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A Passage to Forster

The voice for the ‘sensitive’ and ‘plucky’

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Kermode was not an Oxbridge man, but graduated from Liverpool University in 1940 and returned there as a research student after World War II. He next taught at Newcastle University, and thence at redbrick schools in Manchester and Bristol and at the University College London, and was only offered a job at Cambridge in 1973, when he was 54. Kermode distinctly did not arrive at Cambridge through family or social connections, nor through taking controversial positions, but through the slow but careful caretaking of his career, writing for the bien-pensant journals, holding only approved opinions, avoiding intellectual risks. When it was suggested that Encounter, of which Kermode was then a coeditor, might have a CIA connection, he vacated his editorship faster than a preacher with an underage boy departing a bordello under police raid. Kermode has earned his knighthood, his fellowship, his King Edward VII Chair through always sitting, one might say, on the right side of the fence.

Perhaps none of this should surprise, given Kermode’s class origins, which he sets out in glum detail in a memoir called Not Entitled (1995). He grew up on the Isle of Man, in a working-class family where, as he puts it, he “had no inferiors.” The threats of a lower-class upbringing, he recounts, can persist throughout life, which in his case they seem to have done. He grew up “fat, plain, shortsighted, clumsy, idle, dirty .  .  . and very unlikely to add to the family store of sporting cups and medals, tributes to his [father’s] skills in football, swimming, and, later, bowls, at which he was a champion.” He early learned habits of too-great deference and appears never to have shaken free of them. On the one occasion that the fellow Kingsmen, Forster and Kermode, met, Forster corrected Kermode’s pronunciation of the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India

One of the most difficult things to do, said Chekhov, himself the grandson of a serf, is to squeeze the slave out of oneself. Kermode surmounted all these social obstacles—obstacles much greater in England than they might have been in America—but at a price. The price was to make him a diffident critic, never really swinging out to say what he truly thinks, which might, who knows, be genuinely interesting. 

No one is likely to find much of interest in Kermode’s Clark Lectures on Forster. What one will find in Concerning E. M. Forster are odd facts, trial balloons that do not sail very high, and arguments begun but left unclinched. A lecture on Forster’s interest in music, and its effect on the structure of some of his novels, peters out into pure abstraction. Kermode picks up on Forster’s especial interest in death, noting that “coming to terms with death, he believed, was a necessary element in the idea of greatness.” The same paragraph closes with Kermode noting, “Art is based, [Forster] said (and it may be his most important dictum), ‘on an integrity in man’s nature which is deeper than moral integrity.’ At that lower level of integrity death is essential, and to exclude it from the creative effort is to thwart creativity and deny greatness.” But this potential profundity, too, is left, like a misplaced modifier, sadly dangling. 

The second half of his book, investigating Forster’s life, Kermode tells us, is based on the model of Sainte-Beuve’s causeries. But Kermode must have been reading a different Sainte-Beuve than the one I know, a critic whose essays were always pointed, sharp, leaving a clear portrait of his subject and his or her importance. Kermode’s causerie is closer to a schmoozerie, in which he drops bits of gossipy information about Forster: He never got on with A. E. Housman, whom he much admired; Lytton Strachey called Forster the taupe, or the mole; Virginia Woolf thought he resembled “a rambling butterfly”; D. H. Lawrence once suggested to Forster that he “take a woman.” (Which reminds one that Trilling wrote his book on Forster with no knowledge that the novelist was homosexual.) He adds brief cameos of Edward Garnett and Edward Carpenter or Paul Claudel (whose rightwing views, as Auden said, the world will “forgive for writing well”), all of whom influenced Forster’s career. But all this has the feeling of chat at high table on a bad day. 

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