A Tricky Bugger

I haven’t read the novels of E. M. Forster. Like many people, I suspect, I saw the films, but skipped the books. Still, I was taken in by Zadie Smith’s review of “The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster: 1929-1960” in the New York Review of Books. (Forster, like T.S. Eliot, was the host of a literary series on the BBC.)

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Forster, Smith notes, was a “tricky bugger…an Edwardian among Modernists, and yet—in matters of pacifism, class, education, and race—a progressive among conservatives….A passionate defender of ‘Love, the beloved republic,’ he nevertheless persisted in keeping his own loves secret, long after the laws that had prohibited honesty were gone. ”

What Smith appreciates most about Forster was his good judgment. He may not have been the artist Eliot was (or Joyce or Woolf, two other contemporaries), but he knew good writing when he saw it:

Forster gets it right, often. He’s right about Strachey’s Queen Victoria, right about the worth of H.G. Wells and Rebecca West and Aldous Huxley; right about Eliot’s "Ash Wednesday" and Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Sitting on a 1944 panel titled "Is the Novel Dead?" he is right to answer in the negative.

For all Smith’s insight, however, I did stumble over this line  in the first paragraph:

Still, there is a sense in which Forster was something of a rare bird. He was free of many vices commonly found in novelists of his generation—what’s unusual about Forster is what he didn’t do. He didn’t lean rightward with the years, or allow nostalgia to morph into misanthropy; he never knelt for the Pope or the Queen, nor did he flirt (ideologically speaking) with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao...

You see what I mean. “Kneeling before the pope” is seen as a vice, somehow akin to donning a black shirt.

Yet Smith adds a little nuance later in the piece when she looks at the English writers of Forster’s generation:

 Is it inelasticity that drives English writers to religion (Greene, Waugh, Eliot), to an anti-culture stance (Wells, Kingsley Amis, Larkin), to the rejection of accepted modes of literary seriousness (Wodehouse, Greene)? Better, I think, to credit it to a healthy English perversity, a bloody-minded war against cliché. It’s a cliché to think liking Chaucer makes you cultured (Larkin and Amis defaced their college copies of The Canterbury Tales); a commonplace to think submission to God incompatible with intellectual vitality. Then again it’s hard to deny that in many of these writers a calcification occurs, playful poses become rigid attitudes (emphasis mine).

Now this is more interesting. To take the two Catholic examples, why did Waugh and Greene grow crankier as they got older? I don’t think it’s fair to pin the blame on their Catholic faith, but the “calcification” is hard to deny.

Yet Smith is not merely interested in these dead white man. In a revealing aside, she takes a quick shot at what I take to be her real target. The quote is from the BBC broadcast "What I Believe," recorded during the war period.

 "This is such a difficult moment to live in, one cannot help getting gloomy and also a bit rattled, and perhaps short-sighted." As our present crop of English novelists gets rattled, Forster’s example begins to look exemplary.

Smith doesn’t name names, but there’s no question who she has in mind.

Tim Reidy

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