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.
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.
Kermode never questions Forster’s greatness, but the very thinness of his book will cause anyone who reads it to do so. Was E. M. Forster a writer of the first rank? Is his high reputation deserved? What has been behind his popularity? What, if anything, had Forster’s homosexuality to do with his fiction? Forster at one point claimed he wished to write novels about homosexual men that had happy endings; he wrote one such book, Maurice, which was published posthumously in 1971, a soppy work that seemed to please no one. Forster’s taste tended toward lower-class lovers, and his first sexual encounter, in Alexandria with an Egyptian bus driver, ended in his breaking his arm through sheer
awkwardness. This is only worth bringing up because Forster was always stressing the importance of sexuality.
Kermode cites Lionel Trilling’s mention of Forster’s “refusal to be great.” Trilling wrote: “He is sometimes irritating in his refusal to be great,” suggesting that this was connected with Forster’s suspicion of all large and powerful institutions. Implicit in Forster’s manner—and, indeed, career—has always been the note of modesty. Not always easy, to affect modesty while promoting one’s own career, but over a long life Forster brought this off handsomely.
Born in 1879 Forster produced his first four novels and a book of stories between 1905 and 1910. He wrote Maurice in 1914. He then took 10 years to write A Passage to India—he had lived in India, working in 1921 as private secretary to the maharajah of the state of Dewas—which most people regard as his masterpiece. After A Passage to India he wrote no further novels but spent his days writing intellectual journalism and giving talks over the BBC. In his early years he lived off the funds from a modest inheritance; in later years the royalties from his novels paid the way. Somehow the less he wrote, the more greatly esteemed he became. Prizes rolled in—he refused a knighthood in 1949, though he was made a Companion of Honour in 1953, and in 1969, a member of the Order of Merit.
Forster acted the part of the guru all his life. No mention is made in Aspects of the Novel of the element of preaching in novels, but Forster preached relentlessly in his fiction. Sometimes this preaching is by way of aperçus, some of which are quite brilliant, as when, for example, in Howards End, he reports of the relationship between the Schlegel sisters that “the affections are more reticent than the passions, and their expressions more subtle.” But other times he will use this same method to tell his readers what to think of his character; so, of Mrs. Wilcox in the same novel, he writes:
One knew that she worshipped the past, and the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her—that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy.
Mrs. Wilcox—very much okay. Got it. Of Mr. Wilcox, he writes:
For there was one quality in Henry for which she [Marget Schlegel] was never prepared, however much she reminded herself of it: his obtuseness. He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said.
Mr. Wilcox—distinctly not okay. Clear?
One of the great differences between Forster and Henry James, whom Forster did not admire, is that James, as part of his modus operandi, always left final judgments of characters and of situations to his readers’ moral imaginations. Forster did not trust his readers sufficiently to do so. To be sure, his novels are filled with twists and surprises. He could kill a character quicker than napalm. Another character to whom you might think him sympathetic he could treat with loathing. He did not shirk reality; idealism alone was insufficient to gain entry into Club Forster.
Forster’s great theme, as Trilling pointed out, was “the theme of the undeveloped heart.” He was the chronicler of those institutions—the English social-class racket, nationalism, brutish insensitivity which is to be found everywhere—that narrowed one’s reaction to life, and in his fiction he was fond of sending his characters off to those places (Italy, India) where, to those susceptible, the heart was, in effect, pried open through the enlargement of experience. The largest number of undeveloped hearts per capita was to be found, for Forster, in England. Forster treated the English, V. S. Pritchett once remarked, as if they were foreigners, and far from pleasing ones. The English encountered in a Forster novel tend to be low on tolerance, cultural interest, imagination, and passion. “Only connect the prose and the passion” of life, says one of Forster’s characters, and the sweet mystery of life is yours.
Anyone who has read A Passage to India cannot but come away secure in the feeling that the English richly deserved to lose India. Whatever one’s views of British imperialism, one has also to admit that Forster, the milquetoasty blocked novelist, the long-repressed homosexual, probably contributed, through A Passage to India, as much as anyone short of Gandhi, to justifying before the world Indian independence. Yet one must go on to say that Forster, in the way he designed his novels, was playing with loaded dice. One cannot have appreciated him, after all, if one had oneself an undeveloped heart. To adore his novels meant, or at least implied, that one was oneself rather a splendid person, among those people he claimed to have admired most: “The aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.”
Elizabeth Bowen wrote, quite rightly, that “Forster is a novelist for the young.” My own youthful admiration for him derived in good part, I now suspect, from my ardent desire to be among “the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky,” whose “members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet.” (There is much evidence that, in life if not in his novels, Forster was himself insensitive, inconsiderate, and schmucky. My friend Edward Shils told me that he once asked Forster if he might have for Encounter selections for a diary he kept while in Egypt. Forster said yes, of course—and promptly published the selections in Harper’s. “Do you suppose,” Edward said, “that he meant not ‘only connect’ but instead ‘only collect?’”)
Sensitive, considerate, and plucky—that phrasing first turns up not in Forster’s fiction but in an essay of 1939 called “What I Believe.” What Forster believed turned out to be the general tenets of liberalism, minus the confidence in government part. Au contraire, government, not least his own British government, was among Forster’s great enemies. It is in this essay, in fact, that he announces that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” a remark of the highest dubiety. One’s friend, after all, could have turned out to be a Nazi or a Soviet spy or—who knows?—someone sleeping with one’s wife or lover.
In an age of faith, Forster claimed to have none, apart from his belief in that old Bloomsbury standby, personal relations. (It would be difficult, not at all incidentally, to find a group of people who betrayed one another more—sexually and in other ways—than those in the Bloomsbury Group.) Forster extends democracy two cheers (not the full three) for starting from “the assumption that the individual is important” and for allowing freedom of speech, including criticism of those in power. What Forster hated is force and violence, especially of the kind purveyed by governments. Recall the year of “What I Believe” in 1939, and Hitler has begun to sweep through Europe; a strong belief in personal relations, might we agree, was unlikely to stop Hitler. Forster also distrusts “Great Men” of the kind who tend to lead what he calls “efficiency regimes.” They are, among other things, “sexless.” Forster is always calling for more sex:
I do not feel that my aristocrats [that would be our old pals, “the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky”] are a real aristocracy if they thwart their bodies, since bodies are the instruments through which we register and enjoy the world.
Forster closes by claiming that these are “reflections of an individualist and a liberal who has found liberalism crumbling beneath him,” though, he tells us, he remains confident that the small band of the best people could not finally be defeated.
Lionel Trilling thought that Forster was the enemy of the liberal imagination—that set of beliefs that is “sure of the order of human affairs” and holds “good is good and bad is bad,” but “before the idea of good-and-evil its imagination fails.” Yet I wonder if Trilling got this right. Forster could surprise from time to time by showing sympathy for characters a good liberal is supposed to despise and despising other characters a liberal is supposed to revere. But in the end Forster’s chief contribution has been to that continuing project of reinforcing liberals’ feelings of self-virtue owing to their lovely imaginative sensitivity and courageous distaste for social injustice. For this, above all, E. M. Forster has become known as the great writer he most
Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, his third collection of stories, will be published this year.