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.

There is no evidence that Forster enjoyed manipulations of this sort; nevertheless he liked the idea of the super-story. He wanted to have something he called religion or the superhuman in his novels, James’s not having any being part of the indictment against him; but he never went in for the gymnastics of Spark or Ford. They do not provide a simple account of causality, like his explanation of plot, because their plots seem arbitrarily fragmented, and because, at any rate in Spark, plot and causality seem to be under the control of God. Yet Forster could rejoice in what Proust was doing, though without feeling a need to imitate him closely, and one can be pretty sure he would have admired Spark without at all wanting to do her kind of thing. Skilful himself, he might well have enjoyed the sheer assurance and daring of the telling, without wanting to change his own more conventional manner.

On such matters he may indeed have felt he had said enough, and said it simply and memorably; still, it’s possible to complain that in a book on such a subject he should probably have looked about him a bit more, and found something to say about certain works by his contemporaries, and especially those who made formal experiments and believed they had found new and better ways of telling the truth in fiction.

He did, of course, venture into novel theory in his remarks on Gide, James and Lubbock. Like Brooke-Rose and Gerald Prince, he thought that people who advertised the power of their methods ended by valuing the methods more than the works under consideration. In any case, the large library of narratology that we now have wasn’t available. In 1927 there were many fewer specialist theoretical studies at hand, and what there were he disliked: there was Lubbock, with his fatal admiration for Henry James. Then there was Clayton Hamilton’s Materials and Methods of Fiction (1909), crossly reviewed by Forster; he particularly disliked the treatment of that central Jamesian topic, point of view, and remembered the book disparagingly in the introductory chapter of Aspects of the Novel.

Edwin Muir’s Structure of the Novel (1928) came just too late for him, and indeed shows an acquaintance with Aspects. Muir shared his enthusiasm for Proust, saying that Proust had written a novel resembling Gide’s in that it was a novel about a novelist writing a novel. This is true: as Genette remarked, you can tell the story of A la recherche in four words, ‘Marcel becomes a writer,’ but that was not the aspect of Proust that appealed to Forster. Rickie, in The Longest Journey, is a writer, or means to be, but he’s not writing The Longest Journey. Forster notes that Proust ‘takes any and every way, moves backwards and forwards as he likes, led not by the story but by the psychological movement behind it’. Admirable, but not really for him. He agreed with Muir in not much liking Ulysses. ‘Does it come off?’ he asks, and answers: ‘Not quite.’ Muir thought it lacked ‘causality’. Virginia Woolf also disliked Ulysses. One gets a sense that in those years innovation was wanted, thought necessary, apparently sure of a welcome; yet when it appeared – as in James and Ford and Lawrence and Woolf and Joyce, for example – it was met with suspicion.

Forster felt the need for change quite strongly. He complained, even as he was trying to finish A Passage to India, that he was ‘bored by the tiresomeness and conventionalities of fiction-form’. ‘Some change,’ he asserted, ‘must be made.’ The demand for a new style of novel – the rejection of the 19th-century model – was probably related to rapid technological developments in other spheres. But technology was not likely to make a world Forster wanted – a world in which novel writing could still be practised as a cottage industry with traditional techniques. Yet there were experimental, formally adventurous writers (Muir names three as innovators of consequence: Woolf, Joyce and Aldous Huxley); Kafka was becoming well known, there was a literary avant-garde to match the avant-gardes of the artists and composers – but how to talk about them was a bit of a puzzle; there seemed to be no vocabulary.

The arrival of a more modern Anglophone way of talking about these formal questions can be dated to 1961 and Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booth has much to say about point of view, but, genially moralistic, declines to deprive the author, or his lay figure the Implied Author, of responsibility for the moral implications of the narrative. His book dominated discussion on this subject for a few years; Forster would probably not have liked it any more than he liked the largely Francophone narratologists.

‘If we wheel up aesthetic theory,’ he said in a Harvard lecture, delivered in 1947, called ‘The Raison d’Etre of Criticism in the Arts’, ‘and apply it with its measuring rods and pliers and forceps, its callipers and catheters, we are visited at once by a sense of the grotesque. It doesn’t work; two universes have not even collided, they have been juxtaposed.’ But the new methods and theories prevailed, at any rate in the universities; the theory of narrative produced dozens of books and obsessed hundreds of academics. A whole academic generation not only challenged the assumptions of the older dons but created a bracing if illusory impression that we now had a ‘science of literature’, with narratology as an important department. Not to be a technologist was now to be not merely a dilettante but an enemy of the new institutional order.

As far as I know, Forster took no notice. His attitude to these innovations would probably have resembled his view of motor cars in Howards End – destructive, smelly and intrusive, and associated with the kind of people he felt little need to know. Moreover there was a question concerning the value of the novels on which the new science went to work; being a science, narratology was value-free; one could do clever things with the rods and pliers and callipers to any piece of fiction that came along. Barthes chose to analyse the James Bond novels: it was the machinery that occupied one’s attention. As Brooke-Rose remarks, narratology was self-reflexive in the best postmodern way. I think Forster must be excused from showing the slightest interest in the subject.

There is, however, a charge more difficult to evade. Aspects of the Novel has remarkably little to say about Forster’s novelist contemporaries. It is true that Gide and Wells and James and Bennett, of course, and also Max Beerbohm, Samuel Butler, Galsworthy, David Garnett, Hardy, Robert Hichens, W.H. Hudson, Lubbock, H. de Vere Stacpoole are mentioned, also Forster’s close friend G.L. Dickinson. Of another, highly gifted friend, Virginia Woolf, he has very little to say, merely a glancing though favourable allusion. While he was writing Aspects of the Novel she published To the Lighthouse, a work he admired and found ‘exciting in its formal innovations’, but neither this novel nor any of its predecessors or any of their formal innovations is discussed in the book. In a letter she wrote after reading Aspects, Woolf said that if she were writing a book about fiction she would feel she must ‘hunt a little’. That sounds like fair comment.

