E.M. Forster of course never blogged, but if he did his entries might have been collected into a volume very much like his book of criticism Aspects of the Novel. Originally delivered as a series of lectures at Trinity College in 1927, the nine pieces in this book are both conversational and personal, two attributes that characterize blog entries. Taken together they outline a vision of literature that, if not entirely persuasive, is nonetheless excellent.
Near the beginning Forster declares his dislike of time’s tyranny, and informs us that he will consider authors not along chronological lines but along existential ones. Like some great literary roundtable, he asks us to imagine “that all the novelists are at work together in a circular room.” Presented thus, we can group writers not by era but by subject-matter, which Forster proceeds to do. He pairs six of them, then paraphrases their thoughts to show us how similar their styles are. Here he is discussing the affinities of Samuel Richardson and Henry James:
Each is an anxious rather than ardent psychologist. Each is sensitive to suffering and appreciates self-sacrifice; each falls short of the tragic, though a close approach is made. . . . A hundred and fifty years of time divide them, but are not they close together in other ways, and may not their neighborliness profit us?
Later on, Forster elaborates on this theme:
They may decide to write a novel upon the French or the Russian Revolution, but memories, associations, passions, rise up and cloud their objectivity, so that at the close, when they reread, someone else seems to have been holding their pen. . . . They have entered a common state which it is convenient to call inspiration, and having regard to that state, we may say that History develops, Art stands still.
Admitting that this approach prevents him from examining literary tradition (“the borderland lying between Literature and History”), Forster nonetheless chooses it because he is not interested in seeing how different eras have influenced novelists. He wants to look at novelists as people, and to see the divergent or convergent paths these people have taken in solving certain common problems.
Forster has little love for story (“the lowest and simplest of literary organisms”), finding it most interesting in how it relates to the passage of time in a book. Does it, as with the work of the workman Sir Walter Scott, proceed simply and usually end in marriage? A shame then, in Forster’s opinion, much better to try and fail like Gertrude Stein:
Gertrude Stein has smashed up and pulverized her clock and scattered its fragments over the world like the limbs of Osiris, and she has done this not from naughtiness but from a noble motive: she has hoped to emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time and to express in it the life by values only. She fails because as soon as fiction is completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all.
In the end, wish as he might to deliver the novel from organization-by-time, Forster gives it up as futile, instructing his audience that, although we must hesitantly, we must say it without hope of emancipation: a novel tells a story.
If story is the eukaryote of fiction, then a much higher organism, argues Forster, is plot. “The king died and hen the queen died of grief” is a plot, and not a story, because “the sense of causality overshadows it.” Even better, though, are plots that “suspend the time-sequence.” They move us farther and farther away from Forster’s much-denigrated story. The fundamental difference?
If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we say “why?”
This explains why 21 Grams so appeals to me. The time sequence in the movie is just mixed-up enough that we can figure out how the movie ends long before it’s even half over, yet I was transfixed right up to the heartbreaking last minute. By doing away with the matter of plot early on, the director was able to focus his energies on peering into the hearts of his three main characters. The result is a powerful triplecharacter study that got nuanced performances out of two actors known to dominate movies with broad gestures.
I think, though, that there’s another way to think of plot, a way exemplified, to take an author-of-the-moment, by Thomas Pynchon. In at least two of his books the plot is so thoroughly muddled by details and side-quests that it’s pointless to try and figure it out. Or rather, that’s exactly the point. By hopelessly complicating his plot Pynchon did away with the question “and then?” as thoroughly as any author who ever turned a reader’s attention to “why?” Readers of Pynchon don’t want to know what happens so much as why everything is so damn mixed-up and if it the multitudes of loose parts lying around can be put together into anything at all.
As I hope the above discussion has begun to indicate, in these lectures Forster is approaching his subject-matter with a level of precision and authenticity that is impressive. Knowing that to consider the effects of time on the novel would be far beyond the scope of his lectures, he finds a way to strip it out that also doubles as a recurring metaphor (the novelists in the round room), yet also digresses just long enough to acknowledge some of what is being lost by foregoing time.
