E. M. Forster delivered the Clark lectures at Cambridge University in 1927; these were published that same year under the title Aspects of the Novel, and still enjoy influence even in our postmodern era. Eighty years later, in 2007, the same lecture series was delivered by Frank Kermode, who at ninety years of age continues to be the best literary critic in England. In honor of this eightieth anniversary, Kermode chose Forster as his subject for the Clark lectures, and his thoughts can now be read in Concerning E. M. Forster, the published version of the talks.
Both Forster and Kermode held fellowships at King’s College, Cambridge, but, as Kermode points out, the routes by which they made their way there were very different, the contrast being illustrative of the growing professionalization of academia, and particularly of literary studies, after the Second World War. The upper-middle-class Forster was admitted to King’s as an undergraduate at the end of the Victorian era; he went on, as everyone knows, to a distinguished literary career and, in 1946, was offered an Honorary Fellowship and a home at the college, where he resided from 1953 until his death in 1970. Kermode, born exactly forty years after Forster, went the red brick route, graduating from Liverpool University in 1940. He went on to teach at Newcastle, Reading, Manchester, and Bristol Universities and University College, London, before accepting a chair at Cambridge and his own fellowship at King’s—“a grammar school boy,” as he says, “making a belated appearance on this very different scene at the possibly inflexible age of fifty-four.”
Dissimilar backgrounds, yes; but Kermode clearly feels a profound affinity with Forster and a sympathy with his view of life. Not that these lectures exactly constitute a paean; Forster, Kermode remarks,
irritates readers [himself included] who nevertheless feel obliged in the end, to do him honor. I think that’s right, and will pay the debt of honor without ceding my right to some bouts of irritation… . There are reasons for dissentient judgments and some of these I shall try to express. To do so may, in the end, be a way of paying more tribute, for the causes of irritation may well be closely related to the causes of admiration.
I should admit right up front that Forster is one of those writers about whom I find it almost impossible to be objective. I came upon him in my late teens, an extremely impressionable time of life, and he opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing and feeling and believing, simultaneously more idealistic and more wise than what I had known before. He was one of those great liberators that some of us are fortunate enough to encounter at a formative moment: yes, life is like this, he seemed to say, but it need not be. Human institutions are arbitrary, and they can be changed. Forster’s novels are imbued with what Kermode rightly qualifies as “something he called religion”; it is certainly not religion as most people would define it, nor even spiritualism, which it sometimes resembles, but a reminder of life’s hidden but ever-active undercurrents and the respect that must be paid to them—what Virginia Woolf spoke of as Forster’s “combination of realism and mysticism” mixed, I would say, with a powerful ethical vision.
A lifelong artist, Forster nevertheless valued life over art, and he came down firmly on H. G. Wells’s side in his famous debate with Henry James on the point and purpose of the novel. “What repelled him in James,” Kermode writes, “was the lack, as Forster saw it, of solidity and of character, and the preoccupation with what James took to be the art of fiction, with ‘pattern,’ what James would call ‘the doing’—a fanatical attachment to the treatment of the subject rather than to the material Forster regarded as the basic novelistic substance, the rendering of bourgeois life.” “He seems to me our only perfect novelist,” Forster drily remarked of James, “but alas, it isn’t a very enthralling type of perfection.” The particular problems James set himself—such as, with What Maisie Knew, telling a story entirely from one character’s very limited point of view—Forster dismissed as mere technical exercises; if a change in viewpoint enriches a narrative, then why not use it?
That Forster thought War and Peace the world’s greatest novel, and that James thought it a mess, should come as no surprise. The technical self-consciousness that overtook the novel during Forster’s lifetime, the sense in which novels came to be “about” themselves as much as their subjects, did not much interest him, and he could be quite dismissive of contemporaries like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. (“He was in his seventies when the nouveau roman appeared on the scene,” Kermode says, “so his age would probably have cancelled any obligation to look into it, not that he was likely to have felt one.”) He deplored the modernist preoccupation with formalistic concerns over actual subject matter: “So marriage,” he complained, “love, friendship, family feuds, social nuances, lawsuits about property, illegitimate children, failures on the stock exchange—all the products of liberalism, in fact, all essentially the subject matter of Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, Arnold Bennett—don’t serve the modern novelist so well. He doesn’t even find death very useful.”