Among other contemporaries there were novelists who took a keen practitioner’s interest in developing new ways of relating fabula and syuzhet and, as a mark of their difference, avoiding the straightforward representation of causality, desiring to alter the emphasis, to light scenes in a way that could not be achieved with ordinary ideas of chronological order and point of view and cause and effect. Forster says expressly that ‘we do not mind the shifting of our viewpoint’ – we accept it without fuss in Bleak House, in which the omniscient narrator of the opening hands over to Esther Summerson – but he draws the line at Les Faux-Monnayeurs, a novel greatly admired in his day; it includes various points of view and a character who is writing a book called Les Faux-Monnayeurs. It also contains discussions of the art of the novel. But Gide, Forster says, is ‘a little more solemn than an author should be about the whole caboodle’. He glances at Gertrude Stein: she tried to banish the clock from the novel; it can’t be done.

What would he have said about The Good Soldier? One would have expected Forster to know something about Ford, but although he reviewed Aspects of the Novel – rather crossly – he is not mentioned anywhere by Forster, so far as I can tell. Perhaps his well-known attachments to Conrad and James ruled him out. Ford was offended by the treatment of Gide in Aspects of the Novel: Forster’s casual dismissal of Gide’s experiment was typical of the British rejection of the serious study of the novel as it went on elsewhere. And Ford himself wrote many interesting pages about many aspects of the novel. One thing he said was that the composition of a novel must involve ‘the exhaustion of aspects’, and one way to exhaust aspects was to use Conradian time-shifts and to arrange climaxes that don’t lead to the end of a story (the end of a story may be the least interesting thing about it). Every element should have its significance not in relation to the orderly passage of time but to what Ford called a progression of effects, leading to the creation of a whole, and thus to a final revelation, not of a plot causally worked out but of the psychological significance of that whole. Along the way the reader may face deliberate deceptions, misreported events, disappointments. The narrator of The Good Soldier is famously unreliable and would be of no use to Forster. Ford accepted James’s statement of the need to establish ‘a baffled relation’ between the subject ‘matter and its emergence’; and Forster surely would not subscribe to this either. Howards End begins, ‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letter to her sister’ – a far cry from Ford’s famous deceptive opening: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’

That is partly why the history of the 20th-century novel is often written and taught in terms of books that Forster disparaged or neglected to mention. What he would have made of – say – Faulkner I can’t conjecture; in The Sound and the Fury (published in 1929, when Forster was 50), the events of the story are described by four different characters, the first of them an idiot who lacks any idea of time; there is certainly no clock in his section. Even less likely to please Forster, the French nouveau roman claimed realism but defied ordinary notions of character and causality, and was backed by Robbe-Grillet’s theoretical explanations and the blessing of Barthes.

But he really ought to have known and talked about The Good Soldier, which appeared in 1915, when Forster was in his prime. Ford said he wanted to make the reader’s mind pass ‘perpetually backwards and forwards between the apparent aspect of things and the essentials of life’: a programme Forster might not have rejected, though he would probably have preferred to fulfil it without breaking up the story into discontinuous pieces. One can say, I think, that Ford and Forster deserve equal praise for the brilliance of their opening chapters in The Good Soldier and A Passage to India: there, at least, are displays of technique virtually impossible to match; and yet they are very different, Ford all crafty concealments and potential misunderstandings, Forster establishing in one beautifully crafted sentence the great scope of his theme.

I suspect Forster would have given Ford’s book rather the same treatment as he handed out to Gide. It is at least made clear what aspects of the novel the author of Aspects of the Novel would close his door to. It doesn’t mean we have discovered what sort of writing would be sure of a welcome. Could we have guessed, for instance, that Proust would be admitted, with cries of pleasure? Proust, whose disregard for straightforward chronological reporting, his ‘moving backward and forward as he likes’, and over such an immense area, could well have seemed inept or wilful. Yet A la recherche du temps perdu is not only admired but described as the second best novel in the world after War and Peace.

What should be said by way of summing up Aspects of the Novel? Its scope is too limited, but Forster might well have replied by pointing out that he was perfectly happy to have learned his basic craft from Jane Austen rather than Henry James. He maintained that the way to write novels was not to have a complex programme but in each case to do whatever was justified by results. He discusses with civilised humour the questions of story and the plot, allows for the action of memory on the order of events, and gets close to describing plot in terms that Ford could have accepted: ‘something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles’ – which may, in the end, if desired, be described as Ford’s method also, or explained in terms of Genettian homodiegetic analepsis.

II.

According to Benjamin Britten, Forster was ‘our most musical novelist’. It was by way of an article by Forster about Crabbe that Britten came upon the idea of Peter Grimes. He was so pleased that Forster liked his music that he presented him with a score of the ‘Michelangelo Sonnets’ and also with a gramophone, and despite the thirty-odd gap in their years they became friends. In 1951, when Britten was asked to write an opera for the Festival of Britain, Forster collaborated with Eric Crozier on the libretto of Billy Budd. That enterprise required him to work closely with the composer, which he did, though not without some friction; but this first-hand experience of writing words for music must have both drawn on and enhanced his musical interests. In a tribute to Forster on his 80th birthday, Britten expressed admiration for the passage on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Howards End: ‘it shows a most sensitive reaction to music and allows the novelist to make some perceptive observations on Beethoven.’ Whether this was a perceptive observation on Howards End might have been more doubted if the authority of the speaker had been less. Britten also remarked that he had heard Forster play Beethoven sonatas ‘with spirit’.

There are, I think, only three pianists in the novels: Lucy Honeychurch, a mysterious Miss Quested who plays MacDowell, though inaudibly, in Howards End, and, perhaps surprisingly, Leonard Bast, also of that novel. Bast plays, but, according to the manuscript, ‘badly’. Before the book reached print this had developed into ‘badly and vulgarly’ – as usual, Bast is not allowed to be comfortable with the middle-class culture to which he aspires. Whether Forster himself played as well as Britten testified is not easy to say; there is perhaps in his remark a touch of the great performer looking down kindly from the heights of his own virtuosity and giving marks for effort.

