he met on the ship coming over, Maria Gostrey, and an old friend called Waymarsh. There is something relevant in the names of Strether’s companions – Gostrey, which is very close to ‘go astray’ – and Waymarsh, with its suggestion of a treacherous route through marshes on a misty evening. Maria Gostrey personifies the joy of wandering off the well-worn path, while Waymarsh is there to warn of the dangers.

Paris often serves as an enigmatic symbol of freedom for Americans. From Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, to Netflix’s Emily in Paris, Americans visit Paris to loosen up. The Ambassadors predates all these other American trips to the City of Light. It is true that Strether’s reach for Parisian freedom is nothing like Henry Miller’s in Tropic of Cancer. There are no tumultuous relationships with wild Russian aristocratic women, pursued in apartments where no housework gets done. Strether’s hotel suite is very tidy, and his wild behaviour is limited to eating tomato omelettes beside the Seine with charming lady companions, or – in a particularly beautiful section – taking a day-trip in the countryside near Paris. Nevertheless, within the tight confines of his life, I felt the joy of Strether’s unfamiliar liberty.

This book took me a long time to read. The prose is dense, the sentences long. I do have a tendency to try and get through a book so I can get on to the next one. With The Ambassadors I relaxed. When the library loan period elapsed, I renewed. Hanging around in early twentieth-century Paris, in a peaceful spring and summer before world wars, was lovely. If you think about it, any good book is ambassadorial. There has to be something unfamiliar and foreign about the book’s territory to tempt you to explore: and there has to be a feeling of home within its pages, to recognise and resonate with. You open a book hoping for all kinds of new experiences, and then head for the nearest embassy, or British bar or shop selling Heinz Baked Beans, or whatever it is that reminds you of your particular home. In this sense The Ambassadors is the perfect book. I enjoyed all aspects of it – from the exciting sense of travelling to new places, to the reassuring sense of recognising experience – that experience of the competing attractions of risk and security, the new and the old, which we all face in one way or another. This is the kind of book that takes you away, or brings you home, depending on your needs. In reality we need both. In providing both in such a neat diplomatic package, The Ambassadors is now one of my favourite novels.

Chums By Simon Kuper – How A Tiny Caste Of Oxford Tories Took Over The UK

In early 1983, as a diffident grammar school boy, I sat in a centuries old sitting room, beside a burbling open fire, enduring an interview for a place to study English at Oriel College, Oxford. I was muttering something about Shakespeare.

“You talk of Anthony and Cleopatra in a detached manner, Mr Jones,” said the languid interviewer. “Tell me, would you die for love?”

I didn’t get in.

At this point my fate diverged from that of the people who populate the pages of Chums, young men and women, mostly men, who attended Oxford in the 1980s and then went on to top jobs in government. Author, Simon Kuper, who was an Oxford undergraduate at that time, describes the background of these people, and how their university years influenced later careers.

The picture portrayed is not a pretty one. In many ways what happened to those youngsters during the 1980s haunts us now in the 2020s.

First, there’s the interesting historical background of the time, which tended to push forward entitled youths from a privileged background. The 1980s marked a reversal of the general trend to a more egalitarian society, which had been gathering pace from the 1940s to the 1970s. In 1979, British income inequality reached its lowest point ever recorded. Then Margaret Thatcher came along. Following the economic privations of the 70s, inequality widened again, the upper classes regained confidence, and started indulging in romantic fantasies about a lost Britain. Fittingly, a 1981 television production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was very popular. Young Jacob Rees Mogg, who was to enter Oxford’s Trinity College in the late 80s, even took to dressing up as an Edwardian gentleman.

This was the atmosphere into which Etonian Boris Johnson arrived at Oxford in 1983, the same year I was there for my interview. After getting accepted, Johnson and others like him spent their university years honing peculiarly British political skills, which involved treating politics as a game. The Oxford Union debating society is set up like the House of Commons chamber, though Union debates never result in real policies with real consequences. When not fantasy debating, the youngsters would have fun trying to get themselves elected to the few administrative positions on offer at the Union.

