Sly Digs

Frank Kermode

  • ‘The Creator as Critic’ and Other Writings by E.M. Forster, edited by Jeffrey Heath
    Dundurn, 814 pp, £45.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 1 55002 522 4

This volume contains 30 broadcasts and 40 uncollected essays, talks and lectures written by E.M. Forster between his time as a 19th-century undergraduate and his candid old age, when, in his eighties, he jotted down a memorandum about his sex life. The broadcasts and essays fill about three hundred pages of this collection, which means some five hundred pages are occupied by appendices, a bibliography and, above all, annotations. These are scrupulous but frequently more discursive than some might think the occasion requires, as when the late Edward Said is chastised at length for his errant opinion of A Passage to India. Forster’s devotees, a party that includes the present editor, are clearly unwilling to treat the paralipomena of an admired author as undeserving of the fullest canonical attention. It so happens that another vast collection of what Max Müller might have called chips from a writer’s workshop has appeared at more or less at the same moment as this one.[*] It is equally scrupulous though perhaps less arduously discursive.

Jeffrey Heath’s collection, animated throughout by his reverence for Forster, is not easy to read. The contents are miscellaneous in character, but readers of Forster are used to that. There has been a conscientious attempt to give the contents a helpful structure, but the attempt does not always succeed. The book is divided into ‘Talks and Lectures’, ‘Essays’, ‘Other Memoirs and Memoranda’ and ‘Broadcasts’, and within these generic categories items are presented chronologically. The notes, often separated from the text by hundreds of pages, are sometimes hard to find. One essay, on A.E. Housman, is placed under ‘Talks and Lectures’. The notes on the essay, more than 350 pages later, include another piece on Housman under the title ‘Housman I’, with a reference to an ‘expanded version’ labelled ‘A.E. Housman II’. We are not told that this version is the one included under ‘Talks and Lectures’, but we are told that because the two versions overlap ‘most of the annotations pertaining to “I” are attached to “II”.’ The page numbers that provide keys to the notes begin at 483 and then continue from 124 to 130. One’s desire to benefit by the notes is consequently repressed, and if more frustration is desired I need only mention that this book is one of those apparently designed to close automatically if the user needs his or her hands for some other purpose, such as grateful note-taking.

This is of course not the editor’s fault, but he bears some of the blame for the problems arising from the organisation of the book. For example, if you want to consult a list of the abbreviations used throughout, you will not find it anywhere you might sensibly look for it, but on page 319. I have suggested that the annotation is rather too ample, but no reviewer can easily decline little amusements, rewards for his patience, like the mention of ‘Leigh Hunt’s painting The Light of the World’, or the curious career of Sir Frederick Pollock, born, we are told, in 1875, called to the Bar in 1871, occupant of chairs at University College London and Oxford in 1882 and 1883, and created a baronet in 1888. And then there is the case of John Arlott, once Forster’s producer at the BBC and later a broadcaster possibly even better known and loved than Forster himself, though here having to answer to the first name ‘George’, perhaps by contamination from the actor George Arliss, once, but no longer, famous.

In discussing the contents of the book it might be best to begin by disposing of Appendix A, which is devoted to 11 poems, mostly unpublished hitherto and more or less certainly attributed to Forster, who, had he been a poet, might have been a bit like Housman, or, preferably, a bit like his friend Cavafy, but knew very well he wasn’t. Two poems, of not quite certain attribution, are identified by the editor as probably survivors of a series of obscene pieces he wrote ‘not to express myself but to excite myself’. Most of these he burned, not as a demonstration of moral repentance but because he thought the practice ‘dangerous’ to his ‘career as a novelist’ (he reported this sacrifice in 1922, which is roughly when he was trying to finish A Passage to India). The verses are trivial but the need for them may seem urgent if one considers the emotional demands that inspired a now celebrated diary entry of 1935: ‘I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him. That is my ticket.’ This is a mood to be remembered when we think of Forster as almost comically mild, so that Lytton Strachey labelled him ‘the taupe’ and Virginia Woolf wished he would be more open so that one could require him to ‘stand and deliver’; or when we read in P.N. Furbank’s biography of strange outbreaks of solitary violence, when he hurled himself against the furniture. Percy Lubbock, who knew him well, told Forster: ‘It’s too funny your becoming the holy man of letters. You’re really a spiteful old thing. Why haven’t people found you out, and run you down?’ If there was a need to purge spite and violence it could hardly have been satisfied by the poems here. Lubbock is teasing, but he obviously sensed complexity in a man often admired for his simplicity.

