E.M. Forster (1879–1970)

Two years ago, a young American writer living in London remarked to me how wonderful he thought it was to be living at a time when E. M. Forster was alive. Believing that Forster, though almost ninety, would still be pleased at such recognition, I arranged for the young writer to visit him at his Cambridge rooms so imaginatively provided by the Fellows of King’s, his old college. Afterward my American friend told me that in the course of their conversation, Forster had inquired whether he had ever been to Greece: to which he replied no, that it seemed impossible (on account of those Colonels) to go now. Forster said:

One recalls instants in Greece which were beautiful though the country even then was embedded in muck. Somehow one’s dearest memories are of situations which, if one saw them in a wider context, were always in muck.

There is a lot of Forster in this answer: his insistence always on the muddle and confusion enclosing moments of vision. He gave only two cheers for democracy, which was nevertheless worth dying for. It also throws light on something which struck everyone who knew Forster well: that at any moment—almost to the very end—he seemed to speak out of his whole life. The world-renowned writer, returned to his college at the end of his life, still spoke with the voice of the Cambridge undergraduate of 1900. Although his novels steadily improved, essentially they express the same values and attitudes as do his essays. He said to me once that he didn’t attach importance to writers “developing,” having early, middle, and last periods, etc.

Like Fielding in A Passage to India, Forster traveled light, living for the greater part of his life in his mother’s house, acquiring no family of his own and few possessions, needing money so little that when late in life he had some, he counted it as his luck that he was able to give most of it to his friends. He was of by no means striking appearance, as an unsurpassable description by William Plomer indicates:

Incurious fellow passengers on a train, seeing him in a cheap cloth cap and a scruffy waterproof, and carrying the sort of little bag that might have been carried in 1890 by the man who came to wind the clocks, might have thought him a dim provincial of settled habits and taken no more notice of him.

Yet the joke would have been on any fellow passenger who dismissed him as insignificant because he did not look important. Under the hair which never turned white and which seemed brushed hastily up and to one side like a choirboy’s, there were eyes which looked quickly and took everything in, and a mouth quick to not quite silent laughter. Forster realized the ridiculousness of being important and enjoyed the joke of going unnoticed. His conversation consisted largely of anecdotes, sharp and witty. But although his friends were …

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