Many then took the idea of politics as a game into their subsequent parliamentary careers. Some commentators, like the academic George Steiner for example, feel that historically, a traditional lack of political seriousness has acted in a positive way, as a protection against extremism in Britain. On the other hand a lack of seriousness, and often basic administrative competence, can have disastrous consequences when something like a pandemic comes along. Then it is people who learnt their trade many years before amongst jolly japes of the Oxford Union, who have to coordinate a complex, society-wide response.

And that’s the overriding feeling of Chums – of people who have led protected lives, bringing about very painful and real consequences through their carelessness.

From a personal point of view, I think back to that interview and that rejection. The young men and women who got through tended to see themselves as chosen. Ironically, the story of Chums shows people caught up in the patterns of their time. They are not special – they are just living the lives that their history makes for them. And the special place they entered – well that’s riven by a constantly churning sense of who’s in or out. When those Oxford boys grew up, one set – Johnson, Gove and Cummings – supported leaving the EU, primarily as a means of taking revenge on another set – David Cameron’s remain Oxford boys, for a perceived sense of exclusion from the golden circle. The leavers, using their own frustrations as a starting point, played on that too common feeling amongst people in general that someone else has the power and prestige. Game players like Boris Johnson, imbued with fantasy visions of Britain’s past, messed around with the fire of nationalist sentiment, simply to further their ridiculous desire to climb the greasy pole as an end in itself. It was all part of a game, which had disastrous real world consequences, when a system of international cooperation which, as Kuper points out, had brought unprecedented prosperity to Britain, was torn apart.

There’s nothing very golden about the golden circle of the British establishment. I don’t know if it even exists when most of those in it seem to act out of a bitterness that they are supposedly excluded. That’s how I felt getting to the end of Chums. As I have long suspected, thinking in terms of whether you are in or out is not healthy. You are where you are, and it’s best to make that the place where you are meant to be.

Soul Music By Terry Pratchett – Compact Disc World

Soul Music is a Terry Pratchett novel, one of a series set in Discworld. This is a mythological vision of a society of humans, dwarves, elves and wizards, living on a flat disc planet balanced on the back of four elephants who are themselves standing on a turtle.

Discworld sounds like a strange and remote concept, consigned to the distant past. Nevertheless, there are many people who, with the help of YouTube, continue to believe in a flat Earth. More generally, people continue to struggle with new ideas coming up against old ways of thinking. With this in mind, you might say that Discworld can be a place to explore aspects of humanity’s historic, and current, world view. I admit, this might sound overly cerebral for a series of books famous for their humour. In the Soul Music instalment of the Discworld saga, we are told interlinking stories involving Death’s grand-daughter taking over his duties, and a group of musicians accidentally stumbling on rock music. Most of the plot might seem like an excuse to make punning references to various pop songs and musicians.

But beyond the jokey stuff, it is undeniable that this book deals with ambitious topics – things like life, death, the nature of the universe, and how people come to grips with matters beyond their comprehension. All this is quite something to take on. The difficulty involved in these themes can be compared to people living on what they think is a flat Earth trying to make the conceptual leap to seeing themselves living on a globe floating in endless space – and only having a comic novel with which to do it.

In this particular comic novel, a completely new type of music serves as an example of a challenge to how people think. Sometimes there are interesting, amusing and thought provoking results from collisions of world views. At other times, I was left confused by a mass of disjointed ideas and stretched metaphors. This was not helped by a lack of the usual conventions that orientate a reader, like chapters, or any kind of sign that you might be switching between different threads of the story.

Personally I don’t know if Soul Music can be considered wholly successful, since parts of it are so chaotic. But I still admired the basic Discworld idea, and the effort to take on topics that would humble any writer who, with a nod to Douglas Adams, works far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy on an utterly insignificant, blue-green planet orbiting a small, unregarded yellow sun.