Opinions differ about the passage on Beethoven in Howards End, commended so warmly by Britten. There is easy fun at the expense of Tibby, fussing about the transitional passage on the drum, and the joking about other false or strained attitudes to the music is fine, but Helen’s talk of shipwrecks and elephants and goblins is an enemy of the music: ‘amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to a conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.’ Many fanciful programmes have been devised for Beethoven, and the practice may be tolerable – after all he made one himself for the Sixth Symphony – but this rings false, and it also provides unhappy examples of the recurrent sermonising that rather disfigures this novel. The tone is wrong, vaguely facetious, faux-naïf; it has what seems intended to be a serious point, but the point is made with a touch of what Forster’s friend William Plomer admiringly called his ‘lambent playfulness’, a habit characterised rather more severely by a friendly critic of Forster, John Beer, who remarks that language of this sort may war against the ‘serious point’.

In an essay called ‘Word-Making and Sound-Taking’, Forster discusses some remarks of the novelist-potter William de Morgan on ‘a tune by Beethoven’, apparently from the Waldstein Sonata. It is claimed that this tune suggests to the listener the words ‘No, no, you’re quite mistaken,/No, no, you must be wrong.’ The tune is of the kind that you can’t get out of your head, what the Germans call ‘ear-worms’. Forster goes on to provide some examples of his own setting of words to classical tunes. He takes the terrific fugal variation in Brahms’s Handel set and sings these words to its subject: ‘There was a bee/Upon a wall,/and it said buzz and that was all;/And it said buzz and that was all.’ As Forster cheerfully remarks, Proust, who made so much of his own little ear-worm, would have winced at this. My irritation is worsened by my inability to make the words fit the tune, surely the least one might expect. However, it’s meant as a joke, like others (‘O Ebenezer Prout, you are a silly man,’ and so on).

Forster says that ‘these capricious insertions of words, parallels, images, jokes, ideas, make listening to music a rocky and romantic affair, and I am very glad that there are also times when I seem to be alone with the sounds.’ In another place he says that ‘music which is untrammelled and untainted by reference is obviously the best sort of music to listen to, we get nearer the centre of reality.’ Nevertheless, great music does have ‘a message’. ‘There’s an insistence in music – expressed largely through rhythm; there’s a sense that it is trying to push across to us something which is neither an aesthetic pattern nor a sermon. That’s what I listen for specially.’

Perhaps chief among the items regarded as in this sense having a message is the Piano Sonata in C minor Opus 111. This is the music played by Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View. Britten says he was surprised at the choice of this work, surprised that such a ‘muddled little person’ as Lucy should choose it and be able to play it. But he claimed to understand that Forster knew what he was doing. We are not asked to believe that Lucy played the sonata well: ‘she was no dazzling exécutante, her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation.’ That admission perhaps makes the choice even more surprising. Lucy didn’t tackle the long ‘winding intricacies’ of the strange second movement, but the first, with what Forster calls ‘its opening dive into the abyss’, is far from being the kind of thing you’d expect an average suburban player to sit down and casually perform.

Mr Beebe remembers hearing Lucy play it at some charity occasion in Tunbridge Wells, when he was expecting nothing more exciting than an arrangement of ‘Adelaide’ or ‘The Ruins of Athens’. Now he hears her do it again, on the piano of the pensione, and utters a prophecy: ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’ This remark of Beebe’s is the real reason for introducing Op. 111 on a wet afternoon in Florence. The character of the music suggests a message. It is primarily about Lucy Honeychurch, a commonplace girl who can be wonderfully set apart from the ordinary world, the world of her mother, by this music. Forster is fond of the agencies by which characters can be set apart in this way, having been set apart himself.

Lucy explains to Mr Emerson that she forgets her worries when playing, which she modestly claims to regard as a hobby like stamp-collecting. But there is, from the outset, a special insistence on the effect of piano playing on this ordinary girl: ‘disjoined from her music-stool, [she] was only a young lady with a quantity of dark hair and a very pretty, pale, undeveloped face.’ As yet she doesn’t live as she plays, but Mr Beebe is, of course, prescient.

Much later in his life, Forster, speculating whimsically about the future of some of his characters, suggested that during the war Lucy ‘gave some music lessons and broadcast some Beethoven’. Like Britten, we may conquer the feeling that Op. 111 was a strange choice. In the novel Mr Eager finds it perverse and disturbing, but his is a voice out of the darkness of middle-class England. Lucy ‘wanted something big’, like Opus 111, and she was about to get it.

On this afternoon in Florence she was ‘peculiarly restive’. As a tiny act of defiance she buys some artistic postcards and enters the Piazza Signoria vaguely discontented: ‘The world is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them’ (an odd thing to say in Florence, but we have seen she’s not very good on art). ‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ she thinks. ‘An older person . . . in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.’ ‘Then something did happen.’ She witnessed at close hand a murder. The victim leaned towards Lucy and vomited blood. As he was taken away, George Emerson appeared, ‘looking at her across the spot where the man had been. How very odd! Across something.’ She has come across something. She faints, but comes to, repeating: ‘Oh, what have I done?’ Emerson is looking at her, but this time we are told, ‘not across anything.’ Her postcards, covered in blood, Emerson throws into the river. He says: ‘something tremendous has happened; I must face it without getting muddled. It isn’t exactly that a man has died.’ ‘It has happened.’ The narrator repetitively explains on George’s behalf: ‘It was not exactly that a man had died; something had happened to the living.’ Lucy thinks: ‘Oh, what have I done?’ and then says it.

Though she has done nothing obvious, only fainted, she seems convinced she has ‘done’ something decisive. ‘Again the thought occurred to her: “oh, what have I done?” – the thought that she, as well as the dying man, had crossed some spiritual boundary.’ But she retreats, thinking she can return to the old ways as she knew them before she did whatever it was she had done, before ‘something happened’ – before the murder, the blood and the embrace of her rescuer. ‘How quickly these accidents do happen,’ she says, ‘and then one returns to the old life!’ This was a claim that the happening was only an accident; but Emerson insists that ‘something tremendous has happened: and he wants to face it without getting muddled. It isn’t exactly that a man has died . . . It has happened, and I mean to find out what it is.’ Again the narrator repeats his words. Now Lucy hears the roar of the swollen Arno, which suggests ‘some unexpected melody’. The word ‘roar’ was used earlier of the opening theme of Opus 111; the something that happened is obscurely related to that work.

