Forster and the Literary Forebears

When EM Forster lectured at Trinity College in 1927, he opened his series of lectures on the novel (collected in Aspects of the Novel) provocatively:

No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy-that is to say, has given so complete a picture of man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.

Any thoughtful reader will instinctively see the idolatry in Forster’s remarks, and wish to argue for the English novelist, but ninety years later his charges stand, certainly in respect of English novels. The major figures that come to mind, Conrad, Graham Greene, Woolf, perhaps Doris Lessing, certainly not Forster himself, don’t adequately counter his specific charges.

What of the third more sweeping remark? Can we now favourably compare Proust’s insight into  modern consciousness with Beckett, Kafka or Mann?

8 thoughts on “Forster and the Literary Forebears

  1. Interesting. Obviously I’ve only partially read any of them, but for me I would put Proust ahead of each of Kafka, Beckett and Mann (though it’s a long time since I read Mann). Proust to me explores consciousness to a degree I hadn’t previously seen, and probably wouldn’t have thought possible.

    Of course, it’s not a race, there’s no prizes. Beckett, Kafka and Mann are extraordinary writers and each also do things Proust doesn’t seek to.

    • Thanks, Max, I wasn’t attempting a ranking; as you say it isn’t a race.

      Beckett, to my mind, comes very close, and possibly surpasses Proust’s explorations of consciousness, though I have read the trilogy more times than Recherche. But this might just be the consequence of Beckett’s more frank acknowledgement that his narrators are narrating a fictional consciousness of world and self. This option gives him a greater range of possibilities.

  2. Great quote–it reminds me of Doris Lessing’s own comments in the preface to The Golden Notebook, in which she judges nineteenth-century English fiction with similar severity:

    “One was that it was not possible to find a novel which described the intellectual and moral climate of a hundred years ago, in the middle of the last century, in Britain, in the way Tolstoy did it for Russia, Stendhal for France. (At this point it is necessary to make the obligatory disclaimers.) To read The Red and the Black, and Lucien Leuwen is to know that France as if one were living there, to read Anna Karenina is to know that Russia. But a very useful Victorian novel never got itself written. Hardy tells us what it was like to be poor, to have an imagination larger than the possibilities of a very narrow time, to be a victim. George Eliot is good as far as she goes. But I think the penalty she paid for being a Victorian woman was that she had to be shown to be a good woman even when she wasn’t according to the hypocrisies of the time — there is a great deal she does not understand because she is moral. Meredith, that astonishingly underrated writer, is perhaps nearest. Trollope tried the subject but lacked the scope. There isn’t one novel that has the vigour and conflict of ideas in action that is in a good biography of William Morris.”

    I suppose the standard explanation for this deficit, if it is one, would be the excessive empiricism of the English imagination, the lack of conceptual strength to back observation (or fancy). That is something like what Josipovici was getting at in What Ever Happened to Modernism’s invocations of Hegel and the breakdown of modernity, even if his canon would look very dissimilar from Forster’s and Lessing’s since he largely disparages realism.

    Maybe poetry (from Chaucer to Auden/Larkin/Hill/whomever) and “non-fiction” prose-poetry (e.g., Browne, Johnson, Ruskin, Arnold, Pater, Wilde) are the real glories of English lit. Woolf certainly harks back to those precursors as much or more than she does to the novelists.

    • Thanks, John, I had WEHM very much in mind when I quoted Forster. I’m pleased you quoted that Lessing paragraph, which I had forgotten.

      Forster makes your point about English poetry, “English poetry fears no one-excels in quality as well as quantity”, and I’m sure would make no resistance to your claims for “non-fiction”.

  3. I would certainly have to toss Dickens into the mix for putting forward a piece of man’s consciousness coupled with a complete picture of man’s life (Bleak House is what I’m specifically thinking of currently).

    And the idea of the ‘modern consciousness’ is interesting, because I think that precisely because it is what we call ‘modern’, there is a necessary fragmentation and sectionality that stands against the ‘complete picture’ that we attribute to Tolstoy’s novels. But it is remarkable that a mentality that could produce a whole world view, that complete picture, can still be reproduced by reading his texts, even though we certainly don’t have such a wholistic mindset in this day and age.

    • Thanks for commenting, Marina.

      Dickens is fascinating to consider in this context. Though I dislike Forster’s categorisation of ‘flat’ and ’round’ characters, with Dickens as an example of the former, there is a lack of complexity to his characters that, even in Bleak House, by far his masterpiece in my view, limits the success of his analysis of modern consciousness. I always am entertained by Dickens, but never feel that I have gained any insight into another person’s mind.

      Whether we can ever prove or disprove that there exists such a thing as ‘consciousness,’ let alone how we would draw distinctions between when and how consciousness became modern, we certainly must regard ourselves as possessing what we call consciousness. How a writer like Tolstoy or Proust uses a small series of squiggles on a page to portray a person, more complete than those we know in our day to day existence, never ceases to fascinate me and keep me reading for more of that insight.

      • While I do agree with you on that with Dickens it is difficult to gain an insight into another person’s mind, I think that that calls attention to the brilliance of his writing. Because he creates people whose minds cannot be breeched; similar to existing in the real world and finding oneself confronted with only the actions of people rather than their thoughts and insights.

        I think that the beauty of Tolstoy comes partially from the fact that he creates a world that we aspire to live in; a world where people are people and we (the reader) can see how they become people. In actual life, we’re confronted by a plurality of people and becomings, but it’s always within slices of time. And the fact that Tolstoy is able to create in essence a fourth-dimensional slice of humanity (I use humanity rather than people because of the historical and philosophical interludes in W&P) is a part of his brilliance. But I think that Dickens’ lack of ‘depth’ is not due to an inability, but a deliberate opaqueness; kind of like the fog in Bleak House. And the fact that Kafka was inspired by Bleak House and was led to writing The Trial reinforces this thought in me, because sometimes there’s never any insight to be gained. It’s easy to try to break and analyse everything down, but our limitations with such are just as important as those insights, and I think that Dickens underlines those limits in a way that Tolstoy steps over. They both magnify quite extraordinary things about humanity and persons, but in a way, Dickens magnifies the very lack in Tolstoy.

        • It’s been a long time since I read Dickens, particularly Bleak House, but you make it likely I shall reread it sometime soon. I admire rather than love Dickens, but had not thought him capable of the complexity you describe. If he is, and I am able to perceive that added brilliance you have described, I shall have a new appreciation.

          It is conversations like this that made me start this blog in the first place, confirming my belief that reading is so much more potent when shared and discussed. Thank you.

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