Ferdinand Mount

A long journey

Concerning E. M. Forster, by Frank Kermode

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Concerning E. M. Forster

Frank Kermode

Weidenfeld, pp. 180, £

I never liked E. M. Forster much. He was too preachy and prissy, too snobbish about the suburbs, too contemptuous of the lower classes. I know this is not how a review is meant to begin. You may legitimately kick off by admitting that you have a soft spot for your subject, even perhaps that you used to be friends. But reveal a longstanding dislike in your first paragraph, and the reader may reasonably wonder why the editor did not give the book to someone else.

My only excuse for this confession is that I am not alone. For a novelist, essayist and critic of such acknowledged eminence, Forster has had a surprising number of enemies. There was something about him that got people’s goat, and still does. Some people disliked him, some people disliked his books, some people disliked both. After listening to Forster’s Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1927, F. R. Leavis denounced his ‘curious lack of grasp’ and his ‘spinsterly touch’. Ten years earlier, Katherine Mansfield made much the same point more vividly: ‘E. M. Forster never gets further than warming the teapot. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.’ Readers and acquaintances alike have found him chilly, maiden-auntly and, Natasha Spender’s word for him, censorious.

Our greatest living critic, Sir Frank Kermode, has devoted his own Clark Lectures 80 years later to explaining (to himself, I think, as well as to the rest of us) exactly why he doesn’t really like Forster either. He doesn’t put it quite in this way, because he is a man of open mind and generous sympathies. But he does keep on returning to what is wrong with his famous predecessor. ‘Forster’, he says, ‘irritates readers who nevertheless feel obliged, in the end, to do him honour.’ Kermode agrees with these readers, and insists at the outset of this fascinating little book that he ‘will pay the debt of honour without ceding my right to some bouts of irritation.’ Sir Frank has just turned 90, and it is as though he cannot bear to put away his pen until he has E. M. F. bang to rights.

He only met Forster for ten minutes and had what sounds like a rather stilted conversation with him. But he had rooms in King’s College, Cambridge, for almost as long as Forster had, and so met plenty of people who, either as undergraduates or dons, had had tea with the great man and even gone on holiday with him. ‘Some claimed to have liked him extremely, and some did not.’ There have been warmer personal endorsements.

In the first half of the book — the lectures themselves — Kermode examines Forster’s novels and promises to be ‘only occasionally censorious’. As if this wasn’t enough, in the second half he embarks on what he calls a causerie in which he further attempts to understand this talent ‘so considerable and yet so straitly limited’. Here ‘Forster is reduced in size, placed in a wider context and occasionally scolded for not being altogether the kind of author I should have preferred him to be.’ I am sure that, in other circumstances, Kermode would come down hard on any critic who complains that the author has failed to write the sort of book he wanted him to. But it seems Forster is so uniquely annoying that he is not protected by the normal rules of critical sympathy.

Not that Edward Morgan Forster was incapable of standing up for himself. On the contrary, that weedy figure with the droopy moustache (so like the moustache given to Leonard Bast, the vulgar bank clerk in Howards End) who lived with his mother until her death when he was 66 years old, had the self-assurance normally attributed to oxen and Old Testament prophets. Christopher Isherwood called him ‘immensely, superhumanly strong. He’s strong because he doesn’t try to be a stiff-lipped stoic like the rest of us and so he’ll never crack.’

In his literary judgments Forster certainly gave every bit as good as he got. His critique of Henry James, the sort of writer he might have been expected to admire, was savage and direct: ‘Most of human life has to disappear before James can do us a novel.’ He objected both that ‘James’s novels are gutted of the common stuff that fills characters in other books, and ourselves’, and that there was no food for the soul in them either, no philosophy, and no religion, except an occasional touch of superstition; no juice, no smell, no sex, and no God either. Not exactly a spinsterly indictment. Yet Kermode frets for page after page that Forster the dedicated artist should have failed to revere the Master and finds it ‘extraordinary’ that in the famous literary quarrel between James and H. G. Wells he should have taken the side ofWells, the coarse literary tradesman.

There is something very odd going on here. Forty years after his death, Forster remains an indelible presence. He occupies most of a page in the new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Five of his six published novels have been turned into rather successful films, justifying his claim which has annoyed so many modernists that ‘yes — oh dear yes — the novel tells a story.’ And we still cannot get his famous maxims out of our heads: ‘Only connect!’, ‘Personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger’, ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ He nags at us still. But in some queer way we cannot stand him and persistently try to write him down, if not off.

