Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 15)
Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970
Forster was an English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic whose liberal humanism is evident in all his writing. He rejected the precepts of Christianity and in his most famous work, A Passage to India, the central principle of Hinduism, total acceptance, is posited as the greatest unifying force for humanity. A Passage to India, published in 1924, was Forster's last major work, followed only by essays and minor pieces. Critics speculate that his inner struggle with his homosexuality, revealed only after his death, prevented Forster from adding to a collection of writing that marks him as a major twentieth-century author. Forster collaborated with Benjamin Britten in writing the libretto for Billy Budd. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
Mr. Forster is extremely susceptible to the influence of time. He sees his people much at the mercy of those conditions which change with the years. He is acutely conscious of the bicycle and of the motor-car; of the public school and of the university; of the suburb and of the city. The social historian will find his books full of illuminating information…. Mr. Forster is a novelist, that is to say, who sees his people in close contact with their surroundings…. But we discover as we turn the page that observation is not an end in itself; it is rather the goad, the gadfly driving Mr. Forster to provide a refuge from this misery, an escape from this meanness. Hence we arrive at that balance of forces which plays so large a part in the structure of Mr. Forster's novels. Sawston implies Italy; timidity, wildness; convention, freedom; unreality, reality. These are the villains and heroes of much of his writing. In Where Angels Fear to Tread the disease, convention, and the remedy, nature, are provided if anything with too eager a simplicity, too simple an assurance, but with what a freshness, what a charm! Indeed it would not be excessive if we discovered in this slight first novel evidence of powers which only needed, one might hazard, a more generous diet to ripen into wealth and beauty…. [Though] Mr. Forster may be sensitive to the bicycle and the duster, he is also the most persistent devotee of the soul. Beneath bicycles and dusters,...
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Both in theory and in practice Forster declines to restrict the novelist's ancient liberties. The richness of the novel, for him, lies in its range of levels. There is the "story"; then there are the persons of the story who act and speak; then there is the "inner life" of the characters, to be overheard and translated by the author; and, finally, there is the philosophic commentary of the author. Plot, characters, philosophy: each has a life of its own and threatens to expand until it menaces its competitors. If the novel restrict itself to action and speech, it does no more than reduplicate—and with the subtraction of mimes present "in person"—the drama or even the biography. To avoid being less, the novel must be more. "A memoir," says Forster, "is history, it is based on evidence…. And it is the function of the novelist to reveal the hidden life at its source: to tell us more than could be known. In daily life we never understand each other…. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner vision as well as their outer life can be exposed." If, on the other hand, the "inner life" become all, then, like some parts of Proust's À la Recherche, the novel turns into a psychological treatise and the persons decompose into their constituent moods and "intermittences." (pp. 49-50)
To Forster, then, the novel has its own function, that of a persuasive equilibrism: it must...
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Forster made his chief contribution to the subject [of the novel] in the Clark Lectures which he delivered in the spring of 1927. [They were printed unrevised as Aspects of the Novel.] (p. 73)
[What we find in this collection] is an idea of the novel which will stand beside the great celebrations of the epic form. It might have helped if Forster had edited away quotations and discussions of contemporary books now forgotten, if some listener had made notes of the fine things and left the rest, as happened to Aristotle, for then we might have found it easier to realize that here we have one of the great appreciations of the most lively organism in words that genius has developed during the past two hundred years. (p. 74)
Between the invocation and the conclusion, the lectures deal with the usual aspects, the story and the plot and the characters. These offer the emotional pleasures of the novel. Then come the intellectual pleasures, which interest him more; fantasy, prophecy, pattern and rhythm. (pp. 74-5)
[At the end of his first lecture, Forster offers two] illuminating comments: 'The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else we cannot define.' The other comment is a major one, expressing the essence of the novel's contribution in literature: 'The intensely stiflingly human quality of the novel is not to be avoided; the novel is...
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In facing any problem, [Forster] tended to define it dualistically. But he could not leave it there. "Only connect" is his prayer and his argument: only connect the prose and the passion, the seen and the unseen, the private and the public, the near and the far, the conscious and the unconscious, the body and the soul. (p. 386)
[What] the posthumously published homosexual fiction (Maurice and the stories in The Life to Come) brings home with special force is just how much the ideal of "only connect" is a wish fulfillment rather than a plan of action. In "What I Believe" (1939) Forster tells us that "Psychology has split and shattered the idea of a 'Person,'" but that we must, for the purpose of living, go on believing that "the personality is solid, and the 'self' is an entity," and that "personal relationships" with that self are possible…. That act of faith was central with Forster. But for a homosexual to connect body and soul, the public and the private, in Forster's England was easier said than done; and the homosexual fiction is, among other things, a reminder that its author led a risky double life. That life has been spelled out in P. N. Furbank's biography, but the readings we can take from his fiction and other writings are even more revealing. Those writings are packed with double meanings. Forster's appeal to the "aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky," for example, is, in large part,...
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