Every few years I offer a course in English prose writers, almost all of them novelists, who did their work between 1900 and roughly 1950. E. M. Forster comes early in the term, flanked by Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Ford Madox Ford. Although Conrad and Ford have their admirers, the majority of the class, often not the best students, choose to write about Forster. His appeal may be based in part on the films made from the novels by Merchant-Ivory and David Lean; but I suspect it is closely tied to what students hear as an appealing narrative voice, willing, at times eager, to speak over the heads of the book’s characters and address readers directly in a way that, for all its old-fashioned ring, has charm and the promise of wisdom. Lawrence scares off many by his humorless prophetic insistence in The Rainbow; Conrad and Ford, in Under Western Eyes and The Good Soldier, present extreme difficulties in their original techniques. In Forster’s A Room with a View, by contrast, both style and content seem easy: a novel about the troubles of men and women who might pass for you and me a hundred years ago.
Forster’s continuing relevance for younger readers, as well as their teacher, was only part of the reason I welcomed Frank Kermode’s short but trenchant book “concerning” him. Since the first of Kermode’s books, Romantic Image, appeared in 1959, I have read him on poets from Spenser and Milton to Yeats and Wallace Stevens, always with instruction; meanwhile his practical and theoretical engagements with fiction and with the Bible, as well as his astute commentary on literary culture wars over the past few decades, have been nothing less than invaluable. In a rather battered page I tore out of The Listener in 1970, the year Forster died, Kermode wrote of him—especially on the basis of A Passage to India—as “everyone’s contemporary.”
In 2007, Kermode was invited to deliver the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, lectures Forster had delivered in 1927. Foster’s lectures became the book Aspects of the Novel. Kermode’s lectures have now become Concerning E. M. Forster. Kermode has expanded and complicated his judgment of Forster with some of the most penetrating prose he has ever written. His book consists of the three lecture-essays, followed by what he calls a “causerie”—a “rambling” commentary or “series of discussions” about his subject. The causerie is full of good things, especially as regards Forster’s relation to his contemporaries—Henry James, Arnold Bennett, Lawrence, Ford, and a number of others. I shall focus here on a couple of salient, related points from the lectures themselves.
The first of them, “Aspects of Aspects,” makes a case for Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, a book often regarded today as homemade, sometimes arch in its tone of benign whimsy. F. R. Leavis attended the lectures and later spoke of their “intellectual nullity”; more recently, James Wood, in How Fiction Works, has called Aspects “canonical” but “imprecise.” Anyone who rereads it, as Kermode stimulated me to do, will see how unjust was Leavis’s comment on a book that, whether or not its theoretical arguments hold up or are sufficiently theoretical, may be read page by page as an illuminating, informed performance in the activity of reading novels. In his introduction, Kermode suggests that he also feels the irritation many others feel at Forster’s tone, but that the “causes of irritation may well be related to the causes for admiration.” He admits that Forster could have “looked around him more” by way of considering his contemporaries, especially Ford whose Good Soldier (1915) was there to be considered as an example of narrative ingenuity, like it or not. Forster didn’t. Certain predecessors are also absent, namely Flaubert, whose absence Kermode doesn’t mention but surely might have, given that his example lay behind so much modernist experiment in both prose and verse.
Kermode also devotes space to what, since 1969, has been known as “narratology,” the largely French contribution to theory that has helped make Forster’s common sense “English” viewpoint seem passé. As he has done for decades, Kermode exhibits guarded respect for such advanced discourse, but is never so taken in by it that he speaks its language in order to patronize approaches such as Forster’s. Recently, in a tribute to Kermode’s writing in the London Review of Books, the literary critic Michael Wood has spoken of Kermode’s reading audience as comprising both the avant-garde (represented here by narratologists) and “the main army.” Remarks Wood appositely, “Kermode never wrote anything the main army couldn’t understand; but nor did he write anything the main army could have managed on its own.” A similar remark can be made about the availability of Aspects of the Novel, in which Forster’s audience is importantly the “main army” who couldn’t have done it on their own.
In this first lecture and elsewhere in the book, Kermode is most useful in reminding us—as I needed to be reminded—of Forster’s much less than enthusiastic assessment of Henry James. As Kermode points out, Forster’s first four novels (1905–10) were published around the time of James’s magisterial prefaces to the New York edition of his works. But Forster had no sympathy with the later James’s insistence on the sacredness of consigning narrative to a single (and defective) consciousness; he thought rather that, in Kermode’s words, “the writing of fiction was difficult enough without such artificial and arbitrary handicaps.” His account, in Aspects, of James’s The Ambassadors finds that its “beauty” has “woven itself wonderfully. But at what sacrifice!” And apropos of the famous exchange between James and H. G. Wells about the proper nature of fiction, Forster found himself taking Wells’s side in favor of “life” as against “art.”
This is not to say that Forster’s art was oblivious of form, although it was not of the Jamesian kind. Kermode finds the concluding chapter of Aspects, “Rhythm and Pattern,” most interesting for the way it obliquely calls attention to the rhythmic patterning in his novels. Among twentieth-century British writers, only Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley were as intimately acquainted with music as Forster was (he was himself a capable pianist). Rather than dismissing his musical interest as merely a pastime, Kermode, also a serious listener of music, considers it as importantly affecting the novels. In the second lecture, “Beethoven, Wagner, and Vinteuil,” Proust’s mythical composer takes his place alongside two of Forster’s favorites, since all three display in their art (or are made to exhibit, in Proust’s art) “the transformation and return of phrases.” Picking up Forster’s word from Aspects, Kermode sees and hears such rhythms in various patterns from A Room with a View and A Passage to India. They are akin to Proust’s “stitchings” of the “little phrase” from Vinteuil in connecting the parts of À la recherche du temps perdu. It is especially so in Passage, which Kermode rightly thinks Forster’s best novel, where “the stitching is beautiful, the work of an imagination that might well be called musical, passionate, and complicated, as Forster thought art should be.” It is these “quasi-musical motifs”—and Kermode assiduously traces a few of them—that make Forster’s “realistic structures” add up to something different from realism as it is found in Wells or Arnold Bennett.
Probably the best remembered and most explicit treatment of listening to music in a Forster novel occurs in Howards End, when the three Schlegel offspring and a couple of friends attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Forster gives most attention to the response of Helen Schlegel to the transitional section, between the symphony’s third and fourth movements. While brother Tibby is warning them to focus on the part played in that passage by the drum, Helen thinks rather of goblins and elephants dancing, the goblins representing (in one of Forster’s famous formulations) “Panic and Emptiness.” They are blown away by the fourth movement, which Forster terms “a triumphant conclusion” but adds, “the goblins were there. They would return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.” Kermode is not alone in confessing to “wincing” at such authorial commentary, which he feels is “an enemy of the music,” and this is part of his larger irritation with Forster’s winsome (“droll,” Kermode calls them) narrative intrusions. Yet almost buried in the attention given to how Helen sees “shipwrecks and heroes” in the passage is her sister Margaret’s response, briefly described as seeing “only the music,” as testified to by Forster’s strong use of “only”—as in “only connect,” another of those famous phrases from the same novel.
Kermode’s admiration for this kind of seeing and hearing in Forster’s own art wins out over any momentary irritations, but is the stronger, more telling, for not sweeping them under the rug. That this critic, at age ninety, should have produced such an extraordinarily packed, balanced, and wise book gives us heartening evidence of his staying power as well as E. M. Forster’s.