Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

Forster's Aspects of the Novel was written for a series of lectures given at Trinity College in 1927, in connection with honoring William George Clark, a former fellow of the college. Forster praises Clark for his "integrity" in his academic career and strives to maintain a similar integrity in his lectures on the novel. These lectures were delivered after Forster himself was done with writing novels. The lectures were well-received, with some notable exceptions: F.R. Leavis is known to have considered them "intellectually null." Forster's lectures, however, were meant not as an academic treatise but more as literary reflection. (SOURCE: Childs, Literary Encyclopedia)

SUMMARY (with a few of my own comments, designated by **):
Introduction: Forster opens with a discussion of what he calls the "pseudo-scholar," who commits the crime of "class[ing] books before he has understood or read them" in order to delineate that his own goals will eschew classification by traditional categories of chronology (periodization) or even theme. In a word, he says we must think of novelists all in one room writing together, thus exempting them from the names, dates, places, and contexts that are "furniture of the method we are discarding." Forster envisions a kind of purist, formalist engagement or "struggle" with the texts that authors leave us with.

Story: The "story" is a kind of lowest common denominator in defining a novel. It involves little more than the notion of "what happens next" and suspense. Forster says that Sir Walter Scott tells a good story (but that there is nothing much more than the thrill of "what happens next" in his novels).

People: Forster explains that the major difference between "people in daily life" versus "people in books" (playfully, homo sapiens and homo fictus), is that "people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader...their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed." In daily life, we may only observe the actions and words of those around us, and there is no possibility of true access to their "secret" mental interiors. It is delightful to access these "secret interiorities"--in particular, Forster gives the example of Moll Flanders as one such character. Forster goes on to explain that the main facts of life are birth, food, sleep, love, and death, but that love becomes the most prevalent subject of novels because 1) it is important in the author's own mind 2) it seems like something that will be permanent (and that humans yearn for permanence).

Additionally, people in novels are either flat or round characters. Flat characters are "constructed round a single idea or quality," in other words, they are caricatures. Their advantages are that they are easily recognized, and that their lack of development makes them easily remembered. Again, the yearning for permanence makes flat characters pleasurable. Nevertheless, this isn't to say that flat characters can't sometimes have a certain force which makes you feel there is depth (for example, Forster suggests that characters in Dickens "borrow" a certain vitality from the author). Also, there are round characters that may be kind of flattish; Forster cites Austen's Lady Bertram. Round characters, in contrast, are "capable of surprising in a convincing way." (Interestingly, Forster's discussion of round characters is much shorter). Forster ends this section on people talking about shifting points of view as characteristic of novels (in other words, narration reveals "intermittent knowledge" of characters). If this kind of shifting is too intentionally done then the work becomes too much about the mind of the author. Forster also think that when the author directly takes the reader into confidence about a character, it's rather too much like "bar-parlour" chattiness or gossip. It is, however, okay to zoom out to talk about human condition more broadly, as in the case of Hardy or Conrad.

Fantasy: **The last few sections become markedly more qualitative and less technical. Oftentimes, it seems that what Forster tries to describe (and he himself admits this) in these sections is "beyond words."** Forster's definition of "fantasy" in some novels is that it "asks us to pay something extra." In other words, in addition to accepting that the book is not real, readers must accept the implication of the supernatural (that it is the "implication" of the supernatural is important because he includes works which have a fantastical element that don't explicitly, say, have ghosts or aliens). Forster also talks about parody and adaptation in this section, saying that these forms have a great advantage to novelists who "do not...take easily to creating characters." Joyce's Ulysses is his example. According to Forster, "it is of course more than a fantasy--it is an inverted Victorianism, an attempt to make crossness and dirt succeed where sweetness and light failed, a simplification of the human character in the interests of hell."

Prophecy: By "prophecy," Forster does not mean psychic foretelling, but "an accent in the novelist's voice," a "tone of voice" which may "imply any of the faiths that have haunted humanity...or the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them." In order to recognize this tone, readers must be humble and to suspend their sense of humor. Prophecy is deeply serious, and moreover, it is different from "preaching" which he gives George Eliot as doing. Dostoevsky and Lawrence are prophets. Moby Dick has prophetic qualities, as does the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. There is something imprecise, unconscious, and inspirational in this prophet tone which Forster describes; Forster says that to have too clear or intentionalized a philosophy in writing as with Hardy and Conrad is too reflexive. "A prophet does not reflect."
Pattern and Rhythm: Forster's final lecture is on pattern and rhythm. Both appeal to a reader's aesthetic sense, while things like the plot appeal to a reader's intelligence. He describes the overall symmetry of plots in books like in Henry James's The Ambassadors in which Strether ahd Chad change places, implying a kind of "hourglass" shape (this is of course metaphorical rather than literal). However, patterns are deliberately made, and so while aesthetically pleasing, tend to take away from a certain richness. Rhythm, however, stitches a work together "internally" and thus might allow for both beauty and richness. Rhythm seems to be a kind of echo, "almost an actor, but not quite" that moves throughout the book. A "little phrase" (which happens to be musical) circulates throughout Proust's Remembrance and that is Forster's example. It isn't exactly a symbol, because a symbol is too present and durable.

Conclusion: Forster reflects on how novels are not likely to truly change because while history moves, "art stands still." Premising that since it seems impossible for humans to ultimately be completely self-reflexive, they must continue to imagine novelistically. Optimistically, perhaps if novels register any development in human consciousness towards greater reflexivity or some other novel way of seeing ourselves, it is a "crablike movement" that we can't really see everyday. Nonetheless, this makes thinking about the development of the novel a wondrous task for Forster, since it might actually mean the development of human consciousness.

**This kind of humanistic, almost spiritual optimism that novels might tell us something about about human progress seems both alien and refreshing to a deconstructed, post-everything world, though our own critical frameworks seem to be shifting again towards something more "productive" in affect or systems theory. Though I'm not sure these shifts have the same optimism and definitely don't seem to bear any analogously wide appeal outside of elite institutions.**


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