The OF Blog: 1961 Nobel Lit Prize finalist: E.M. Forster

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

1961 Nobel Lit Prize finalist: E.M. Forster

This piece, the second out of a planned seven (but only these two were written then), was originally posted in January 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat.  Perhaps I will write pieces in the near future on the other five named finalists for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In last week’s post, I analyzed some of the reasons why J.R.R. Tolkien’s recently-revealed nomination for the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature was shot down by committee members.  This week, the focus shifts to British novelist E.M. Forster, who was most well-known for the following novels at the time of his nomination:  Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907),  A Room With a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924).  Whereas Tolkien was relatively little-known globally in 1961, Forster’s fame had passed its zenith almost four decades before.  In reading four of these novels (excluding The Longest Journey), I found it difficult to disagree with the committee’s assessment of him as being “a shadow of his former self,” as these mostly Edwardian era stories almost certainly had to feel like living fossils during the most heated part of the Cold War and the decolonization movements of the 1940s-1960s.

Noting this does not diminish what Forster accomplished in these novels; it merely acknowledges that in judging his body of work in context of Nobel’s provision for literary awards for works of “an ideal direction,” Forster’s work in 1961 would feel out of touch with the then-current times.  His treatment of relationships feels rather quaint and outmoded a century after most of his works were compiled and even fifty-one years ago, such sentiments had gone out of vogue.  Yet when one examines the heart of his most famous works, it is easy to find much that  is a pleasure to read, whether one reads for the sparkling prose or for the deft characterizations.

When it was written in 1905, Where Angels Fear to Tread likely provoked some strong reaction in England, as at its heart was a strong, independent woman, the widow Lilia, who during her travel to Italy falls in love with Gino, with whom she falls in love and marries against her former in-laws’ wishes.  This short novel, barely 150 pages in print, is a masterful character piece, starring Lilia’s traveling companion, Caroline, and her in-law, Philip, who unsuccessfully tries to prevent Lilia’s marriage to Gino, before the main action of the novel’s second part occurs.  Yet the prose feels odd here, particularly near the end of the novel, when this declaration by Caroline to Philip takes place:
“”You’ve upset me.”  She stifled something that was perilously near hysterics.  ” I thought I was past all this.  You’re taking it wrongly.  I’m in love with Gino – don’t pass it off – I mean it crudely – you know what I mean.  So laugh at me.”
“Laugh at love?” asked Philip.
“Yes.  Pull it to pieces.  Tell me I’m a fool or worse – that he’s a cad.  Say all you said when Lilia fell in love with im.  That’s the help I want.  I dare tell you this because I like you – and because you’re without passion; you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful.  So I can trust you to cure me.  Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny?” She tried to laugh herself, but became frightened and had to stop.  “He’s not a gentleman, nor a Christian, nor good in any way.  He’s never flattered me nor honoured me.  But because he’s handsome, that’s been enough.  The son of an Italian dentist, with a pretty face.”  She repeated the phrase as if it was a charm against passion.  “Oh, Mr. Herriton, isn’t it funny!”  Then, to his relief, she began to cry. “I love him, and I’m not ashamed of it.  I love him, and I’m going to Sawston, and if I mayn’t speak about him to you sometimes, I shall die.”
In that terrible discovery Philip managed to think not of himself but of her.  He did not lament.  He did not even speak to her kindly, for he saw that she could not stand it.  A flippant reply was what she asked and needed – something flippant and a little cynical.  And indeed it was the only reply he could trust himself to make.
“Perhaps it is what the books call ‘a passing fancy’?”
When read in context of the novel, Forster captures almost perfectly the tensions and self-denials of these two and their friends and families.    We sense the quivering, wavering resolution behind Caroline’s declaration of love and the situational irony of her address to Philip, who has begun to love her.  The niceties of polite conversation are shown here to be deceptions that have to be stripped away before honest, frank emotions can be exchanged between the two.  It is well-done – for a time that had already passed within twenty years of its initial publication.

A Room With a View revisits the Italian location and Forster’s examination of Edwardian English society and its social conventions.  It builds upon Where Angels Fear to Tread‘s exploration of love amidst filial and class obligations and gender expectations.  Below is a telling passage, where one of the major characters, Lucy, muses on “unladylike” things:
Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big, and she believed that it would have come to her on the wind-swept platform of an electric tram.  This she might not attempt.  It was unladylike.  Why?  Why were most big things unladylike?  Charlotte had once explained to her why.  It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different.  Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves.  Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much.  But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored.  Poems had been written to illustrate this point.
This passage goes right to the heart of the hypocrisies of Edwardian English social conventions (remnants of which persist even today).  This easily could have been a passage from a suffragette pamphlet of the times.  Yet despite the now-antiquated setting (hard to imagine groups of gallivanting sirs and ladies traipsing in groups to Italy for an “exotic” tour, lest one considers the recent season of Jersey Shore to be the 21st century equivalent), this is one of the few themes in Forster’s work, that of the oppressed/repressed needing to have their own voices considered on their own merits, that feels just as vital today as when it was published.  Perhaps it is for scenes such as this and later on in A Passage to India that Forster was nominated in 1961, as there’s a strong social statement made fifty years prior that still needed to be heard over a half-century after this novel’s initial publication.
Howards End takes a much more direct approach to the issue of class conflict.  Forster uses verbal irony in several places to skewer contemporary beliefs regarding the poor and the working class, such as the beginning paragraph to Chapter VI:
WE are not concerned with the very poor.  They are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.  This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.
Through this ironic use of “WE,” we the readers now have to react to what is being said.  Who speaks for “WE?”  Surely not the gentlefolk who then, as today, so often ignore the teeming masses that support their consumptive lifestyles.  Forster uses this to set up the main conflicts in the novel in a way that the reader acutely experiences the frustrations, repressions, and conflicts that beset English society during this gilded age before the outbreak of World War I.  Although many of the conflicts are in the past today, several of the then-prevalent social prejudices still eek out an existence even today (which can be readily seen in some of the debates and commentaries by certain American and British politicians, among others of their ilk).

Forster’s most well-known novel, A Passage to India, also explores the dichotomies of social conflicts.  Here, instead of the issue being between the upper and lower classes of English society, the main conflict is between the English administrators of India and the natives.  After a misunderstanding occurs that leads to a prominent Indian Muslim, Dr. Aziz, being accused of “insulting a lady’s honor” (presumably, in less chaste terms a sexual assault was attempted), the story proceeds to explore the dynamics of British rule and how the subjugated Indians, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, are treated as children by their English overlords.  Of the four novels that I read, A Passage to India resonated the most with me, for its keen treatment of racial prejudices and how it was the so-called “progressives” that tended to be the worst offenders.

As a novelist, Forster wrote superb novels where the characters were well-rounded and dynamic, with evocative prose.  Yet at the time that he was being considered for the 1961 Nobel, his days as a novelist were well in the past.  The issues that he explored so deftly had already been transformed in the intervening four decades.  Bra burning, the Equal Rights Amendment in the US, and the Summer of Love were much closer to 1961 than were Forster’s novels and this likely prejudiced the committee’s viewpoint.  If Forster had been selected in the 1920s or 1930s, his work likely would have been hailed as representing a sea-change in attitudes toward gender and class relations.  But in 1961?  The world had changed and a novel about British imperialist attitudes fourteen years after a now-divided India gained its independence would seem hopelessly out of date with the fast-changing times.  In this context, it is not surprising that Forster was rejected for his age and his lack of recent output, but conversely, it could also be noted that he would have been a more than deserving winner if he had been selected two or three decades before.

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