Fiction and E.M. Forster

Frank Kermode

E.M. Forster wrote a surprising amount of criticism of one kind or another, but he believed that criticism was of almost no use to art or to artists. He certainly regarded himself as an artist, and his own art was fiction, but he said firmly, in a broadcast of 1944, that ‘the novel . . . has not any rules and so there is no such thing as the art of fiction.’ This remark probably arose from his habitual disrespect for, or worry about, Henry James. The Ambassadors is given more attention in Aspects of the Novel than any other novel, except possibly Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs, though the intention is in neither case to praise or to admire; and the Commonplace Book contains mildly disparaging remarks about half a dozen more of James’s novels.

Forster’s view of the celebrated and painful disagreement between James and H.G. Wells is expressed in Aspects of the Novel; he seems pleased rather than sympathetic to see James ridiculed, and even joins in the teasing. He firmly awards the judgment to Wells, a disquieting conclusion if you remember the philistinism of Wells’s satire on James. But Forster claims that the Wells-James quarrel has ‘literary importance’. The question at issue is that of the rigid pattern; the hourglass shape of The Ambassadors is ‘achieved at the cost of “life”’. Wells had said that ‘life should be given the preference, and must not be whittled or distended for a pattern’s sake.’ To James this was heresy; in his own way he also strove to give life the preference. He wrote a great deal about ‘the art of fiction’. In one notable essay, ‘The New Novel’, published in the TLS in 1914 and likely enough to have come to Forster’s attention, he surveys at some length the contemporary state of fiction (though without allusion to Forster) and laments the defective art of a great many industrious contemporaries. His principal targets are Arnold Bennett and Wells. These are men he cannot dismiss out of hand, but he complains that neither is interested in what he liked to call the ‘doing’. Bennett’s Clayhanger, he memorably but unjustly remarks, is ‘a monument exactly not to an idea, a pursued and captured meaning, or in short, to anything whatever, but just simply of the quarried and gathered material it happens to contain, the stones and bricks and rubble and cement and promiscuous constituents of every sort that have been heaped in it’. As for Wells, his procedures are tantamount to his turning ‘out his mind and its contents upon us by any free familiar gesture and as from a high window forever open’. James’s case against both novelists is summed up thus: ‘Yes, yes – but is this all? These are the circumstances of the interest – we see, we see – but where is the interest itself, where and what is its centre?’

As it happens, the gifted Bennett was quite capable of the kind of novel that James might have approved; Riceyman Steps came too late for James to comment. Bennett understood Jamesian refinement; he commended Riceyman Steps in Jamesian terms, as ‘jolly well constructed and done’. But he couldn’t be bothered with The Ambassadors, and for his own part preferred to be read by the multitude who shared this view; and so did Wells. The differences between, say, The Golden Bowl and anything Wells would have wanted to write are clear enough. As Wells expressed it, ‘James begins by taking it for granted that a novel is a work of art that must be judged by its oneness. Someone gave him that idea in the beginning of things and he has never found it out.’ For Wells it is a question of choosing between doing art and doing life. But for James doing art was doing life. He makes this plain in the beautiful, sad letter to Wells that ended their dispute and their friendship: ‘I live, live intensely and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it be, is in my own kind of expression of that. Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.’

‘My own prejudices are with Wells,’ says Forster, who believed there were no limits to what you could do in a novel so long as you got away with it. And what he himself wished to get away with was, precisely, an art that makes life and makes importance; that was, as he himself expressed it, the greatest witness we can give to our dignity, its order resembling that prayed for by the mystics: ‘O thou who lovest me, set my love in order.’ Art remains ‘the one orderly product which our muddling race has produced’. You may think he should have been on the side of James, but he allowed his distaste for the pattern – and the style – to persuade him momentarily to accept a substitute for the force and beauty of art, something for which he had, on his own account, expressly declared that no substitute was possible.

The earlier novels of Forster were written in the same decade as James’s prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels. One might have expected the youthful Forster to be impressed by these remarkable exercises. For example, rereading What Maisie Knew elicited from the fluent master a full account of the genesis and maturing of his story, with special reference to the technical problem of making the little girl the central consciousness of the narrative. ‘The most delightful difficulty,’ James says, ‘would be to make and to keep her so limited consciousness the very field of my picture . . . the one presented register of the whole complexity would be the play of the child’s confused and obscure notation of it.’ Maisie cannot be expected to possess a full understanding of the doings of her divorced parents (‘the infant mind would at the best leave great gaps and voids’). But it is exactly here that James sees the possibilities that interest him; he likes, he says, to glory in a gap – here the gap between what Maisie’s parents are up to and what she, with her limited knowledge and experience, can make of it; and he conceives it to be the business of art to give the reader a full sense of the affair on information acquired from this imperfect source. He was pleased with the result: ‘nothing could be more “done”, I think, in the light of its happiest intention.’

