Thursday, July 31, 2008

The compelling EM Forster

Zadie Smith, in the latest NY Review of Books, has written a marvelous and uplifting review of a book of transcribed broadcast speeches from the great novelist and writer, EM Forster. My favorite Forster quote from the article:

Do we, in these terrible times, want to be humanists or fanatics? I have no doubt as to my own wish, I would rather be a humanist with all his faults, than a fanatic with all his virtues.

This may appear weak to some who, in these times, demand that we succumb to the level of the Islamic fundamentalist fanatics in order to fight back against such fanatics. However, this statement is in fact courageous in its willingness to fight with flaws known and exposed, than fight the way a fanatic fights, which is to refuse to admit one's own flaws.

There is another quote of Forster's, noted in the article, that in my view made him a worthy novelist:

The simple view is that creation can only proceed from sincerity. But the facts don't always bear this out. The insincere, the half sincere, may on occasion contribute.

These speeches are similar in tone and structure to Forster's essays. I am a proud owner of a series of essays (and few of the same broadcasts) from Forster which he delighted in calling "Two Cheers for Democracy" (Harcourt, 1962). Again, the essays in that collection read much like his broadcasts. The essays and broadcasts are great tributes to empiricism, pluralism and kindness, especially during a time of fanatic worship of ideologies, whether religious or political in the early to mid 20th Century. See here for an example from the book.

Whether Forster was always a nice person in his private life, of course, is subject to more debate than Ms. Smith's article may imply. For example, I recall Gore Vidal being rather caustic about Forster in Vidal's memoir, "Palimpsest" (original hardback, Random House, 1995) (see pages 190-191 of Vidal's memoir, for example). Still, I thought, at the time, and still do, that Vidal was probably too harsh regarding Forster's gossiping, the way some are too harsh about Vidal's tales of literary figures he has known.

The Forster book of speeches appears to be a worthy companion to Forster's essays and his deliciously mannerist novels. While I normally say my three favorite British authors are Graham Greene, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, I place Forster closer to those three than many other British authors, whether they be Thackeray or Trollope, or, to stay closer in time to Forster's contemporaries, PG Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis or Somerset Maugham. This may be a matter of taste, of course...

The importance of this review, however, is that, contrary to the way we normally think of Forster, Forster's non-fiction oriented essays and literary criticism also remain powerful more than seventy years after many were published, which in our faster-moving times, is an amazing accomplishment.



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