You could read these pages, all the instances of ‘cross’ and ‘across’, of ‘happen’ and ‘happening’, ‘do’ and ‘done’, all these very ordinary words, without suspecting that the narrative is being forced to carry a secret sense, tacitly informing you of the existence and importance of that spiritual boundary, how it is approached, how crossed; and whether, having crossed it, one can go back.

Her mother thought music made Lucy ‘peevish’ and ‘touchy’; on an insider’s view she might rather be thought of as sensitive, as one who can avoid a future in the dark by crossing a boundary from which there should be no return; an artist, a member of a Forsterian elite. The murder had seemed to shock her only for a moment, but she was aware of crossing a spiritual boundary, like the dead man. When she thinks of her home, it is as a place where ‘nothing ever happened to her.’ When thinking of the murder, ‘she does not know what had happened,’ only that something important had.

The abnormal frequency of the word ‘happen’ is offset by the forced oddness, in this passage, of the word ‘across’. There was nothing subconscious about the repetitions and the seeming inaptness of this word: Forster quite deliberately laboured it in his revisions. The words – also, less conspicuously, ‘done’ – are a form of music, commonplace in themselves as unordered sound, but a tune, a phrase, an ear-worm. It is an effect in some ways comparable to the Vinteuil moments in Proust, suggesting the reasons why those moments were later so fascinating to Forster, perhaps also why he was interested in ear-worms. Somewhere behind their play is Opus 111, a work perhaps marking that spiritual boundary. Forster might have approved of Alfred Brendel’s description of it as ‘a last word leading into silence for ever’, a sombre confrontation with death, a spiritual boundary.

Having seen how the words worked together he inserted more of them. It is of interest to look at the manuscripts of Forster’s earlier attempts at this novel (it was the first he began, though the third to be published). In the earlier version of the murder in the piazza Lucy doesn’t appear at all. It is Arthur (the original of George Emerson) who walks into the square. Already preceding him, and Lucy, is the word ‘across’.

He began to cross/was crossing/to the entrance of the Uffizi arcade in the opposite corner when there was a sudden concourse on all sides to the great Fountain of Neptune. At the same moment he saw a great red patch by the Loggia . . . A line of red spots so large and so near together that those who were returning to the Lung’Arno hotels had either to stride boldly over them or find their way back by circuitous lanes.

Arthur hurries to the fountain, on the rim of which lies, almost naked, a handsome young Italian man dripping blood. He passes, in the arcade, ‘an American girl’ who has trodden in the blood.

Arthur’s reaction to this experience is a decision to give up art (‘it is so utterly inadequate’). The next day Lucy at last goes to the piazza and the scene of the crime, where she finds Miss Lavish planning a romantic novel based on the quarrel and the death. She now catches Arthur’s mood and finds herself thinking about art and decay.

In this early version the happening of the death of the handsome young man in the piazza means a lot to Arthur, but not to Lucy, and something of that emphasis lingers in the final version. But in that version Lucy is the centre of attention; it is to her at least as much as to George that ‘something has happened.’

The judicious narrator now remarks that ‘they had come to a situation where character tells, and where Childhood enters upon the branching paths of Youth.’ It is this sort of intrusive sermonising, what seems a ruinous failure of tone, that modern readers sometimes strongly object to, and the worst of it is that it has no real connection with the preceding scene. What we can learn from that scene is not a moral concerning character and the branching paths of Youth, but what Forster meant, in his lectures, by ‘rhythm’. The repetition of ‘happen’ is, given the ordinariness of the word, likely to escape notice; with ‘across’ inattention is hardly possible, for its oddity is forced on us. Both are ‘rhythms’.

The Paris Review’s interviewers asked Forster whether he was always aware of his own ‘technical clevernesses’. He was, of course, but he believed that some clever-looking things might be so by creative accident; and as he preferred creative accident to conscious forethought he answered them thus: ‘People will not realise how little conscious one is of these things, how one flounders about.’ Forster believed in inspiration as virtually a daily occurrence; pick up the pen and the flow begins. In the introduction to the 1947 edition of his Collected Stories he muses on this topic. It happens; sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. An inspired passage may be followed by one for which no claim to inspiration may be made, but it is unlikely that anybody will detect the seam where the inspired and the uninspired meet. ‘All a writer’s faculties, including the valuable faculty of faking, do conspire together thus for the creative act, and often do contrive an even surface, one putting in a word here, another there.’ Among those words lurk the rhythms.

What is here meant by ‘faking’? The OED allows that it has musical meanings, for instance, the arrangement of a piece for instruments – say, saxophone and banjo – other than those specified in the score. Sometimes, used of jazz, it means little more than ‘improvisation’. It can also refer to the stratagems of performers when confronted with something almost or quite impossible to play as written. I’m sure I’ve heard the word applied to some benign trickery employed in the process of composition. All the same, it could be a way of describing the tricks by which a novelist might bypass an awkward moment in the narrative – or plant the notes of those occult tunes, the senses under the sense that music achieves by recall, by transformations, by exploiting the relations of keys, and so on.

The manuscripts suggest that the piazza scene was a particularly important and difficult moment, to be countered with creative faking. What Forster had to do was to attach it to a decisive experience of the right characters, for originally it contained neither of them, and after that only the young man. Both had boundaries to cross, both wanted something to happen. The casual killing and the bloody postcards made it possible for these themes to be developed. Lucy will try to return to the old ways, but finally cannot do it, and emerges as the kind of human being acceptable to the novelist. That Opus 111 played a part – happened to play a part – in getting her across that boundary is the result of faking. The piazza scene was remodelled to enshrine what had now been discovered to be the theme of the book, and to accommodate pre-echoes of the finale. Why the American girl and her blood-stained shoes were involved I haven’t discovered.

