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E.M. Forster, Middle Manager

1.

In the taxonomy of English writing, E.M. Forster is not an exotic creature. We file him under Notable English Novelist, common or garden variety. Still, there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was free of many vices commonly found in novelists of his generation—what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the Pope or the Queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao; he never believed the novel was dead or the hills alive, continued to read contemporary fiction after the age of fifty, harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a hand-basket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum, or foreigners swamping the cities.

Still, like all notable English novelists, he was a tricky bugger. He made a faith of personal sincerity and a career of disingenuousness. He was an Edwardian among Modernists, and yet—in matters of pacifism, class, education, and race—a progressive among conservatives. Suburban and parochial, his vistas stretched far into the East. A passionate defender of “Love, the beloved republic,” he nevertheless persisted in keeping his own loves secret, long after the laws that had prohibited honesty were gone. Between the bold and the tame, the brave and the cowardly, the engaged and the complacent, Forster walked the middling line.

At times—when defending his liberal humanism against fundamentalists of the right and left—that middle line was, in its quiet, Forsterish way, the most radical place to be. At other times—in the laissez-faire coziness of his literary ideas—it seemed merely the most comfortable. In a letter to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Forster lays out his casual aesthetics, casually:

All I write is, to me, sentimental. A book which doesn’t leave people either happier or better than it found them, which doesn’t add some permanent treasure to the world, isn’t worth doing…. This is my “theory,” and I maintain it’s sentimental—at all events it isn’t Flaubert’s. How can he fag himself to write “Un Coeur Simple”?

To his detractors, the small, mild oeuvre of E.M. Forster is proof that when it comes to aesthetics, one had really better be fagged: the zeal of the fanatic is what’s required. “E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot,” thought Katherine Mansfield, a fanatic if ever there was one. “He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.” There’s something middling about Forster, he is halfway to where people want him to be. Even the compilers of The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster, an exhaustive collection of broadcasts between 1929 and 1960, find it necessary to address the middlebrow elephant in the room:

Forster, though recognized as a central player in his literary milieu, has been classed by most cultural historians of this period as secondary to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or T.S. Eliot…relegated not quite to the lesser lights of modernism, but perhaps to the “middle lights,” if we might invent this term.

Conscientious editors, they defend their subject fiercely and at length. It feels incongruous—never was there a notable English novelist who wore his status more lightly. To love Forster is to reconcile oneself to the admixture of banality and brilliance that was his, as he had done himself. In this book that blend is perhaps more perfectly represented than ever before. Whether that’s a good thing or not is difficult to say.

At any rate, what we have here is a four-hundred-page selection of the talks Forster delivered over the wireless. The great majority of them were about books (he titled the series Some Books); a quarter of them concern—and were broadcast to—India and its people. Scattered among the remainder is a miscellaneous hodgepodge of topics that tickled Forster’s fancy: the Great Frost of 1929, the music of Benjamin Britten, the free wartime concerts given in the National Gallery, and so on.

The tone is resolutely conversational, frothy, and without academic pretension (“Now you have to be cool over Yeats. He was a great poet, he lived poetry, but there was an element of bunkum in him.” “What is the use of Art? There’s a nasty one”), the sort of thing one can imagine made T.S. Eliot—also broadcasting for the BBC during this period—sigh wearily as he passed Forster’s recording booth on the way to his own. Eliot was very serious about literary criticism; Forster could be too, but in these broadcasts he is not, at least not in any sense Eliot would recognize. For one thing, he won’t call what he is doing literary criticism, or even reviewing. His are “recommendations” only. Each episode ends with Forster diligently reading out the titles of the books he has dealt with, along with their exact price in pounds and shillings.

In place of Eliot’s severe public intellectual we have Forster the chatty librarian, leaning over the counter, advising you on whether a book is worth the bother or not—a peculiarly English aesthetic category. It’s a self-imposed role entirely lacking in intellectual vanity (“Regard me as a parasite,” he tells his audience, “savoury or unsavoury who battens on higher forms of life”), but it’s a mistake to think it a lazy or accidental one. Connection, as everyone knows, was Forster’s great theme; between people, nations, heart and head, labor and art. Radio presented him with the opportunity of mass connection. It went against his grain to put any obstacle between his listeners and himself.