The title conferred on this collection was originally used for a set of lectures given to the English faculty at Cambridge in 1931, perhaps in the wake of the success of Aspects of the Novel (1927). Six, possibly eight, lectures were planned; a recurring theme was to be the criticism of creative writers. The lectures shrink as one reads on, as lectures tend to when offered as a series – quite fully written at the outset and later on more or less extended notes and useful quotations. The general theme – ‘the gulf between the creative and critical states’ – is one to which Forster returned many times; he often undertook to show that criticism was a relatively unimportant affair, sometimes a minor impediment to creativity and sometimes positively harmful. Probably his most serious attack on criticism is in a lecture he gave at Harvard in 1947, to be found in the collection named Two Cheers for Democracy. Its strategy is to seem to allow criticism some grudging reasons for its existence and to celebrate by contrast the operations of positive creative force, with which he, as an artist, was modestly familiar.

Forster wrote a very large quantity of what has for convenience to be called literary criticism, but cannot really be mistaken for it, the aim being civilised chat (what his friend William Plomer admiringly described as ‘tea-tabling’) and a supply of recommendations for the guidance of listeners disciplined by Sir John Reith. Obviously there was nothing wrong in that; he was careful to read and chat about books of more than usual interest and was aware of his audience, understanding, for instance, that it would think the price of books an important part of the information he conveyed. The talks were made to satisfy audiences he respected, especially in India, and they proved popular. At the wartime BBC he had good first readers in Arlott and Orwell; he knew exactly how to do what he was doing, and the talks were made for their moment. Conscientious but plain, friendly and sometimes quite jolly, they succeed as charming and painlessly instructive chats about the better books of the day, or older books that he wanted listeners to read because he admired them. He would have said it was important not to mistake the talks for criticism, much as one needed to avoid mistaking criticism for creation.

For Forster, creation, even when he’s being whimsical about it, is the only aesthetic topic of real importance. He approaches it more tentatively in ‘The Creator as Critic’ than in the Harvard lecture, probably because he feels himself committed to a more orthodox literature course. But the distinction is nevertheless established in this much earlier work. ‘What I mean by Creation is an activity, part of which takes place in sleep. It has, or usually has, its wakeful alert side, but it’s rooted in the region whence dreams also grow … Creation is an activity, part of which takes place in sleep, and which may or may not turn out to be literature.’ He therefore pays due respect to Coleridge and ‘Kubla Khan’.

Forster claimed he was not much of a novel reader, but there was modesty in the disclaimer. He listed Jane Austen, Proust and Samuel Butler as the three authors who had helped him most, adding that Butler ‘did more than either of the other two to help me look at life the way I do’. He named Dante, Gibbon and Tolstoy the greatest of writers and repeatedly expressed his love for War and Peace. He also spoke with reverence of Dostoevsky, on whom he comments with real fervour. More generally, he spoke of three generations of significant novelists, the generations of Meredith, Proust and … nobody, for he thought the novel was fading away, in part because novelists were no longer sufficiently interested in death, a subject they were losing just as they were losing the material available to their great predecessors: ‘marriage, love, friendship, family feuds, social nuances, lawsuits about property, illegitimate children, failure on the stock exchange – all the products of liberalism, in fact’.

