Forster as Role Model

Forster is an interesting example of an author whose work I only tepidly admire but for whom I feel a great liking.

So often it seems to be the other way around!

Forster is someone I probably wouldn't get along with in real life--he was a tad too highbrow--yet someone I easily understand. The product of the British upper middle-class, he was not exactly snobbish, not exactly intellectual, not exactly Bohemian, and definitely not a "good old boy." He went his own way without fanfare, so much so that even the Bohemian set failed to really "get" Forster. He was no rebel yet far more tolerant than I am of insipid philosophizing: he found D.H. Lawrence interesting if vaguely irritating, stating at one point that a book of Lawrence's was "the queerest product of subconsciousness that I have yet struck--he has not a glimmering from first to last of what he's up to."

Yet at the same time, he warns readers in Aspects of the Novel to avoid "resenting or mocking [Lawrence because then the writer's] treasure disappears as surely as if we started obeying him." I confess to being less kind to Lawrence, yet I admire Forster for reminding me to judge a book not by an outside official standard but by what the author is attempting to achieve (in this regard, Forster reminds me of C.S. Lewis's Experiment in Criticism although I've found no evidence that the two men met and cannot imagine they would have gotten along--though I could be wrong). 

I don't know if Forster would have liked Blackadder, but
he seemed to share many of his attitudes.
Forster's approach to politics was not dissimilar to his literary attitudes. He was able to stand outside any event, including his own self, and analyze it objectively even as he reacted to it with great sensitivity ("sensitivity" here means an eye for detail as well as tremendous compassion--many friends and acquaintances of Forster thought him the kindest soul they had ever met; it also refers to easily hurt feelings, the last of which Forster would wryly admit to). During WWI, he served more than competently as a searcher through the Red Cross (so well that he was promoted), yet he refused to report for military service, not because he was a conscientious objector (he admitted he wasn't) but because he had no desire to involve himself in what he considered a pointless war and he certainly couldn't fight. The "good old boys" of the British army were stymied. Forster pulled strings and was utterly unapologetic about doing so. The "good old boys" gave up trying to figure him out.

This is Forster: not lacking in moral beliefs but holding such moral beliefs that refuse to be categorized; consequently, he was sometimes perceived (on both sides of any issue) as lacking in commitment, even though he turned out to be invariably right about the pointlessness of running after a particular cause or banner. Yet even when right, he never saw himself as any kind of leader.

I mention his wryness. Forster's humor is entirely understated. He isn't precisely sarcastic and he isn't ironic in the manic style of Monty Python. In fact, he isn't truly ironic at all. He is, that blessed English word, droll. And not constantly droll or witty like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Forster's drollness is just there--quietly buried in gentle, analytical, friendly, occasionally quaint, descriptive sentences.

So at the beginning of Aspects of the Novel, whilst distinguishing between story (something happens; then another thing happens; then another thing) and plot, he writes (about story):
It is immensely old--goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to paleolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.
The final line slides in there without any preparation. I read past it for another three lines before I started laughing my head off. 

Likewise, in a letter regarding Thomas Hardy, Forster reports how Hardy showed him the graves of all his cats. "How is it, Mr. Hardy," Forster asked, "that so many of your cats have been run over? Is the railway near?" When Hardy replied that it wasn't; he didn't understand the number of mowed down cats himself and in any case, these weren't all of his cats, Forster ended the letter by commenting that he had difficulty not laughing, "it was so like one of Hardy's novels or poems."
Dog Culture

What draws me to Forster is not any particular biographical note or even a desire to imitate him.
Rather, I admire his reluctance to perform the tribal rituals of a particular clique or group or faction. And I like his steady refusal to see this as some kind of failure (though I haven't quite achieved that last yet). Forster's position is rather like always being the odd one out in high school, even moreso since it extended--with Forster--to literature, art, religion, politics, nations, relationships, and theories about life. Forster tried hard (and mostly failed) at being atheistic. Still, I utterly understand his quiet dismissal of people insisting that he THINK or BE a certain way. He is tremendously comforting to the individual who wishes to be neither follower nor leader, rebel nor patriot, conformist nor non-conformist.

And he seems to have enjoyed life far more than many of his contemporaries.

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