Monday, December 21, 2009

The Basic Novelistic Substance

An interesting passage from an article about E. M. Forster in The New Criterion:

A lifelong artist, Forster nevertheless valued life over art, and he came down firmly on H. G. Wells’s side in his famous debate with Henry James on the point and purpose of the novel. “What repelled him in James,” Kermode writes, “was the lack, as Forster saw it, of solidity and of character, and the preoccupation with what James took to be the art of fiction, with ‘pattern,’ what James would call ‘the doing’—a fanatical attachment to the treatment of the subject rather than to the material Forster regarded as the basic novelistic substance, the rendering of bourgeois life.” “He seems to me our only perfect novelist,” Forster drily remarked of James, “but alas, it isn’t a very enthralling type of perfection.” The particular problems James set himself—such as, with What Maisie Knew, telling a story entirely from one character’s very limited point of view—Forster dismissed as mere technical exercises; if a change in viewpoint enriches a narrative, then why not use it?

That Forster thought War and Peace the world’s greatest novel, and that James thought it a mess, should come as no surprise. The technical self-consciousness that overtook the novel during Forster’s lifetime, the sense in which novels came to be “about” themselves as much as their subjects, did not much interest him, and he could be quite dismissive of contemporaries like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. (“He was in his seventies when the nouveau roman appeared on the scene,” Kermode says, “so his age would probably have cancelled any obligation to look into it, not that he was likely to have felt one.”) He deplored the modernist preoccupation with formalistic concerns over actual subject matter: “So marriage,” he complained, “love, friendship, family feuds, social nuances, lawsuits about property, illegitimate children, failures on the stock exchange—all the products of liberalism, in fact, all essentially the subject matter of Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, Arnold Bennett—don’t serve the modern novelist so well. He doesn’t even find death very useful.”

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