That was written in 1942; ten years earlier he had found much to admire in certain novelists, ‘most of them under thirty, and doing things I should like to have done’. They included Rosamund Lehmann, William Plomer, John Hampson and Christopher Isherwood, whose second novel, The Memorial, he especially, and justly, admired. Isherwood and Plomer were friends and Lehmann an acquaintance, but such coincidences sometimes occur without damage to truth. There was nothing very systematic about his reading. It would be interesting to know what, if anything, he felt about L.H. Myers, who also wrote about India, but Forster seems to have ignored him, perhaps accidentally but possibly because Myers was much favoured in Downing and not in Bloomsbury. He could, in his eighties, have read the early novels of V.S. Naipaul, but I can’t find any evidence that he did. He wrote knowledgably about music, which was important as the great example of creative force. His dedication to Beethoven outlasted his passion for Wagner and for the imaginary Vinteuil of Proust. He thought little of Mozart, saying he tinkled.

Of his literary dislikes, the most striking is for Henry James, whom he misses few chances to disparage. His treatment of The Ambassadors in Aspects of the Novel is an obvious instance, but there are others, sometimes describable as sly digs, sometimes as pure dislike. He professed to believe that James, unlike other novelists, would benefit from a course of Balzac. In a very early piece (1905) he remarks that James ‘leaves us with a feeling of depression when he leaves us with any feeling at all’. He calls James ‘our only perfect novelist’ but adds ‘it isn’t a very enthralling type of perfection.’ Whimsically allocating flavours to particular novelists, he says there is ‘no savour whatever in any dish of Henry James’. James is too little concerned with what Forster called ‘the products of liberalism’. Forster might have liked a phrase that came in too late for him, ‘the reek of the human’, of which he sensed no trace in James.

It is easy to overlook the fact that Forster’s career as a novelist ended when he still had the better part of half of a century to live. During that time he was often more reclusive than not, but he developed into a figure of national importance. The continuing success of the novels had something to do with this, but they cannot explain why, when he ceased to write them, and when he was still apparently a gently studious figure, living mostly in the country or in a Cambridge college, or travelling a lot, he achieved such public eminence. Always self-deprecating, he nevertheless understood his own stature; in his commonplace book he privately compared his powers with those of other writers, including Eliot, and judged himself superior. It must be allowed that he had many admiring friends, and his name was frequently before the public; he wrote incessantly, believing that it was better to dribble than to dry up; and, after all, it may be so. Fortunately, inspiration, not necessarily of the grandest sort, was always at hand, roused by the mere sight of a pen. Much that one might ordinarily dislike in him – his barely conscious snobbery, his difficulty with women, his dependence on cliques or coteries (his ‘aristocracy’, as defined in ‘What I Believe’) – is forgotten as one understands how wrong it would be to dwell on the defects of this admirable essayist, this quietly resolute advocate of freedom, this mostly benign follower of ‘Erasmus and Montaigne, not Moses and St Paul’. He says he does not believe in Belief, and takes as his motto ‘Lord, I disbelieve – help thou my unbelief.’ But in the biblical original ‘help’ means not ‘assist’ but ‘cure’, so he may really be asking for something he does want to believe in. He knew exactly what it was: ‘personal relations’, or more splendidly, ‘Love, the beloved Republic’, a subject on which he happily never did dry up.

[*] The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster, 1929-60: A Selected Edition edited by Mary Lago et al (Missouri, 475 pp., $59.95, June, 978 0 8262 1800 1). There seems to be a relationship of some kind, perhaps a failed one, between these books. Both include broadcasts, but there is only a slight overlap in the material, and the editor of The Creator as Critic laments that an intention to include more broadcasts in his volume was frustrated. The BBC Talks, meanwhile, announces itself as ‘A Selected Edition’. There must be a story here, and fanatical Forsterians still cannot be sure they have access to every surviving scrap of the broadcasts.