I am a huge fan of E.M. Forster’s novels, in particular Howard’s End, which I think is one of the more perfect books I have ever read. I’ve been catching up on his short stories, written (mostly?) early in his career, the most striking of which is his surprising foray into Science Fiction with “The Machine Stops.” You don’t think of the author of A Room with a View as having written Science Fiction, but there it is: Forster’s thought experiment into a future state of humanity where people have isolated themselves in honeycomb cells beneath the surface of the earth where all their needs are met by the press of a button. The inhabitants amuse themselves by giving and listening to lectures. There is a scathing critique of the academic veneration of citing sources, the more the better, as one’s authority:
Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote. And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. "Beware of first- hand ideas!" exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. "First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element - direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine - the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the scepticism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain…
It is essentially an argument against the tendency of the intellect to prize abstraction over real experience, which comes out in other Forster short stories and his early novels, such as Longest Journey and A Room with a View, although here he handles the same theme with more subtly. Unfortunately D.H. Lawrence was starting to write not long after, and he takes this idea of the primacy of physical experience to a degree that would have appalled Forster’s more refined sensibilities. Stephen in Longest Journey, to me, reads like a prototype sketch for Oliver Mellors in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. The problem I have with it is that I think the premise is essentially flawed, in the same way that I have little patience with Tolstoy’s veneration of the peasant life (contrast this with the peasant woman who has taken on the characteristics of the animals she has tended all her life in Flaubert’s Madam Bovary). I can appreciate that Forster and Lawrence were reacting to a repressed culture they found stultifying, but I don’t believe that living close to the land, sleeping out at night under the stars, or running naked through the woods, make for an ideal, thriving, happy man. It may be vivifying and get the fidgets out if you have spent too much of your life in an English drawing room, but I think the emphasis on bodily experience ought to be balancing, rather than a way of being an end in itself.
Most of Forster’s short stories center around bright young hero/heroines who look like precursors to Ricky Elliot and (more importantly) Lucy Honeychurch for whom there is an in-breaking of some fantastical experience (usually from classical mythology, but it could be a celestial omnibus, or stepping through a hedge into Eden) that is impossible to communicate to their straight-laced, traditional world. The stories are interesting as thought-experiments, but I find them less powerful than his later novels in which contact with others (of a different culture, or class) is the “alien” element that jars the sensitive person out of complacency. In the short stories the protagonists seem unable to reconcile the different worlds and fall back in on themselves, so to speak. In the novels, the protagonists are changed and forced to make new choices that reverberate throughout their social surroundings.
Aspects of the Novel
I greatly enjoyed reading Forster’s 1927 lectures on English literature, now collected under the heading, Aspects of the Novel. Like most of Forster’s writing, the tone is elegant and witty in a way that makes you go back and read sentences again, and it is a marvelously enjoyable read for this alone. Forster has a unique approach – at least one I haven’t seen before – in which he asks his audience to temporarily forget historicity and imagine all the authors of English literature seated at a round table, writing side-by-side at the same time. He then selects and compares unlikely “pairs” (Samuel Richardson and Henry James, H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens, Lawrence Sterne and Virginia Woolf), quoting a paragraph from each to show similarities that apparently transcend period setting. I found Forster’s discussion of the uses of “flat” and “round” characters and his distinction between “story” and “plot” to be interesting. He is also very good at articulating what it is about certain novelists that one senses by gut: why Jane Austen is brilliant, why Dostoevsky’s writing has more depth than George Eliot’s.
One curious piece is his brief discussion of Proust’s work, the final volume of which had yet to be translated and released at the time of the lectures. He mentions that some people expected it would finally, stunningly, tie up all the loose ends and draw together the themes of the previous books, but Forster (correctly) prognosticates “…it will be surprising if we have to revise our opinion of the whole book. The book [as a whole] is chaotic, ill-constructed, it has and will have no external shape; and yet it hangs together because it is stitched internally, because it contains rhythms.”
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I recently finished Wendy Moffat’s biography (2011) of E.M. Forster, which was fascinating. Forster strikes me as such a beautiful person, even though he struggled with his repressive background and emerging homosexual identity. Many other people would have been warped by this, but Forster managed to come out somehow as an exceptional gentle, clear-headed, thoughtful person. He was able to translate his own yearnings for authenticity (what Moffat calls “the tug-of-war between propriety and personal freedom”) into Lucy, and Margaret, and, of course, Maurice. He was passionate about connecting with other people, particularly those of a different class or race. Writing to his Muslim Indian friend Masood about World War I, he said, “All one can do in this world of maniacs is to pick up the poor tortured broken people and try to mend them” (Moffat, A Great Unrecorded Life: A New Life of E.M. Forster, p 125).
One of the most fascinating things to me about Forster is that he wrote practically everything he is known for (except Maurice, which was published posthumously due to its content) by the time he was 30, with Passage to India following 14 years later, but he lived into his early 90s, so most of his biography is not, in fact, about his writing, even though he is best known as a writer, which makes for an interesting story. My own sense is that, as Mr. Beebe says, "If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays [the piano], it will be very exciting both for us and for her” (A Room with a View, Ch. 3), and that Forster found a way to do just that.