For long a fervent Wagnerian – his first name for Stephen Wonham was Siegfried – Forster came in time to regard the leitmotifs of The Ring as a bit blatant, incessantly directing one’s attention to ring, sword, Valhalla. He admitted to his interviewers that he had learned from the Wagnerian leitmotifs, but his own ‘rhythms’ are less obtrusive. You are not meant always to know whether they are intended or not. The games he plays with ‘happen’ and with ‘across’ indeed must owe something to Wagner. They cannot be indebted to Proust because Proust wasn’t available in 1908. But eventually Proust, and the fictional composer Vinteuil, became very important to the business of faking rhythms.

Forster bought a copy of Du côté de chez Swann – the first part of Proust’s novel, published in 1913 – at Marseille, on his way home from his second Indian visit. A diary entry speaks of its almost immediate effect on the Indian novel, then in progress. It is interesting that the other book that stimulated him during the final writing of A Passage to India was T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom; he had a certain longing for the heroic, the active life, the more so when it coexisted with the contemplative, or was contrasted with the unheroic yet productive Proust in his cork-lined room.

In the discussion of rhythms in Aspects of the Novel, Forster explains the role in Proust of the composer Vinteuil’s petite phrase. It

has a life of its own . . . it is almost an actor, but not quite . . . Its power has gone towards stitching Proust’s book from the inside . . . There are times when the little phrase – from its gloomy inception, through the sonata into the septet means everything to the reader. There are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction: not to be there all the time like a pattern [as in James] but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.

There is much argument about the origin of Vinteuil’s little phrase. It may derive from a rather inferior sonata of Saint-Saëns; or from something by Fauré; or it may be borrowed from the Good Friday music in Parsifal; or the shepherd’s piping at the beginning of the last act of Tristan. Or, to me the happiest, if not the most probable conjecture, from Beethoven’s Opus 111 – though from the second movement, neglected or shirked by Lucy.

Anyway, it is by Proust’s composer, who has died in obscurity. At the outset, the sonata is a matter of secondary interest; attention is paid rather to the immoral life of Vinteuil’s daughter. When Swann becomes fascinated with a petite phrase in a violin sonata, it does not seem to him that its composer can possibly be the country organist he knew of as Vinteuil. He comes to associate it with his love for Odette. It becomes ‘the national anthem’ of their affair, and prompts a fascinating discourse on memory. Vinteuil is discovered and made fashionable; meanwhile the sonata has developed splendidly, first into a quartet, then a sextet, then a septet, a grander work by far – an acknowledged masterpiece. It is associated with Tristan. Albertine plays parts of it for Swann on the pianola. It reaches its maximum exposure in the final stages of the novel. It has been found reminiscent of Wagner, Beethoven, Fauré, Franck, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, a whole anthology of ear-worms.

When Forster was writing Aspects of the Novel he did not know Proust’s final, posthumous volume, Le Temps retrouvé, which was published in 1927; he thought the best was over, and did not believe people who said the whole thing would come together in the end; but he claimed nevertheless that the book ‘hangs together because it is stitched internally, because it contains rhythms’. This is an important idea, for it means that a novel need not comply with conventional temporal restrictions; it hardly even needs to end, because its structure is otherwise provided for. Neither Forster nor Proust could actually dispense with temporal sequence, or with ‘reality effects’, but each desired the work to be a whole, and believed that those concealed stitches achieved that wholeness.

That a musical rhythm should be made the source of literary rhythms impressed Forster, and he would, I think, have liked Julia Kristeva’s description of the petite phrase as ‘enigmatic polyphony’. Knowing only part of Proust’s novel, he understands the means by which the enormous book ‘hangs together’. He had done something like it himself.

No lambent playfulness here. He is talking about something that was of real importance to him. He knew about rhythm, perhaps would have found another and better name for it if it had not been best exemplified by this music of Vinteuil. On the question whether ‘rhythm’ effects must be of spontaneous invention he seems to be in two minds. In practice the phrases or rhythms may occur spontaneously, but their disposition is the work of conscious choice. Wagner’s signature phrases are intentional, conscious; Forster came to think them too obvious, relying rather on inspiration to provide the rhythms. Proust may have developed Wagner’s method in much the same way, allowing the little phrase to declare and develop itself much as the sonata became a septet. As Forster remarks, Proust can ignore the phrase for hundreds of pages, and it will not be missed; or it can seem insistently present, always changing with its context: an enigmatic polyphony indeed. For Forster as for Proust, music was the deepest of the arts. Committed to a certain realism in his fiction, he sought ways of making it musical as well as respectful of the manners appropriate to the traditional novel. To achieve that concordance was in part the work of the subconscious – of inspiration.

III.

Lionel Trilling’s remark that Forster refused greatness is often quoted, and was no doubt worth making, especially if taken along with many tributes suggesting that greatness refused to be refused. In fact greatness seems to have been a topic of exceptional interest to this modest man. It shows up often, in and out of the novels. He wonders whether Edward Carpenter, some aspects of whose life and doctrines he at one time profoundly approved, and who was indirectly the inspiration for Maurice, could truly be called great; whether Virginia Woolf was a great critic as well as a great novelist – a question he decided only by inserting ‘great’ before ‘critic’ on the proof; whether Clarissa was great, in spite of being so tedious.

Coming to terms with death was a necessary element in the idea of greatness. In a letter to G.L. Dickinson written when he was working on A Passage to India, Forster, who was not making much progress, complained crossly about ‘the studied ignorance of novelists’, and added that ‘they must recapture their interest in death.’ Death may seem to be the antithesis of that ‘creative state’ he so valued, and which he believed necessary to the production of art. But when – to use a favourite figure of Forster’s – its buckets are raised up from the subconscious, when its trouvailles are mixed with worldly information, creativity will not, if it neglects death, offer a true report. Art, he said (and it may be his most important dictum), is ‘based on an integrity in man’s nature which is deeper than moral integrity’. At that lower level of integrity death is essential, and to exclude it from the creative effort is to thwart creativity and deny greatness.