Forster shows similar acuity throughout the other lectures, and I think this is because he takes literature so seriously. Just look at how intense he is over the matter of story. He struggles admirably to find a way out of the need for a story. He desire for a loophole is palpable. When he finally gives up the struggle, he does it in a way that conveys all the angst that is bound up in his failure.
Part of taking literature seriously is to weigh consequences appropriately, and, appropriately, throughout these lectures Forster is very concerned with consequences. Going back to the matter of story, once he accepts that a story is inevitable, he is prepared to consider what that must mean for the novel. (And no doubt the consequences of this admission are part of why he agonizes so.) During another lecture Forster says: “We have already decided that Aristotle is wrong, and now we must face all the consequences of disagreeing with him.” Few critics would dive into the “consequences of disagreeing with Aristotle,” and even fewer would be equipped to reckon with them.
This is all to say that in this slim volume Forster chooses his words very carefully. (If he was a blogger, he would be the kind that wrote multiple drafts of his posts.) The cadences of Foster’s prose follow that of a conversation, making the book very easy to read through quickly, but Foster’s very evident attention to detail requests a very different kind of reading. As I read the book I found myself fighting against the tide of the prose, reading more and more slowly as the amount of attention Forster gave to every word became more and more evident.
Forster’s close readings of novels do much to foster this impression. When discussing flat versus round characters, Foster invokes Austen’s Lady Bertram, whose one defining line is “I am kindly, but must not be fatigued.” When later, in the face of moral outrage, Lady Bertram is said to think “justly on all important points,” Forster almost loses his lunch. How can a character who must not be fatigued think justly on all important points? Many would let this slip without notice, but not Forester. It’s as though he sees and considers everything.
The conclusion Foster eventually reaches (that, since Bertram’s divergence is both surprising and believable, she is a round character) is beside the point. What’s central here is that Forster would read Austen with enough regard to give a minor, flat character this must consideration.
Yet Forster’s precision does not inhibit flexibility, as there are numerous digressions into great authors such as Gide, Tolstoy, Joyce, Dostoevsky, and George Elliot, as well as less memorable ones like Max Beerbohm and Norman Matson. These digressions (in addition to the book’s conversational nature) are what gives the book a very personal feel. For example, when considering Andre Gide’s The Moneychangers, Forster says
Those who are in touch with contemporary France say that the present generation follows the advice of Gide . . . and resolutely hurls itself into confusion, and indeed admires English novelists on the ground that they so seldom succeed in what they attempt. Compliments are always delightful, but this particular one is a bit of a backhander. It is like trying to lay an egg and being told you have produced a paraboloid—more curious than gratifying. And what results when you try to lay a paraboloid, I cannot conceive—perhaps the death of the hen. That seems the danger in Gide’s position—he sets out to lay a paraboloid; he is not well advised, if he wants to write subconscious novels, to reason so lucidly and patiently about the subconscious; he is introducing mysticism at the wrong stage of the process. However that is his affair.
The prose of this criticism is beautifully personal on its own. The reverse construction of “And what results when you try to lay a paraboloid, I cannot conceive,” the offhanded nature of “However that is his affair,” and the claim that “this particular one is a bit of a backhander”; it all creates the feeling that Forster is right there telling it to you over a pint. But if you look a shade deeper, you can see—beneath that proper British manner—that Forster is really put off by Gide. Who are these French to tell us we’re at our best when we fail? Who is this Gide to set out to write a failed novel? Well, that is his affair. I wash my hands of it.
However, if there is one place where I have to most disagree with Forster, it’s when he is disagreeing with authors like Gide. Forster’s disagreement is very illuminating, but I can’t accept his over-emphasis on traditional rounded characters. Of Dickens he says
Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness than the severer critics admit.
This is good, but Forster never seems to look at what more may lie in flatness. Likewise he claims to want to escape the tyranny of plot, but then he dismisses authors like Gide who try to do just that. He’s similarly dismissive of Joyce, saying “indignation in literature never quite comes off.” These lectures are brilliant in what they say about novels, but they seem limited by the biases that Forster adheres to. Yet the ground that Forster allows himself to tread is wide enough on its own, and anyone interested in literature will find much of interest here.
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