I don’t know whether Forster read or even glanced at the prefaces, but it is safe to surmise that any admiration he felt would be quite severely qualified. So with Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921), one of the books we who were undergraduates in the 1930s were persuaded to read. Lubbock was a disciple of James and a strong point-of-view man. Forster treats him fairly gently; he was a Kingsman and had been Forster’s boss in Egypt during the war. Lubbock greatly admired Strether, the ‘central consciousness’ of The Ambassadors (the very book Forster chose to disparage). Forster concedes that James was devoted to his ‘aesthetic duty’, ‘but at what sacrifice! . . . Most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel.’ The characters are ‘deformed’, sacrificed to James’s ideal. Given that he would ever have set himself to consider a story of this kind, Forster would have favoured a much less oblique approach. He affirmed the author’s right to express his opinions, his right, if he chose, to explain to the reader exactly how in his opinion the matter would appear when looked at not only in terms of the ‘limited consciousness’ of Maisie or Strether, but in terms of the consciousness of any character whose view might be relevant – and indeed in terms of what the novelist himself, or the universe at large, might have to say about it.

Observations on the universe, on love, on friendship, and on many other important matters occur boldly and frequently in Forster’s novels. It may be allowed that in Howards End the characters are represented, as he intended, as free individuals, with minds of their own, but the book contains a strikingly large amount of authorial reflection, wise sayings about love, class and culture, straightforward announcements of the Forsterian way of looking at the human condition; and in A Passage to India there are moments when the intention seems to have been to shock the Jamesian purist by direct addresses to the ‘dear reader’. He uses the many ways open to him to explain or suggest how he himself felt about his characters (though he claims they remain entitled to their freedom) and – he doesn’t avoid the word – about the universe. So if Forster had tackled a situation like Maisie’s it would not be Maisie’s perception of it that more or less exclusively occupied his interest.

This point of difference helps to explain Leavis’s understandable discontent, his talk of equivocations and limitations in Forster’s work. The difference may be expressed more succinctly by comparing James and Forster on Tolstoy. To Forster War and Peace was the greatest of all novels; to James it was, notoriously, a disaster: ‘what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?’ And yet Forster, so firm in dismissing James on the art of the novel, so sure that no such thing existed, nevertheless claimed to be an artist whose medium was the novel; and he justified the claim. What he was not prepared to do was to regard the novelist’s art as a struggle with problems like those James loved to set himself; the writing of fiction was difficult enough without what he saw as arbitrary and artificial handicaps, like consigning the narrative to one particular and necessarily defective consciousness, or giving it a shape like an hourglass, like James or Anatole France.

Where, if not to James, could Forster have looked for a serviceable theory of fiction? Certainly not to Lubbock. In fact there was not, at the time, much of that kind of thing to be had. Since then, the situation has altered amazingly: 1969 is given as the date when the study of narrative, taking forms undreamed of by Forster, was first called ‘narratology’. And it is impossible not to admire the ingenuity of such major narratological practitioners as Roland Barthes and Gérard Genette. In Forster’s Aspects of the Novel the only other passage as famous as the one about flat and round characters is the one that distinguishes between story and plot. He makes it sound simple. Time and the narratologists have shown that it is not.

The distinction between the text and the story it relates – between fabula and syuzhet, as the Russian and Czech Formalists expressed it – has been subjected to extraordinary refinements, with particular reference to the distortions of the chronological order of events as they may be inferred to occur in the fabula. Genette’s definitions may be useful: histoire or fabula ‘is the ensemble of recounted events, récit the written or oral discourse that recounts them’. There is actually nothing very arcane about this. We take it as natural that storytellers should sometimes go back and recount events that significantly lead up to the situation they have described. If – to take an example once famous in 1960s and 1970s classrooms – a novel begins with the sentence ‘La marquise sortit à cinq heures,’ you can be sure that later on there will be some explanation of what has induced her to do so; and perhaps some explanation of why the order of the fabula is thus violated by the récit. We are not disturbed, being perfectly aware that beginnings have an anterior cause. Or perhaps two related sequences of events occur simultaneously but cannot be told simultaneously: hence ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .’ But Genette, whose examples are mostly drawn from Proust, and are evidence of a higher degree of literary intelligence than is quite general, refines these insights and assumptions, and provides elegant labels for certain manoeuvres we had probably not imagined they needed. So we may now, if we wish, speak of anachronies, of analepses and prolepses of various sorts, carefully distinguished by Genette as heterodiegetic or homodiegetic, and so forth.

Discordances between the order of story and the order of the narrative can thus be methodically and minutely accounted for, though ordinary readers may not always see the need, understanding from their nursery years that ‘some months earlier’ can introduce a portion of narrative which occurs earlier in the story but later in the narrative. But the narratologist will continue to distinguish analepses as either homodiegetic or heterodiegetic, according to the status or otherwise of the story affected by the analeptic intrusion, because he or she is more interested in what he or she is doing than in what the author was doing. It is true that authors have sometimes distorted chronology in a manner intended not to improve the exposition but to complicate everything, yet what they do remains a development of these relatively primitive manoeuvres.