Some forms of greatness seem not to require a deliberate spiritual or intellectual effort; it can simply inhere in individuals like physical beauty or second sight. Mrs Wilcox in Howards End ‘was not intellectual, nor even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she should give the idea of greatness’. If Mrs Wilcox has it, so does Mrs Moore in A Passage to India. She is a pleasant old woman who happens to become a goddess. Their greatness cannot be explained by anything like conscious effort or desire. It is certainly not a matter of invariably being nice to people, though that is an admirable trait; it has to do with death – each woman dies in the course of her novel, and their deaths affect the plot and the tone of the works. It also has to do with some vaguely secular, rather negative idea of salvation. Things happen to them; there are decisive, life-changing ‘happenings’, monstrous in Mrs Moore’s case, when the universe itself takes the side of death, and life-changing for Lucy Honeychurch.

Fielding, in A Passage to India, is a strong character, one imagines the sort of man Forster might admire without liking: decent, intelligent, involved in various actions of moral importance, but in none that could be called happenings in this sense; epiphanies, conversion experiences are obviously different from such actions. Fielding is a rational man, generous and just – if only the English in India had all been like him – but he is not a saved man, and would not fit into a Forsterian elite, a Carpenterian realm of love, the Beloved Republic that feeds on freedom and lives. When Fielding and Hamidullah discuss Mrs Moore’s death, neither can regard it as a happening, which in a sense it was for the mob outside the courthouse when they called on her as a goddess; ‘they were middle-aged men, who had invested their emotions elsewhere.’ They had lost the chance of greatness. If it could be said that they were greatly challenged by the court case of Aziz, it would have to be added that they backed away: ‘The soul,’ we read, ‘is tired in a moment, and in fear of losing the little she does understand, she retreats to the permanent lines which habit or chance have dictated, and suffers there’. And retreat to the permanent lines is the end of greatness for them, as it would have been for Lucy, indeed for anybody.

A hint about the nature of Forster’s idea of greatness may be found in his dislike of Henry James. In Aspects of the Novel he says James’s characters ‘are gutted of the common stuff’ that fills characters in other books, and also ourselves. And this castrating is not in the interests of the Kingdom of Heaven: ‘there is no philosophy in the novels, no religion (except an occasional touch of superstition), no prophecy, no benefit for the superhuman at all.’ Leaving aside whether this is altogether correct or just, it remains true that Forster finds reasons to dislike a form of art that shuns a formula for character founded, like his own, on a conception of greatness closely related to the problems of life in an ambiguous universe, and a particular idea of salvation, or the refusal of salvation. Such a conception may demand the inclusion of religion, or what he calls prophecy, the superhuman. Forster was interested in the superhuman, and also in what he here calls the Kingdom of Heaven and elsewhere the Beloved Republic, which also involves his idea of love and of the sorts of person capable of love as he understood it, who also feed on freedom and are therefore associated with that ideal realm.

Take his response to the festivities related to the birth of Krishna, witnessed by him in the Indian state of Dewas, where he served as private secretary to the maharajah. In his memoir, The Hill of Devi, he describes a great deal of muddle and foolishness, but he loved his maharajah, an intelligent man who observed extreme courtesy to guests and employees, played childish games, neglected his duties and foolishly ran up debts – a man described by a correspondent of Forster’s as ‘one of the most loveable, most original and most unwise men I have ever met’. This great man prays frequently to Krishna, keeps in touch, almost minute by minute, with the superhuman. Forster’s portrait is affectionate but comic. Compare that record of his time in the chaotic little Indian state with its transformation, or transfiguration, in the last section of A Passage to India: the muddle and the silliness are still there, but whereas in the memoir the emphasis is almost always on Forster’s amused tolerance of the goings-on at the festival, the novel, in the scenes of ecstatic transformation, calls for Forster’s most inspired prose:

Covered with grease and dust, Professor Godbole had once more developed the life of his spirit. He had, with increasing vividness, again seen Mrs Moore, and round her faintly clinging forms of trouble. He was a Brahman, she Christian, but it made no difference whether she was a trick of his memory or a telepathic appeal. It was his duty, as it was his desire, to place himself in the position of the God and to love her, and to place himself in her position and to say to the God: ‘Come, come, come, come.’ This was all he could do. How inadequate! But each according to his own capacities, and he knew that his own were small. ‘One old Englishwoman and one little, little wasp’, he thought, as he stepped out of the temple into the grey of a pouring wet morning. ‘It does not seem much, still, it is more than I am myself.’

The collocation of Mrs Moore and the wasp has long been famous as an exemplary rhythm, and the two could not have been brought together except in the mind of Godbole. When Forster wrote, in a note on A Passage to India, that the nine days of the celebration of Gokul Ashtami, Krishna’s birthday, were ‘the strangest and strongest Indian experience granted me’, he was presumably remembering the emotion that is again evident in these words of Godbole. It is an emotion that is not registered in the cooler element of The Hill of Devi, where Forster’s tone is touched by the humour with which he so often veiled what he feared might seem portentous.

He insists on the novelist’s right to vary the point of view as he chooses or needs. ‘A novelist can shift his viewpoint if it comes off . . . Indeed, this power to expand and contract perception’ is ‘one of the great advantages of the novel form, and it has a parallel in our perceptions of life.’ He also insisted, contra James, on the novelist’s at least occasional access to omniscience. He has just exercised his rights by showing intimate knowledge of the workings of Godbole’s mind; up to this point Godbole has been pious but evasive on matters of the spirit but, when he chooses, Forster will intervene, speak for Godbole’s silent thought, and rely on being able, as he once put it, to ‘bounce’ the reader into acceptance. Here is the funny old fellow whose praying causes Fielding to miss the train to Marabar, who will not sing when asked to but only when he wants to, just as the guests are leaving; and who, when he does want to, sings only of the milkmaid unavailingly beseeching Krishna to come – this after a party at which the absent Krishna’s inadequate substitute was Ronny Heaslop; who can have his happiness wrecked by the sight of a slice of beef on a distant plate, who torments Fielding at the climax of the Aziz affair with talk of finding a name for his new school. Odd, inexplicable, a bit of a joke. But now the clairvoyance induced by his religious ecstasy becomes, as it were, the possession of the novelist. Hitherto Godbole has been at best charmingly odd; now he may not, in his own estimation, amount to much, but he has the power to imagine the wholeness of the world and the knowledge that a god may be called on, and may descend and save.