If all this makes Forster sound like an Edwardian relic, recall that the opposite was the case. Politically on the left, he was socially something approaching a libertarian: the ideal of personal liberty was sacred to him, hence all authority automatically suspect. While the anti-homosexuality laws in effect throughout most of his life did not warp his fiction (with the exception of his “gay” novel Maurice, unpublishable during his lifetime, the only novel he wrote that was really no good), they did put an early end to his career, by his own admission: all six of his novels were finished by 1924, though he lived on until 1970. As early as 1911, he was suffering from “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa.” This weariness eventually stopped him writing novels, though he had proved with A Passage to India, his last, that in fact he could move far above and beyond this subject.
Speaking of A Passage to India, Kermode says that he believes this book “without reservation or equivocation to be his greatest.” I was not persuaded of this before reading these lectures, and, though I have always loved A Passage to India, I was not convinced by his arguments. Personally, I have always found that The Longest Journey, while not perhaps what one might call a “great” novel, still contains the purest essence of Forsterism, and I was gratified to read here that this was, in fact, Forster’s own opinion: it was, he wrote, “the least popular of my five novels [he was not including Maurice] but the one I am most glad to have written. For in it I have managed to get nearer than elsewhere towards what was in my mind—or rather towards that junction of mind and art where the creative impulse sparks” To this day, The Longest Journey remains relatively unknown, possibly because it is the only Forster novel not to have been turned into a movie. (James Ivory, take note.) Of the five films, by the way, only Howards End comes anywhere near to capturing that Forsterian essence; the others, by turns heavily didact- ic (Maurice), clunkily comic (A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread), or cheezily mystical (A Passage to India) cannot approach the author’s subtle touch.
Perhaps the author is simply too subtle for our age, which prefers packaged and delivered “messages.” Just what is A Passage to India about, anyway? What is its message? Kermode quotes Edward Said, who predictably took hold of the wrong end of the stick: “the novel’s helplessness,” Said complained, “neither goes all the way and condemns (or defends) British colonialism, nor condemns or defends Indian nationalism,” and he concludes that the book “founders on the undodgeable facts of Indian nationalism.” Kermode responds to this in the only way possible, pointing out that
one sees why he reached this conclusion, but it is wrong all the same, failing to understand how it can be that, caught in this dilemma, the book still does not founder, is difficult in some of the ways India is difficult, and, like India, can on occasion be menacingly foreign as well as strange and beautiful.
It is not about colonialism, that is, though colonialism is certainly one of its subjects.
The one thing everyone seems to know about Forsterian values is the mantra “only connect,” but, as Kermode points out, he did not always “connect” so well himself, either in his fiction or in his life:
In general he saw the poor as different from “us,” unless they qualified as boys who might be available for sex or were Italian peasants or Indians, and he had no real understanding of them. Of course that goes also for women.
A treasured friend and mentor to many, still he had an undeniably bitchy side. Percy Lubbock, who knew him for years, taunted him: “It’s really too funny your becoming the holy man of letters. You’re really a spiteful old thing. Why haven’t people found you out, and run you down?” All too true, as a perusal of Forster’s biography and correspondence bears out. Yet the impression he and his work left behind, the “message” if you will, is overwhelmingly one of love, of tolerance, of connection. Hardly innocent of the prejudices of his class and his sexual orientation, he still managed to transcend them. If there is any writer of the last hundred years who more richly deserves the title “humanist,” I cannot think of one.
Brooke Allens latest book is Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Ivan R Dee)
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