From the start, Forster’s concern—to use the parlance of modern broadcasting—was where to pitch it. Essentially it was the problem of his fiction, writ large, for he was the sort to send one manuscript to Virginia Woolf, another to his good friend Sergeant Bob Buckingham of the Metropolitan Police, and fear the literary judgment of both. On the air, as it was on the page, Forster was never free from the anxiety of audience. His rupture from his Modernist peers happens here, in his acute conception of audience, in his inability not to conceive of an audience. When Nora Barnacle asked her husband, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?,” her husband ignored her and wrote Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s ideal reader was himself—that was his purity. Forster’s ideal reader was a kind of projection, and not one entirely sympathetic to him.

I think of this reader as, if not definitively English, then of a type that abounds in England. Lucy Honeychurch of A Room with a View is one of them. So are Phillip Herriton of Where Angels Fear to Tread and Henry Wilcox of Howards End and Maurice Hall of Maurice. Forster’s novels are full of people who’d think twice before borrowing a Forster novel from the library. Well—they’d want to know—is it worth the bother or not? Neither intellectuals nor philistines, they are the kind to “know what they like” and have the “courage of their convictions,” though their convictions are not entirely their own and their courage mostly fear. They are capable of cruelty born of laziness, but also of an unexpected spiritual greatness, born of love. The right book at the right moment might change everything for them (Forster only gave the credence of certainty to love). It’s worth thinking of these cautious English souls, with their various potential for greatness and shabbiness, love and spite, as Forster’s radio audience: it makes his approach comprehensible.

Think of Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder, settled by their Bakelite radio waiting for the latest installment of Some Books. Maurice, thanks to his superior education, catches the literary references but, in his suburban slowness, misses much of the spirit. Alec, not having read Wordsworth, yet grasps the soul of that poet as he listens to Forster recount a visit to the Lake District, Wordsworth country:

Grey sheets of rain trailed in front of the mountains, waterfalls slid down them and shone in the sun, and the sky was always sending shafts of light into the valleys.

Early on, Forster voiced his determination to plow the middle course:

I’ve had nice letters from people regretting that my talks are above them, and others equally nice regretting that they are below; so hadn’t I better pursue the even tenor of my way?

Well, hadn’t he?

2.

I’ve made up an imaginary person whom I call “you” and I’m going to tell you about it. Your age, your sex, your position, your job, your training—I know nothing about all that, but I have formed the notion that you’re a person who wants to read new books but doesn’t intend to buy them.

But here Forster is too humble: he knew more of his audience than the contents of their passports. Take his talk on Coleridge of August 13, 1931. A new Collected is out, it’s a nicely printed edition, costs only 3/6, and he’d like to talk to us about it. But he senses that we are already sighing and he knows why:

Perhaps you’ll say “I don’t want a complete Coleridge, I’ve got ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in some anthology or other, and that’s enough. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ and perhaps the first half of ‘Christabel’—that’s all in Coleridge that really matters. The rest is rubbish and not even good dry rubbish, it’s moist clammy rubbish, it’s depressing.” So if I tell you that there are 600 pages in this new edition, you’ll only reply “I’m sorry to hear it.”

Still—600 pages makes one think.

The first half of Christabel—how perfect that is, and how it makes one laugh. A mix of empathy and ventriloquism fuels the comic engines of his novels; here in the broadcasts it’s reemployed as sly technique, allowing Forster to approach the congenital anti-intellectualism of the English from an oblique angle, one that flatters them with complicity. Here he is, up to the same thing with D.H. Lawrence:

Much of his work is tedious, and some of it shocks people, so that we are inclined to say: “What a pity! What a pity to go on about the subconscious and the solar plexus and maleness and femaleness and African darkness and the cosmic battle when you can write with such insight about human beings and so beautifully about flowers.”

Have you had that thought? Don’t worry if you have, so has E.M. Forster. Still, it’s a mistake:

You can’t say, “Let’s drop his theories and enjoy his art,” because the two are one. Disbelieve his theories, if you like, but never brush them aside…. He resembles a natural process much more nearly than do most writers…and one might as well scold a flower for growing on a manure heap, or a manure heap for producing a flower.

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