Godbole owes something to the maharajah, who appears, in The Hill of Devi, as a droll though morally impressive figure, ‘so high-spirited, so subtle and so proud that it was often difficult to know what he felt’, displaying a peculiar blend of interests, Indian mysticism and Western technology, and being almost certainly one of the saved (though in worldly terms he came to an unhappy end). Forster reports a conversation during which he told this maharajah of a mishap to a visiting engineer and his wife. The maharajah’s reaction to the story made him wonder whether he ‘might possess supernormal faculties’. The couple were motoring, and just as they crossed a bridge ‘some animal or other’ dashed out of a ravine and charged the car, which swerved and nearly hit the parapet of the bridge.

His Highness sat up, keenly interested. ‘The animal came from the left?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

‘It was a large animal? Larger than a pig but not as big as a buffalo?’

‘Yes, but how did you know?’

‘You couldn’t be sure what animal it was?’

‘No, we couldn’t.’

He leaned back again and said: ‘It is most unfortunate. Years ago I ran over a man there . . . Ever since, he has been trying to kill me in the form you describe.’

The three of us were awe-struck.

This moment is put to extraordinary use in A Passage to India. Ronny Heaslop and Adela Quested have just decided against marrying. Offered a ride in the Nawab Bahadur’s new car, they reluctantly accept. The nawab orders the driver to take the Gangavati road. He falls asleep, and Ronny alters the instruction, explaining that the Gangavati road is under repair, and making the man take the Marabar road instead. ‘One of the thrills so frequent in the animal kingdom passed between’ Ronny and Adela, and ‘a spurious unity descended on them.’ Then there is a slight bump and swerve and a collision with a tree; an accident, nobody hurt. Adela identifies the cause as an animal, which ‘rushed up out of the dark on the right’. In her excitement she obscures the animal tracks (a buffalo? a hyena?), sweeping her skirts about ‘until it was she, if anyone, who appeared to have attacked the car’. The nawab remarks that the crash would not have occurred if the driver had taken the Gangavati road as he had ordered. The Marabar road is sinister; there is ‘not enough god to go round’. The lovers touch hands and the engagement is renewed. Mrs Moore is informed, and thinks, as the maharajah would, that the animal was a ghost. The nawab, years ago, had driven his car over a drunken man; in fact the nawab has the same response as the maharajah in the memoir, but he does not confide it to an Englishman, as the maharajah was willing to do.

There are moments in A Passage to India which encourage one to speak of its greatness. This incident on the Marabar road is one such. In some respects it is Proustian, but it may be better to say that it is faithful to the detail of life and character, as Forster believed novelists ought to be, yet imaginatively irradiated. The maharajah’s ghost is not dismissed as mere superstition: in fact its existence is validated by Mrs Moore’s reaction to the news. Making Ronny responsible for the change to the Marabar road has a double justification: we have seen that it is the sort of high-handed thing he would do, and we already know something about the Marabar road. It is, in its unassertive way, extraordinary. ‘Trees of a poor quality bordered the road, indeed the whole scene was inferior . . . In vain did each item in it call out: “Come, come.”’ The road is void of Krishna; any unity it proposed would be spurious. And here is something possibly to be thought of as evil: the extraordinary, unidentifiable animal. Miss Quested’s skirts muddle and confuse the evidence; she will do the same later when attacked by an unidentified assailant in the cave, the equivalent of the unidentified beast. The Marabar road is a negation, leading to a negation; its power to do evil produces the bad sex of this car journey and, in the end, the mystery of the assault on Adela. In the manuscript Mrs Moore asks her: ‘When did you and Ronny come to your understanding? Was it after the animal attacked your car or before?’ Forster deleted this, but what it says is important: she suspects it was the burst of violence on this road that had brought them together sexually. Possibly Forster thought the remark too intrusive, out of character for Mrs Moore, or perhaps he felt he had already done enough about the Marabar road.

It is well known that he wrote this novel in two phases, the first between 1913 and 1914, the second in 1922-24. The scene of the ghostly animal could not have been written before Forster’s second visit to India, during which he heard the maharajah’s story. It is therefore, in the writing, more or less contemporary with the scene of the assault in the cave. All we can say is that Forster wanted something to happen that was both sexual and obscurely ugly. In 1914 he apparently couldn’t manage it. Many years later he said: ‘I was clear about the chief characters and the racial tension, had visualised the scenery and had foreseen that something crucial would happen in the Marabar Caves. But I hadn’t seen far enough.’ It can be guessed from the extant manuscripts that he had got some way into the caves; there was an assault on Adela, or possibly even a degree of consent on her part: ‘Aziz & Janet [Adela] drift into one another’s arms – then apart’ runs a jotting. In another she ‘discovers she loves him’.

Before he returned to the problem a decade later he had not only revisited India but had written the unpublishable Maurice. Owing a good deal to the admired Edward Carpenter, who enjoyed a life-long homosexual partnership of the kind Forster so much desired for himself, he could now be bolder, and approach a little closer the standard of sexual candour for which he praised Carpenter in his obituary notice. There seems little doubt that the eerie episode on the Marabar road, so unlike any account of sex in the earlier novels, was made possible by a change for which Carpenter, and the writing of Maurice, deserve some credit.

The opening sentence of A Passage to India reads: ‘Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.’ In the manuscript we find, in the place of the last three words, ‘offers little of interest’. This sounds like guidebook prose, but the substitution of ‘extraordinary’ for ‘of interest’ is inspired faking. The last words of the opening chapter are ‘the extraordinary caves’ – in the manuscript more guidebook words follow ‘caves’, now cut. Thereafter the word ‘extraordinary’ is used only of the caves and of Miss Quested’s ‘extraordinary conduct’ when she visits them.

‘Except for the Marabar Caves’: the order of the principal and subordinate clauses is reversed, so that the exception gets first mention; the exception is necessary to the whole. In between ‘except’ and ‘extraordinary’ the chapter speaks of the River Ganges, whose plain is interrupted by the rocks, the ‘fists and fingers’ of Marabar thrusting up through the soil. Later we hear that at night the caves seem to advance on the city. They ‘come’, even if Krishna does not. This short opening chapter is a fine instance of faking, of the operation of the creative spirit, as well as of Forster’s ‘rhythms’.

