Thursday, July 7, 2011

E. M. Forster = Big Fat Dope

Last week I re-read E.M. Forster's classic set of lectures on literature, Aspects of the Novel. In general, I like what Forster had to say about writing. But he talks, in his chapter on "Rhythm and Pattern," at some length about Henry James (using as his example the very James novel I'm reading now, The Ambassadors). Forster says that he admires James' use of language and James' formal control over his story, but James' novels always leave him cold because they are so controlled that they become almost inhuman, all about the form and the language and there's no beating heart under it all. Forster claims that, in order to read a Henry James novel, you must first accept that all human life has been removed from the narrative. When I was reading Forster's book, I was almost convinced he was right and that I should put away my James lest it poison my delicate artistic sensibilities.

Today at lunch I spent more time with The Ambassadors. And you know what? E.M. Forster was an idiot. The chapter I just read was amazing and human and funny and warm and is what a good novel should be. You can see a real emotional crisis about to explode for the protagonist, and you know that he can't see it coming. That's dramatic tension, right at the hinge between the second and third act. Just like you get in any E. M. Forster novel. So. There we are. Hurrah for art. I might also add that all of James' short stories and novellas are fabulous and rich and perhaps Forster just had no patience for James' long strands of fine observation. But Forster's impatience does not make Henry James cold and inhuman. It's worth noting that Forster admires D.H. Lawrence, and his novels were clearly influenced by the novels of Henry James (Forster claims Melville as Lawrence's primary influence, which is interesting but I think mistaken). I also pause to note that Virginia Woolf (whom I quite adore) couldn't stand Henry James, but her "interior" novels come hard on the heels of what James was doing. Woolf's problem (and, I think, Forster's as well) has to do with a dislike of the lower classes. Neither Woolf nor Forster understood the working classes or the poor, and while both of them were deeply interested in the life of the mind, I think they had definite ideas about what the mind contained, whereas James had more curiosity than preconceived notions. James' curiousness, his centipede-burrowing-through-a-dictionary way with words and his constantly provisional characterizations all probably meant nothing to his English critics.


  1. Now, that was uncalled for. E. M. Forster was just big boned.

  2. Or, possibly, the camera just added ten pounds. I'm being a bit hard on Eddie and it has to do--to be painfully honest--with ideas about my own fiction as much as it has to do with defending old Hank.

  3. I recently read a contemporary of Forster's - Edwin Muir, The Structure of the Novel, 1928 - who openly mocks Aspects of the Novel in a way that may not have been so good-natured, and then there's this oddly placed intrusion in Maugham's Cakes and Ale.

    I really need to read that Forster book. People have so much fun with it!

    On a narrower point, I will bet that Forster is mistakenly transforming Lawrence's influential treatment of Melville in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) into "M.'s influence on L."

  4. I'll have to get my hands on the Muir. I like Forster (well, I like A Passage To India) and he had some interesting things to say about writing. The stuff that seemed off the mark didn't bother me until that final chapter when he had a go at James. The best thing about Aspects of the Novel, perhaps, is its brevity and easy availability.

    The Cakes and Ale digression made me laugh.

    You're dead right about Forster taking Lawrence's two studies of Melville as a mark of greater influence than they seem to be if you actually read the authors in question. Though maybe there's some of Bartleby in Women in Love, I don't see much Moby-Dick. I'll be reading Sons and Lovers later this year, so maybe I'll change my tune then.

    Thanks so much for commenting. I missed the Ubu readalong, but Jarrey's still on my TBR stack, rapidly approaching the top of it.

  5. I'm not sure if you caught this one:


  6. Here's a link to the 30 harshest author-on-author quotes in history:

    I like this pair:

    15. William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway

    “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

    14. Ernest Hemingway on William Faulkner

    “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

  7. Tara Maya: That's funny; two birds with one stone! I always hated that song anyway.

    Rick: Bill and Ernie were two great writers who completely misunderstood each other while seeking more or less the same goal, of showing the tragedy of existence (yes, I just said "tragedy of existence" but I haven't had my coffee yet this morning so you must forgive me the cliche). Why can't we all just get along?

    Or, in a Faulkneresque scenario, they could've had a duel to settle matters like gentlemen: Pulitzers at ten paces!

  8. Ah, the fun of authors jabbing at other authors...truly never gets old. :)

  9. I have that book by Forster, time I dug it up and read it!

  10. I like the way Forster describes D.H. Lawrence as breaking all the furniture when you invite him into your parlor. That's just how his writing is.

  11. Your comment on the "lower classes" and how Forster did not understand the working class or the poor is terribly off the mark. When did Henry ever write about the poor or working class? Never. Forster at least attempted to deal with the wider world beyond the drawing room.

    1. If you read the post again, you'll see that I commented on Virginia Woolf's lack of understanding of the working classes. I said no such thing about Forster.

    2. Oh no, wait: I did lump Forster in with Woolf in that remark. Well, I don't know. That was five years ago, after all. My memories of Forster's novels are quite dim; he never made much of an impression on me. There was that clerk in Howard's End, though.

    3. I'm forgetting A Passage to India. That's a great novel, really top-notch stuff. Forster shows a clear awareness of class distinctions there; not just between the English and the Indians, but also (if I remember correctly) among the English characters.