I am reading The Good Soldier just in time for Christmas. The opening line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” told me I was in the right place. I always read sad books around Christmas. I had to stop reading The Book of Negroes at Christmas time a few years ago. I was cozied up in a cafe drinking hot chocolate and all I had brought with me was the worst boat trip ever.
I don’t explicitly plan on reading sad books at Christmas. I listen to the Christmas radio station all day and watch the same Christmas movies every year. I love feeling wrapped up in Christmas. Still, I can’t get myself to read to Christmas.
Ford Madox Ford’s book isn’t sad, really. It’s a character study, done by a man who just lately realized he hated his wife. It’s one of those books that starts with the description of a character who isn’t the protagonist. I love starts of books that do this, immediately admitting that the most interesting character isn’t going to be you. It’s why Nick Carraway voiced The Great Gatsby. It’s showing us Robert Cohn at the opening of The Sun Also Rises. It’s what Hemingway does in most of his books: he takes a back seat to better admire what he wants everyone to look at.
I just the other day shifted my first chapter so it could do the same. It won’t be that exact formula, as I no longer have a first person narrator (it became evident a few months ago that she couldn’t tell a story), but it starts with a character description. It starts with Gil, because it has become clear from my obsession with him that he is the most interesting character in the book. I am obsessed with him because I don’t understand him.
That’s what drives character-driven books. The need to look at someone closer, in only the way a novel can. My book is about the girl who hates Gil because she should love Gil and really needs Gil. This begs the question: why Gil? Why does he have this horrible name I now can’t change because that’s now just his name? Why is he so slimy but also so good, so so good?
I suppose my book is also the saddest book ever. It’s a love affair, and love affairs are the saddest things I know.
“But the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported. For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. … We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.”
-Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
They’re also the most important. If a love affair can “cut asunder difficulties” – or renew courage, or assure a worthiness to exist – then shouldn’t we be writing about love affairs and only love affairs? Shouldn’t the Romance section of Indigo be the most important? For Whom the Bell Tolls is my favourite war story, and it’s basically only a love story with a bridge explosion.
There was a point about six years ago that coincided with my first viewing of the musical-turned-movie Rent when I realized that Christmas, for everyone not a child, is about romance. So maybe the saddest story, the saddest love story, is completely appropriate for this time of year.
I leave you with a link to the story my family reads every Christmas Eve, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. I guess from a young age I should have realized it: Christmas is about falling in love with love.