Concerning E. M. Forster
by Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 192 pp., $24
In the 1964 preface to the second edition of E. M. Forster, Lionel Trilling remarks how greatly E. M. Forster’s reputation had grown from the time of his book’s first edition in 1943. When Trilling initially published his book, Forster was a small-public writer, known chiefly to the cognescenti and certainly not to Uncle Willie, to use a figure Forster himself used to refer to the broader middlebrow audience that was not then, and seemed unlikely ever, to be his.
“Forster’s work has become ever more widely known,” Trilling wrote, “and, we may say, known in a new, a more public, way—where once it had been admired by many who found pleasure in thinking that it was known to them alone, a private experience to be kindly but cautiously shared with a few others of like mind, it has now become a general possession, securely established in the literary tradition of our time, and something like required reading for educated people.” Since Trilling wrote that, of course, Forster’s novels have been Masterpiece Theatred, Merchantised and Ivoried, also David Leaned (Lean’s otherwise excellent movie version of A Passage to India is spoiled by an optimistic ending that is quite the reverse of the novel’s actual ending)—greatly widening their audience still further.
What has happened to bring this about? And where does E. M. Forster’s reputation stand today? Sorry to have to report that no help is forthcoming on either of these, or other central questions about the career of E. M. Forster in Frank Kermode’s Clark Lectures, given in 2007 at Trinity College, Cambridge. Eighty years earlier, Forster himself used the occasion of the Clark Lectures to deliver himself of his famous book Aspects of the Novel. Those lectures left us with two distinctions still useful to students and practitioners of the novel: that between round and flat characters (“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. . . . If it does not convince, it is flat pretending to be round”) and that between story and plot (“If it is . . . a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’”). They are also filled with amusing surprises: Forster finds curiosity “one of the lowest of the human faculties” and humility “a quality for which I have only a limited admiration.”
One will find nothing so memorable or startling in Concerning E. M. Forster, which is, to use a phrase of Forster’s, “a ramshackly survey,” a vast amount of information set out in harum-scarum unconvincing and quite forgettable form. In his own Clark Lectures, Forster notes that “a course of lectures, if it is to be more than a collection of remarks, must have an idea running through it.” That idea is absent from Professor Kermode’s book.
My late friend, the music critic Samuel Lipman, used to say of certain critics that they had “no fist.” By having “fist” he did not mean that a critic had to be brutishly tough, a bully of authoritativeness. What he did mean is that a strong critic has to take positions, hold firm beliefs, not fear making judgments consonant with those positions and beliefs. Having fist means letting your readers know exactly where you stand. Sir Frank Kermode, former King Edward VII Chair at Cambridge, is quite without fist. As a critic, he is a summarizer, an occasional theorizer, who demonstrates more learning than penetration and is unlikely to go against the grain of the conventional wisdom and received opinions of his time, a man whose erudition beclouds his insight.
Why some critics have fist and others don’t is a complex question. In Frank Kermode’s case, a strong clue is available through biography. In the introduction to Concerning E. M. Forster he notes that choosing Forster as the subject for his Clark Lectures was “partly a matter of sentiment.” Both men, Kermode and Forster, were fellows of King’s College but, as Kermode reports, they achieved their fellowships by vastly different routes. For Forster it was a smooth ride all the way; as an undergraduate, he was elected an Apostle, a member of the inner circle of Cambridge intellectuals ostensibly devoted to truth and beauty and personal relations that included Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, and others. He was made an honorary fellow of King’s in 1946 and, in an extraordinary move, was invited to reside permanently in the college, which he did until his death, at 91, in 1970.