Aspects of the Novelist
How to keep E.M. Forster's sex life from eclipsing his sentences.
Kermode's book has the extra shine of beginning as the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, the very series in which, 83 years ago, Forster presented the talks that became Aspects of the Novel, his influential meditation on fiction: flat and round characters, story vs. plot, realism (George Eliot) vs. prophecy (Dostoyevsky). * Kermode was 7 at the time. Now he is an eminence, going on and going strong. Part of the appeal of his recent work—his memoir, his books on Shakespeare—has been just the pitch of his tone: unfailingly intelligent, curious, wry, ruminative, slightly repetitive.
In this, Kermode is heir to Forster, especially in the rare mix of ambition and modesty. He means to illuminate the novels while also throwing odd light on the nature of fiction, the course of the 20th century, and the mystery of creativity. But he reaches for no deep truth or total story. Each part of the book takes up a new perspective—e.g., music, spirituality, publishing—but nothing tries to hold everything together. What impels Kermode is his abiding admiration for Forster, an esteem complicated by irritation with the easier ironies and certainties, and a belief that only one of the six novels (A Passage to India) can lay claim to greatness.
But greatness isn't everything for Kermode. His book is most bracing, thrilling even, when it takes up Forster's resolve simply to "make something or discover something" in spite of all the difficulties within (desire, doubt) and without (insensitivity, ignorance, war), and in spite of feeling "caught between two worlds and loving the old one better." The book doesn't call itself a "study," much less a "life." "Concerning" is as far as Kermode is willing to go. Yet the 80-odd pages sketching Forster's biography (including the sex) give it more pith and color than Moffat's whole volume.
It would be wrong to see the difference between the books as between the old and new fashions in critical readings. It's a difference between ways of picturing the river of life. Does it mostly flow with the things we long for or with the things we make? Are we at bottom creatures of desire or work? Luckily, we know the answer. We're both, which is why Moffat's book gets first exasperating, then dull. All her new information is valuable; all the "revelatory" disclosures belong to a broadening portrait of the man. But what the synchronic publication of these two books makes clear is that Forster's life was about sex and sentences in roughly equal proportions.
Forster needed both to thrive. Why is it truer to find a stain on his trousers than a special rhythm in his participles? Biographies rarely add up to round portraits, but the least we can do is keep them un-flattened-out. Anyone who buys Wendy Moffat's book might do well to ask Farrar, Straus, and Giroux to throw in Frank Kermode's, too, for a reminder that even when we're twisted in the strange shapes of desire, we can still work out a few wiry phrases and try some new endings for our plots, our lives.
Correction, June 22, 2010: This article originally stated that Forster delivered the Clark Lectures 90 years ago. He gave them in 1927. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Portrait of E.M. Forster by Dora Carrington, in the public domain.