I have paraded this small selection of technical terms so that you can say that you neither want nor need them; if you do feel that, you differ from professional narratologists, who rejoice in the apparatus and the neologisms; they have what Gerald Prince, a senior narratologist himself, calls an ‘infatuation with science even when they are talking about the process of storytelling, something understood by every human society known to history’. The novelist Christine Brooke-Rose, in an essay resigning her own deuxième carrière as a narratologist, describes narratology as ‘immensely useful. But in the end, it couldn’t cope with narrative and its complexities, except at the price of becoming a separate theoretical discourse, rarely relevant to the narrative discussed, when discussed.’ It is very much as Forster feared when deploring Gide and Lubbock.

Forster of course knew well enough that reading stories requires of us fairly complex operations which familiarity has enabled us to regard as simple. Let me offer an example of a feat of reading we all do very easily, but which could be made to seem arcane if one were more interested in the science, the narratology, than in the story. Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel nearly everybody knows. Asked to tell its story you would have to give up any idea of following the order of events presented by the text. The play and the film give one an idea of the flattening out required to achieve the restoration of the simple fabula. Miss Brodie, an unorthodox schoolmistress, is betrayed by one of the girls she wishes to indoctrinate with her views on the world, art, politics, sex, Edinburgh – meanwhile scorning to teach the official syllabus. Her betrayer is Sandy, a girl to whose treacherous, piggy little eyes our attention is repeatedly drawn. Sandy will have a remarkable future as a convert to Roman Catholicism, a bestselling author and a tormented nun, very properly named Sister Helen of the Transfiguration, but we don’t have to wait to the end to know about all that; her future is frequently mentioned proleptically. The narrator seems to be looking down on a completed action and picking out events at will; chronological sequence is irrelevant.

It is 1936 and Miss Brodie has already had her set of girls for six years, since they were ten. On p. 13 we learn that one of them, Mary MacGregor, is stupid; on p. 15 she dies in a hotel fire at the age of 24, date presumably 1944, courtesy of a wanton prolepsis. Mary’s death is again displaced when her future fate, already known to us, is prefigured by the account of her terror of fire in the science room back in 1931, on p. 25, when she was 11. We are told, far ahead of time, of Miss Brodie’s illness and her death ‘just after the war’. Later we find out (p. 56) that she was betrayed and had retired ‘before time’, and that she died of ‘an internal growth’ at 56. What we know about the traitor, Sandy, and, to a lesser extent, the other girls, we cannot derive from a straightforward narrative; we must take the fragments of Brodie’s career, and her girls’, as they occur, and build our own picture, continually altered by the shifting context. Note that we do this easily, though possibly experiencing a mild surprise; for most novels don’t, on this scale, ‘give things away’.

What benefits accrue? Some questions we may, at our choice, ask of the novel: are we to stress the bit of action as a result of which Sandy is converted to Catholicism? Or the departure of one girl, Joyce Emily, influenced by Brodie, to fight on Franco’s side and to die in Spain? And are we always to accept as the case whatever the voice of the narrator seems to be telling us (‘The Lloyds were Catholics and so were made to have a lot of children by force’)? On the other side of the religious question there is scattered notation of Brodie’s Calvinism: ‘she had elected herself to grace’; ‘she thinks she is Providence . . . she thinks she is the God of Calvin.’ Should we try to relate this trait to her admiration for Mussolini?

These tricks exploit the power of the syuzhet to bring together disparate elements and create effects that mere chronology cannot achieve. So it is not merely, as Forster’s plot formula suggests, that an element of causality is introduced into the ‘and then and then’ of the fable. New juxtapositions, new discords are discovered, defying chronology; they could exist in no other genre, not even satisfactorily in film. So, in Spark’s amusing little book, we may be confronted, or may confront ourselves, with matters so grave that their presence in this context is surprising, perhaps enlightening; we come to understand as we read on, easy and amused, that we are considering not only the story of Jean Brodie but also questions of grace and election, the operations of inscrutable, perhaps divine, plots.

Theodore Dreiser, reviewing Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, said that if he’d had a chance to advise Ford he would have told him how to avoid obscurity and muddle: begin the story at the beginning and continue it in a more or less direct line. Dreiser wanted to take away the very properties of which Ford was proudest, those collocations that give his novel the psychological and historical resonances he sought. He saw the story as something to be transformed, presented as an integrated ‘affair’, as he put it, in the interest of art, of Jamesian wholeness. Much the same may be said of Spark’s slighter novel. There are strong unelaborated underplots: political (Miss Brodie’s flirtations with Fascism); religious (the latent distorted Calvinism of Brodie); her determination to pass on her culture and status as one of the many thousands of women deprived by the Great War of the prospect of marriage (a male master has lost an arm, to remind us).

I don’t even try to explain why this novel is so funny, or comment on the way it is so intelligently packed and patterned. I mean only to illustrate the constant interference with the fable, histoire or whatever, particularly in the matter of chronological telling. The result could be made to sound chaotic. Yet no reader I know of has ever found it so. The dislocations may sometimes seem justified, sometimes wanton, virtuoso displays; but they are intelligible extensions of practices familiar from thousands of stories; and under this story a good reader will apprehend what may seem remote from that story, another story, a super-story – a sort of theological take on reality.

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