Conversations With Friends By Sally Rooney

Late at night, after finishing a book the day before, I was flitting around the Kent e-library looking for something to read. I have this scheme – classic book alternating with recently published book. It was time for the recently published book, which is always more tricky to find than the classic.

Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends popped up on the ‘available now’ list. Her name was familiar – television productions of her novels came to mind.

I had a look. This accidental introduction turned out to be quite fitting for Conversations With Friends – which is about chaotic relationships, as narrated by Frances, a young woman studying ill-defined arty subjects at university in Dublin. Recently she has ‘broken up’ with childhood friend, and performance poetry partner, Bobbi, though they still hang out together all the time. A journalist called Melissa wants to do a profile on the poetry duo, which leads Frances into an affair with Melissa’s husband, Nick. This entanglement is on, then it’s off, then it’s on again. Meanwhile, Frances has hassles with finances, her family, psychological state, and health. She has high-falutin’ discussions about human relations with Bobbi who fashions herself as an aggressive left-wing intellectual. Bobbi considers marriage to be capitalism’s way of controlling people in the interests of money. Then Frances writes a story inspired by her unconventional love for Bobbi, which earns a handsome fee of 800 euros!

The book is written in an oddly plain style. There is minimal conventional punctuation – no speech marks. Paragraphs are split into blocks rather than bothering with indents – more like a blog than a novel. You also get the feeling that this lack of convention is carefully planned. This seemed part of the feeling that lack of convention can actually be conventional – as is the case with youngsters who think they are rebellious when in fact it is just normal to be young and rebellious.

This was a sometimes intense, sometimes flippant book about the way people live together. I was going to say it’s a ‘study’ of this subject, but that’s not the right word. For all the intellectual pretensions of the literary scene/university setting, the characters’ relationships refuse to be categorised or analysed, and kind of just happen in front of you.

Perhaps in the end, the relationship I found most interesting in the book was the one with the reader. While Frances, Nick, Melissa, Bobbi and the rest, dodge around each other, revealing or concealing this and that, Frances tells the reader everything, even things she keeps from her own mother. Sometimes I was thinking, ‘too much information, Frances’. Nevertheless, I was trusted to hear all of these revelations, like a best friend. And the irony is, this patient listener is unacknowledged, as though a relationship with an entirely absent reader is the only one where the narrator can be honest – which is typical of the contradictory way people interact in the book. The only person you can be truly honest with isn’t even there. Everyone else gets gradations of honesty.

Overall I would say this was a conversation that had its ups and downs, but ultimately came out as a very worthwhile chat

Young Lonigan By James T. Farrell – Sixty Seconds Worth Of Distance Run

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler suggests that stories may have evolved from fireside tales designed to help youngsters prepare for their first journeys out beyond the safety of the tribal hearth. Young Lonigan, published in 1932, is the first volume of James T. Farrell’s trilogy, about an Irish-American boy, William ‘Studs’ Lonigan, growing up in early twentieth century Chicago. It’s a story about a youth preparing to set out on the journey of adulthood. We begin in 1916, with Studs graduating from his Catholic elementary school, aged fourteen, and then follow him through the summer as he waits to go to high school in the autumn. Studs hangs around his local area trying to act tough while quietly thinking poetic thoughts inspired by nature and his sweetheart, Lucy. Sadly, Studs’ more sensitive side tends to fall out of view as the weeks pass. Finer feelings are stamped on by the influence of unsavoury friends. The future looks difficult for this young man.

