Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Longest Journey

E. M. Forster said quite famously that he was sure he was not a great novelist.

No-one has ever agreed with him and I don’t know why he said it. It’s unlikely to have been false modesty and even more unlikely that he’d read Northrop Frye — still less I. A. Richards or the Leavises — and so known all about literary criticism and what novels ‘ought’ to be ‘like’.

I saw him once, sitting quietly alone in an alcove of the Senior Common Room Bar at King’s Cambridge. (Him, not me: I was sitting noisily with friends in another alcove.) I’ve regretted ever since not having had the nerve or the gaucherie (of which I usually have too much) to go up and talk to him. I was much younger then and apparently quite attractive; had I but known it he might have been quite pleased to let me sit with him and buy him another drink — I seem to remember he drank bottled light ale. So I lost my chance to ask him why he didn’t think he was a great novelist, and my chance (in the unlikely event of their having the slightest idea who he was) to say airily to my awed nephews ‘Oh, we talked about Rupert Brooke’ or pre-First World War motorbikes or whatever.

Anyway, I thought I’d read all Forster’s novels, but tidying my fiction shelves the other day I found ‘The Longest Journey’ and realized I’d never read it. Apparently it was Forster’s own favourite. It’s a very strange book, and must have seemed even stranger in 1907 when it was published. The fact that the plot concerns class distinction and rigid rules of social and especially sexual conduct only add extra strangeness for modern readers who can’t or won’t make an imaginative leap into the mores of its time. I won’t or perhaps can’t try a proper ‘review’, which would anyway frighten off even more of my readers, but there’s one little or perhaps not so little thing that struck me, and that it has in common with all his novels:

It’s the presence of a special significant place. Significant, but nothing so crass as ‘Symbolic’. As I say, it happens in all his novels. The best known, probably mainly because of the film, is the Malabar Caves in ‘A Passage to India’. People like to talk with an air of profundity and erudition of ‘What really happened in the Malabar Caves?’, meaning they have no idea but want to sound clever. Sometimes these special places seem, in the narrator’s mind and so I suppose in Forster’s, to be imbued with an almost supernatural significance. In two of his stories — ‘A Room with a View’ and one of the short stories — it’s more than ‘almost’. People, usually a man and a woman but sometimes two men, are overcome by something like panic, or rather Panic: possession by the Great God Pan.

There are two such places in ‘The Longest Journey’. (There might be more; I’m only halfway through the book.) One is, rather prosaically, a little grove or bower off the Madingley Road in Cambridge, and it’s here that Rickie and Agnes at last acknowledge that they are in love with each other. The other is an ancient hill fort somewhere near Salisbury, and it’s there that Stephen Wonham and Rickie realize, or half-realize, that they are brothers, or half-brothers.

That’s it, I’m afraid: I have no point to make; it’s just something that struck me. But if you haven’t read E. M. Forster, do so.

Oh yes; your picture. I’ll find one of Edwin Morgan Forster.
This is about how he looked when I saw him.


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