When I say a queer way, I do not mean to suggest that it is Forster’s homosexual subversion which continues to agitate our conventional sensibilities. Plenty of gay writers have soon found general acceptance and esteem, from James Baldwin and Gore Vidal to Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst. Forster presents some unique aggravation which has nothing to do with his famous declaration in middle age that ‘I want to love a young man of the lower classes, to be loved by him and even hurt by him. That is my ticket.’ We are not annoyed by Forster because he fell in love with a married policeman. It is Forster’s attitude to class, not his attitude to sex, that makes him so offensive, certainly to modern readers. Kermode speaks for many in convicting him of being a comfortably off, out-of-date Edwardian who had little sympathy with, or understanding of, the poor (Forster’s mother was an heiress of Thornton’s Bank and he was an only child who never lacked for cash). The narrator in Howards End famously remarks that ‘we are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’

Kermode’s indictment fastens on the unbearable character of Leonard Bast. He argues that ‘to a surprising extent one’s attitude to Howards End depends on one’s response to Bast’ — and in particular to his excruciating dialogue with his even coarser mistress, Jacky, who turns out to have also been the mistress of the prosperous and otherwise invulnerable Mr Wilcox. Why does even the narrator gang up on Bast and make him so unmitigatedly ghastly? Why, Kermode asks, does Forster fail to investigate the genuine upward mobility — spiritual and intellectual no less than material — which was already happening amongst the Edwardian working classes and which has been so brilliantly brought back to life by Jonathan Rose in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes?

Well, that is exactly what I thought when I first read Howards End 50 years ago. Leonard and Jacky seemed to be portrayed in a repellently patronising and unconvincing fashion and to bring the whole book crashing to the ground. And I thought much the same about Forster’s treatment of the charming but unreliable Indians in A Passage to India and of the charming but unreliable Italians in Where Angels Fear to Tread.

But wait a minute. Isn’t all this meant to be excruciating — Leonard’s barging in on the exquisite cultivation of the Schlegel household in boorish pursuit of his lost umbrella, his peevish, empty spats with Jacky, the revelation of her rackety past? Forster seems to be thrusting us deeper into it, rather than standing back with the reader at a safe distance. Isn’t the stale monotone of the Leonard-Jacky dialogue intended as a stylised cadenza, not unlike, for example, the interminable talk about breakfast between Meg and Petey in The Birthday Party? When he catches you on the raw, it is because he means to.

May it not be that Forster is a more adventurous, trickier writer than we first thought? Notice how all his ideas about the world float in and out of his characters, so that sometimes it’s Margaret Schlegel who is saying or thinking ‘Only Connect’ and sometimes it’s the narrator talking — and the phrase finishes up, or rather starts us off, as the epigraph to the whole book, which doesn’t usually happen to the thoughts of a character in a novel. Far from being a spinsterish Olympian, Forster is a rare, immersing kind of operator who shares in the reveries, the disappointments and, alas, even the prejudices of his characters — and makes us share them too. We all plunge in together into the Hindu festival at the end of A Passage to India and come out breathless, soaking and smeared with every kind of spice and sweet. It is a scene unimaginable in Henry James, because of its sloshy carnality, and unimaginable in D. H. Lawrence, because of its gaiety.

Apart from steeliness, Isherwood detected in Forster a unique kind of ‘silliness’, not fatuousness but silliness in its original sense of saintly simplicity. Virginia Woolf thought that ‘there is something too simple about him — for a writer perhaps, mystic, silly but with a child’s insight.’ In other words, she thought that a writer needed a kind of critical hardness. Isherwood, though, believed that ‘his silliness is beautiful because it expresses love and is the reverse side of his minding about things’, and insisted that ‘we need E. M.’s silliness more than ever. It gives courage.’

For me at any rate, Kermode’s inquisition leaves the accused enhanced rather than reduced in size. At the end of it, what we come to see is how original Forster was. He has a serious gaiety, especially in A Passage to India, which is hard to find in most English novelists but which has something of the great Russians whom he admired.

How funny he can be, how deft in conveying the banter of friends and families, almost as good at persiflage as his near contemporaries, Saki and Wodehouse. His humour can be sly and cutting, or amiable and generous. Even in the grand stuff, you can always hear a trickle of irony somewhere like a hidden underground stream. Kermode recognises, of course, that the aside about not being concerned with the very poor was a big tease, but I suspect that now and then some of the ironies do escape him. Literary criticism is a solemn business, after all, and it is hard to stay alert to the possibility that the author may simply be enjoying himself.

Notice how wonderfully fair Forster usually is. While we plunge in alongside the Schlegels, the philistine, money-making Wilcoxes are given room to breathe too. In A Passage to India, we see things from everyone’s point of view — Dr Aziz, Fielding, Adela Quested, even her mutton-headed fiancé Ronny. Kermode quotes plodding critics who complain that Forster does not come out clearly enough for the cause of Indian independence, but the justice and the inevitability of that cause radiate from every page.

Kermode suggests, rather nervously, that modern readers may find some of the crises in the novels a little tame — a kiss, a broken engagement — but modern readers are surely not quite so dense. In any case, there is no shortage of violent and shocking incident — murder, disgrace, a baby’s death in an accident — such things often presented baldly with scarcely a word of comment. Forster can be tough as well as silly when he chooses.

None of this may be quite what Sir Frank intended to come out of his beguiling causerie. But I am grateful to him all the same, not just for worrying away at this absorbing elusive subject, but for sending me back to the novels. I now realise that I was hopelessly wrong. I do like E. M. Forster and like him very much. In fact, I like him better than most of his great contemporaries. And I salute his shy, remorseless shade.