We could ask whether, in the Writer’s Journey sense, there is help and advice on offer here. Is the book saying, for example, that you should live for the moment? The most beautiful scenes involve Studs simply appreciating his present moment, an ecstatic yet peaceful swim in Lake Michigan, and an afternoon sitting with Lucy up in the boughs of a tree in a Chicago park. However, despite Lake Michigan and the tree, the delayed consequences of eating all your sweets at once are very clear. ‘Advice’ about behaviour is similarly ambivalent. There is certainly no sense that the moral of the tale is that youngsters should behave well and do as they’re told. The values of all parents and authority figures in the book are suspect. Studs’ father has settled for a rather empty life, where sitting on his porch reading about violent crimes in the newspaper seems to be the highlight of his day. The Church is just a mess of hypocrisy and nonsense. There is one ‘cool dad’ who seems to understand and support young people – a Mr O’Brian. But he is really the worst role model of all, a disgusting, racist bigot. He is only popular with the boys because he would rather encourage their prejudices than challenge them. Far better advice comes from one of Studs’ contemporaries, the lovely Helen Shires, a tomboy who sees the best in her friend and tries to warn him where his choices might take him. So, if we can’t say the book advises good behaviour and respect for our elders, is it advising that the young overthrow convention? Once again the answer is no. The fighting and petty crime with suggestions of graduating on to more major crime, gives no sense that defying convention is the right course. Besides, defying convention in one sense is to be highly conventional in another. Rebellious youth might seem to challenge social pressure to conform, only to find itself bowing to the equally malign forces of peer pressure.

What then does a young person, or any reader, take from this? I think they might take a feeling that life is not about simple answers and advice. You have to plan for the future and yet live for today. You have to be yourself, follow your own instincts, and yet respect the views of others. As Kipling says in If, his poem of advice to a young man, you have to trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too. As in If, the only consistency in the advice of Young Lonigan lies in its continued contradictions. And if that lesson seems complicated, well that’s often the way it is with lessons.

And if you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run
Then yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And - which is more - you’ll be a Man my son

A Wrinkle In Time By Madeleine L’Engle – Dr Who Meets The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe

A Wrinkle In Time is a science fiction book by Madeleine D’Engle, published in 1962. Winner of the Newbury Medal, it is famous in sci-fi circles for being one of the first books that might be classified as ‘young adult’, and also for its treatment of complex themes involving science and spirituality. I thought it was time to take a look.

The plot involves a group of children and interplanetary travellers, using wrinkles in space time to move around the universe, fighting a vaguely defined enemy called The Black Thing.

Reading the book made me think of both Dr Who, and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. The Dr Who elements were creaky sets, clunky creatures, frequently dodgy dialogue, combined with interesting ideas. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe came to mind in the not very subtle Christian theme.

So ignoring the creaky sets, clunky creatures and dodgy dialogue, let’s have a look at the book’s more complex aspects. Scientific concepts of travelling in space by bending space time are nicely explained. Then there are the more philosophical questions about dealing with life’s difficulties. The book presents various trials and tribulations, ranging from a girl getting picked on at school right up to dark forces threatening the universe. But then we are invited to imagine what life would be like if there were no troubles at all. The space travellers visit a distant planet where a disembodied brain regulates everything, including how little boys bounce balls. On this planet nothing goes wrong, there’s no doubt about what will happen next, and there are no painful decisions to make. And yet the resulting regimented society is hardly depicted as one in which you might want to live. In this context doubts and troubles are maybe not so bad. I was once again reminded of Dr Who – with that message that, hey kids, life may be confusing, and there’s no one to help you except an eccentric, oddly dressed English person with a sonic screwdriver and a space ship that looks like a defunct police phone box; but it’s better than marching about with the Daleks or the Cybermen.

So the ideas are interesting, though I became uneasy when they moved into more overtly religious territory. At one point a friendly alien tries to explain about an unseen, helpful force. After saying something about stars and light, the alien gives up and declares:

“Oh my child I cannot explain. This is just something you have to know or not know.”

The alien is not saying that a few more years at school, or even greater alien intelligence, would allow understanding of the subject under discussion. Okay, I accept that there are things that might be incomprehensible to me – lots of things actually. I had a rough ride with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and don’t mind admitting it. However, lack of understanding is different to saying that something is impossible to understand, and you just know about it or you don’t. That’s what’s called blind faith. Thinking about it, this is the resort of a certain type of leader we’ve seen much of lately, the type who wants to evade facts, because they are not helpful to the image of infallibility they wish to portray. If an alien came to me with claims of an authority that was impossible to challenge with pesky facts, then I, even as a mere earthling who had a tough time with Steven Hawking, would be suspicious.