Later the caves themselves must be confronted. Forster had a model for his caves at Barabar, but he explains that those caves were Buddhist and ‘their entrances are not unornamented.’ (In fact they are highly ornamented, and it was a bold stroke on behalf of negativity to strip them bare and deprive them of religion, to make them extra-ordinary.) Mrs Moore has her fright. There is an echo, a negation in itself or the agent of negation, that reduces every word, whether commonplace, poetic or spiritual, to a meaningless boom. The assault on the nawab’s car on the Marabar road was mysterious and, in its effect, evil; on that road there isn’t enough god to go round, but here, in the caves, there is absolutely none. The caves must also mark an evil, the privation of good, manifesting itself in sex (Aziz and Adela have been discussing marriage as they climb). As to the assault, Forster eventually had the excellent idea of faking it by leaving everything in doubt.

There is a clue to the philosophy reflected in Marabar, and in the absence of Krishna from that road, in a letter written in March 1913, when he had ‘a long talk about religion’ with the rajah, as he then was.

He believes that we . . . are part of God . . . When I asked why we had any of us ever been severed from God, he explained it by God becoming unconscious that we were parts of him, owing to his energy at some time being concentrated elsewhere. ‘So,’ he said, ‘a man who is thinking of something else may become unconscious of the existence of his own hand for a time, and feel nothing when it is touched.’ Salvation, then, is the thrill we feel when God again becomes conscious of us.

Forster adds that the rajah’s philosophy is ‘inspired by his belief in a being who, though omnipresent, is personal, and whom he calls Krishna’. But Krishna now seems to be neither personal nor omnipresent; in the caves he is totally absent, elsewhere he ignores supplication, yields to negativity; only in the last section of the book does he come and save, or enact salvation. The significance of the presence or absence of Krishna in this novel is of course what no reader can miss, even if he or she has not even Godbole’s dim understanding of presence and absence. Forster insists on his mnemonic rhythms – ‘come, come, come’. We are not for a moment allowed to forget Krishna, absent or present, though, for most of the time in the former condition, he’s unwilling to come.

When David Lean wanted to make his film of A Passage to India, he had to persuade King’s College, Cambridge to let him do it. He was very sure they would. There was a lunch at which he ate nothing – I seem to remember that he did not even sit down. But he dominated the table. He had already written and distributed the script, and claimed that he knew the novel literally by heart. I asked him to name Ronny Heaslop’s servant (the one he called for on his return from the joyride on the Marabar road). Lean promptly said it was Antony; but Antony was Mrs Moore’s unsatisfactory attendant, a Goan Christian who has nothing to do with the case; the person Heaslop ordered to come was called Krishna – in the manuscript, Arjuna: another alteration in the interests of emphasis on Forster’s petite phrase, another Krishna who neglects to come; another piece of evidence that this novel calls for a more serious reading than the film gave evidence of.

The seed of the Krishna idea was sown in Dewas with the maharajah, who did puja to pictures of Krishna when distressed, and would ask: ‘Oh, when will Krishna come and be my friend?’ His interest in the god is transferred to Godbole, who, when the coming of Heaslop has broken up Fielding’s party, eventually and unexpectedly sings the milkmaid’s song, in which Krishna refuses the girl’s petition that he come not only to her but to everybody.

There are those who find the repeated invocation – ‘come, come, come’ – irritating. To one critic it is no more than a tiresome distraction from the business of the book. Andrew Shonfield thought the entire Temple – Hindu – section ‘rather insubstantial, and in places positively banal’ and described Godbole as ‘that stock character, the Inscrutable Oriental’. He was especially annoyed by such episodes as Aziz calling to Mrs Moore ‘Madam! Madam! Madam!’ in the mosque, without relating it to the other occurrences of the little phrase. He scolds the author for his rehandling of the story of the hyena or ghost (not knowing the manuscript evidence that Forster sweated blood over this point); for choosing a Muslim protagonist simply because he liked Muslims more than Hindus; and, in general, upbraids Forster severely for his political failure – where is the Congress Party? Where Gandhi? Where the reformed native bureaucracy? And so on. Forster knew this kind of criticism well enough, and patiently repeated that the novel wasn’t really about politics, though admitting that its political aspect was what made the book sell. He says it is ‘about the search of the human race for a more lasting home, about the universe as embodied in the Indian earth and the Indian sky, about the horror lurking in the Marabar Cave and the release symbolised by the birth of Krishna’. Simple enough – not wholly satisfactory, but it helps to rule out the sort of interpretation which condemns the author for failing to analyse imperialism on the one hand and Hindu religion on the other. In a striking passage cancelled in the manuscript Forster speaks of ‘the larger disaster that has its roots outside humanity’. That may be the true subject; and it is a large subject, a version of the aboriginal catastrophe.

Almost until the end it seems that Krishna, so often invoked, so obdurate, refuses to come, let alone multiply himself into a hundred Krishnas, as Godbole’s milkmaiden requests. ‘“But He comes in some other song, I hope?” said Mrs Moore gently. “Oh, no, He refuses to come,” repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question. “I say to Him, Come, come, come, come, come, come. He neglects to come.”’ Godbole specifies the raga he is using, which reminds us that the purpose of this passage is musical. Forster says he ‘got the spiritual reverberation going’ by means of a trick; ‘but “voluntary surrender to infection” better expresses my state.’

An odd expression! Presumably the trick was to blur the account of the caves just as Miss Quested’s skirt blurred the footprints of the beast. The source of the infection must be the caves, which are evil in the sense of signifying and promoting the absence of good, of thwarting attempts to provide some standing in the void for humanity, for mere being. The opposite of their ‘boum’ is music, the music of the singers saluting the birth of the child Krishna in Dewas: ‘I have no doubt I was listening to great art,’ Forster says, ‘it was so complicated and yet so passionate.’ He thought art should be like that.