Only Collect

This belated volume of E.M. Forster’s critical writings and opinions is at least the equal of Aspects of the Novel (1927), Abinger Harvest (1936), and Two Cheers for Democracy (1951), as well as far more amusing than these predecessors. The quality of the writing—compact, graceful, unobtrusively witty—is consistently of the highest. One only wonders how such bijoux can have remained scattered and unknown for so long.

The “tale” of the title is that of Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and his novel, The Leopard, the only piece in the collection with which the reader may be familiar, since it was published as a preface to the book. Forster read it in Italian first, and a single comment of his on the English translation is so sensitively observed that one regrets he does not discuss it at any length. Describing an intimate scene in which the peasant-girl mistress of the author’s de facto great-grandfather addresses her lover as “Principone,” Forster remarks that the word “combines the feudal with the erotic” in a way that “My Prince” does not.

An essay on Virginia Woolf’s earliest novels and stories confirms the largely negative verdict of Forster’s published criticism of the art of this close friend. She “cannot create character or, for that matter, tell a story or weave a plot,” he says, adding that her “chief characters are not vivid…when she ceases to touch them they cease, they do not stroll out of their sentences, and even develop a tendency to merge….” Orlando is “a fancy on too large a scale,” and “after the transformation of sex things do not go so well.” Kew Gardens has “no moral, no philosophy, nor has it what is usually understood by Form. It aims deliberately at aimlessness, at long loose sentences, that sway and meander….” Later, in his memorial lecture on the writer (published in Two Cheers), Forster had dismissed the “Invalid Lady” myth and emphasized the toughness: “She was always civilized and sane on the subject of madness.” He declares his preferences for her biographies, Roger Fry and (Elizabeth Barrett’s dog) Flush, but concludes that she will be judged by her novels alone, while allowing for the possibility that a new generation might discard them altogether as “tiresome.”

So it is all the more surprising to find in Two Cheers that Forster nominates Woolf, together with Lytton Strachey, T.E. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence, and Joyce, as “the leading writers of our age” (1918-1939). He ventures only the single word “curious” on Ulysses, but quotes five hundred purplish ones on the death of Victoria from Strachey’s novelized biography of the Queen. Forster was apparently not considering continentals (Kafka, Musil) for this rather passé pantheon, and he seems to have been deaf to new voices (A Handful of Dust), as well as to Americans, apart from Sinclair Lewis, who happily “mistrusts the Y.M.C.A.” and is “against heartiness,” although, like other “quick, spontaneous writers …

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