Overall A Wrinkle In Time was an intriguing read, though, for me, more as an historical artefact than a book I really enjoyed. Its heart might have been in the right place, but my view of it was mixed.

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather By Sarah Pinsker – The Dark Side Of Textual Analysis

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather is a short story by Sarah Pinsker which, after appearing in Uncanny Magazine in 2021, went on to win the Nebula and Hugo awards for best short story.

This is a quirky piece, recreating an on-line message board for folk music fans, who are discussing a (fictional) English folk song called Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather. They consider the song in a number of different ways. There’s the categorisation approach, listing the various acts who have recorded the song – a list which delightfully includes Steeleye Span, Dolly Parton and The Grateful Dead – and the different versions each act performed. There’s the field research approach where a young student tries to find the actual village where the song might have been written, teasing out references to local landmarks. And then there’s the analytical approach where contributors consider metaphorical and allegorical angles, and get made fun of by Barrowboy, who keeps marking their posts as ‘a stretch’.

The thing about the song Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather, is the way the literal and the metaphorical collide. Hearts of oak is a familiar term, referring to bravery and resolution. But this song presents metaphor as reality. A creepy young woman seems to be ensnaring young men, removing their hearts, which she puts in a hollow oak tree, while placing an acorn in the chest where a heart used to be. So an unfortunate young man has a literal heart of oak. Not surprisingly he doesn’t last long in this state, and completely freaks out the local villagers, who execute the part-man-part-tree, before chopping down every oak they can find.

What, the contributors wonder, is this song all about? Is it about forest management, or the pain of love? However, recall the literalness in the song. The folk fan discussion mentions a professor who visited the village where the song might have been written, before vanishing. The young student contributor who follows in the professor’s footsteps by visiting the village, also seems to disappear. Members of the group comment that their field researcher has stopped posting, and emails to him bounce back. You’re thinking, has the creepy woman really got hold of a student and replaced his heart with an acorn! And then you think, hang on, that’s a stretch. Why did I even consider that?

So, maybe this whole piece is about interpretation. Confined to a folk music message board, it seems a rather niche discussion. But in a wider sense, you could easily suggest that naïve interpretations of old texts have caused real problems. Were some villagers persuaded to do something silly by misinterpreting an old song, just as literal interpretation of religious works, has led people down some highly unfortunate garden paths, where they continue to wander to this day? And yet is cataloguing a few relevant facts the only thing we can ever reasonably do with a text? Obviously there is more to talk about than that. Where does the point come where metaphor meets life in a real way?

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather is a fascinating, funny, unsettling and oddly moving study of textual interpretation, and how that esoteric activity, seemingly only of interest to a few enthusiasts on a message board, or in a seminar room at a university, is actually relevant outside those places too.

The Detectorists – Television Alchemy

The Detectorists is a BBC series which ran from 2014 to 2017, winning a BAFTA in 2015. I have just caught up with it. If you haven’t seen the series and want to avoid spoilers, watch first before reading on.

Written by Mackenzie Crook, the show tells the story of a group of metal detector enthusiasts, or ‘detectorists’ as they are more properly known, who pursue their hobby in the fictional town of Danebury in northern Essex.

The show is charming in its portrayal of a group of people who are looking for something. That something is ostensibly a gold hoard, the ultimate dream of a detectorist. In reality, the elusive ‘something’ they look for is bigger than gold. For example, there’s the feeling that the very act of searching through lovely countryside with friends is valuable in itself. In fact, focusing too much on gold as the end point can push the value it represents further away. Treasure hunters, who will do anything to find what they are looking for – known as night hawks – are the villains of the metal detector world.

After many days of finding ring pulls, buttons, old metal coat hangers, bits of scrap metal; after a day or two of actually finding gold and suffering the disappointment of discovering it does not bring the happy ever after; and after competitive detectorists come together as friends at a sunny afternoon rally where they all enjoy themselves, the mythic hoard still remains elusive. Our dreamers shoulder their detectors and start to walk away, looking forward to an evening at the pub. But there is something in their shouldering of arms which suggests this isn’t the end of the story. Before they begin a search, the detectorists tend to hold their detectors in the air, as a kind of salute. And at the end of a session, there is another inversion, pointing their devices upwards, in the opposite direction to where they would normally expect to find what they seek. And it is from this direction that reward seems to finally come. The story ends with a mischievous group of magpies appearing to acknowledge the detectorists for developing a better sense of value. These birds have been taking shiny gold coins from an old Roman hoard, and depositing them high in the boughs of a tree, above the field where the final detector rally is held. Right at the end of the closing episode, when it seems the rally hasn’t turned up the hoped-for great discovery, and no one really minds – at that point the magpies throw their gold coins to the ground.

The Detectorists is a heart-warming series, funny, gentle and thoughtful, suggesting there are as many ways to find gold as there are days to search for it. You can even find it watching television.

The Good Soldier By Ford Maddox Ford – A Good Soldier On A Bad Day

The Good Solider, by Ford Maddox Ford, published in 1915, sits you down beside a cottage fireside, where quiet American millionaire, John Dowell tells you ‘the saddest story I have ever heard’. This is the story of Dowell’s relationship with his wife Florence, and a couple they meet at a German health spa, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Outwardly it’s all properness and polite chit chat, as might be expected in the presence of three powerful social drivers towards orderly conduct – John’s old-money wealth, Edward’s position as a British army officer, and Leonora’s Catholicism.

But beneath the respectable surface there’s complete chaos. Where to start? Just to give you a flavour of what lurks beneath – Florence pretends to be an invalid, so that she gets the material benefits of a marriage with John Dowell, without the downside of a physical relationship with him. While Dowell acts as a dutiful husband, looking after an apparently sick wife, Florence continues to indulge her sensual tastes with raffish artists or burly Army officers, like Edward Ashburnham. And Edward, as well as pursuing an affair with Florence, has relationships with other women at the spa, wives of fellow officers, and the Spanish mistress of a grand duke. Dowell describes the whole, sorry history in a fittingly rambling, conversational, non-chronological style where it’s difficult to get a clear idea of what’s going on.

At first, I might have been thinking that Ford Maddox Ford had set himself a little challenge – take conventions or institutions that people associate with order and reduce them to a pile of smouldering rubble. 1915 was a tumultuous time. Religious certainties were falling away with the advance of science. Society was convulsed by a terrible world war. In this context, it might not be surprising if a writer decided to build a novel around traditional pillars of respectable behaviour, and then demolish them.

Assuming total destruction was the aim, and an aim well-achieved, what is there left to do as you stand in the smoking ruins? I suppose the only thing left would be to rebuild. And there is a kind of moral reconstruction in The Good Soldier. While the story is very much about good things hiding rottenness, it’s also about apparently rotten things hiding virtue. Edward’s conduct might not appear becoming, but his carry-ons stand in contrast to the Catholic outlook on relationships, where ‘being married or not married is like being alive or dead’. In the face of such fundamentalism, Edward can seem sympathetically human.

I found myself recalling a few lines from Oscar Wilde:

“A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law and yet be fine.”

Oscar Wilde, of course, served time in prison for a crime that, outside totalitarian or religiously fundamentalist countries, no longer exists. A crime which might not be a crime is an apt description of the moral world of The Good Soldier. The confusion is painful, but if we are looking for something good to come out of moral collapse, I would suggest that Ford Maddox Ford, while not promoting a 1960s free-love, tune-in, drop-out society, does present confusion as being a more likely source of tolerance and justice than blind certainty. Secular literature is characteristically more about questions than answers, and after reading The Good Soldier you might find yourself tending more towards forgiveness than judgement.