The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948
It is twenty four years since E. M. Forster published his last novel. In it he fully revealed the wealth of his imagination, the richness of his mind, his deep humanism and mature wisdom. Yet his admirers somewhat wistfully continue to voice dim protests at his sustained silence and express vague hopes that this man who appears so satisfactorily to have achieved his own personal integration will make a further statement of his faith through his chosen medium, the novel. Instead, a silence, almost ominous, rings in their ears and they find no response. There remains as an undertone only an echo which unlike the utterly dull bou-oum of the Marabar caves, carries with it the voiceless cries of Gino, Mrs. Wilcox, the Emersons and others of the elect. And what of this echo? Has Forster in his five novels and few short stories shed such of his wisdom as he cares to shed content to leave it to his readers to decide whether life is a 'mystery or a' muddle'? Certainly he has posed the question. It is not always easy to decide what his answer is or indeed whether he has really given one. There, perhaps, lies the subtle fascination of his novels. Particularly in the first four, where are interspersed the oddest coincidences and the most unlikely happenings which culminate in situations little short of pure allegory. Ansell's fantastic entry into the dining-hall, in 'The Longest journey', followed by his denouncement of his friend Rickie before the whole school, is a supreme example. And yet the reader is left feeling that however unlikely, it somehow remains true.
Forster is filled with a profound, uncertainty. In this some see his inherent weakness, his ultimate failure. To others the knowledge that life is transitory, unpredictable and never entirely understood, that to follow the anticipated course, or to realize their potential good is a fundamental truth. human beings can never he quite relied on Because Forster perceived this so clearly they see in his work so much that is true concerning people. For it is with people that Forster is always concerned. The 'inner life' and 'personal relationships' are his key phrases. As he develops he endeavours to relate these to man's social setting. From 'Howards End' (1910) in which this is attempted we span fourteen years to 'A Passage to India' (1924) where all the forces of man and nature are rallied to discover the unity, the hidden synthesis which perhaps underlies human kind and the world it inhabits. Again for some the shadowy figure of Mrs. Moore is a vague and futile creation of a mind stumbling at half-truths. But others find reposing in this woman much of the essential mystery of life. For she is a member of the silent kingdom of individuals who know and always have known and in whom the secret of living is realized from some hidden primal source. How or why it is revealed we are not told. Nor can we expect to be told. Our knowledge comes from knowing such persons and divining in them the force of nature which makes their lives so potent and so complete. This power of recognition implies some life of the spirit in us and the potentiality for entering into personal relationships with our fellow men, which if real and vital lead us to some awareness of the world of which we are part, the all-embracing world of nature.
Thus in each of Forster's novels we have some person who is the touchstone, some elemental character in whom is vested all living forces, who has perhaps 'been back somewhere—back to some table of the Gods, spread in a field wherein there is no noise', or like Gino 'who was majestic, part of Nature'. Forster's appeal is not to the divine in man but to his essential human nature. Indeed life does not believe in immortality or in eternal life. Elsewhere he says. 'The people I respect must behave as if they were immortal and as if society was eternal. Both assumptions are false: both of them must be accepted as true if we are to go on eating and working and loving and are to keep open a few breathing holes for the human spirit'.* Through all his work there is a pervading page 7 sense of transitoriness, a realization of man's impermanency and instability. 'There is much good luck in the world but it is luck. We are none of us safe.' And yet for some few people, those who are miraculously in harmony with the real world about them, life has meaning and they are fulfilled. This quality of one-ness with the world may be inherent in the individual as in the elemental Stephen Worham or it may be acquired through an act of conversion. Thus 'Philip . . . was happy; he was assured there was greatness in the world. There came to him an earnest desire to be good through the example of this good woman. He would try hence-forward to be worthy of the things she had revealed. Quietly, without hysterical prayers or banging of drums he underwent conversion. He was saved.' Just how convincing Forster's 'real' people are may be seen from a closer examination of his books.
Forster is greatly lauded by some, faintly praised by others for his famous 'charm'. His work indeed has charm. At times it spells out an almost magical beauty. It is the work of a rich and subtle imagination able in rare moments so to harmonize the soul and cosmos as to wake wonder and profound joy in the percipient. It has the quality of great music and affects the senses in the same way. In the 'Longest Journey' there is an incident in the half-brothers' journey to Wiltshire.'. . . But they played as boys who continued the nonsense of the railway carriage. The paper caught fire from the match and spread into a rose of flame. "Now gently with me," said Stephen, and they laid it flower like on the stream. Gravel and tremulous weeds leapt into sight, and then the flower sailed into deep water, and up leapt two arches of a bridge. "It'll strike!" they cried, "no it won't, it's chosen the left ", and one arch became a fairy tunnel, dropping diamonds. Then it vanished for Rickie; but Stephen, who knelt in the water, declared that it was still afloat, far through the arch, burning as if it would burn for ever.' This comes at the conclusion of notable chapter and has the effect of lifting the whole story into the world which Stephen himself inhabits. It is idle to mock such charm even if elsewhere Mrs. Wilcox's wisp of hay (with the dew on it) does perhaps become tiresome.
Forster is not primarily concerned with plot or story. How is it then that his books are all in a sense violent, starkly coincidental, sprinkled with shocks? His people die suddenly. 'Gerald died that afternoon. He was broken up in the football match' comes quite without warning. Leonard breaks up; Gino's baby is killed in a carriage accident; Rickie is run over by a train. Forster's purpose is to bring the fact of death sharply before his readers. Most men he has said are conscious of the idea of death, few know death. He is prepared then to trespass beyond normal bounds of probability in an effort to emphasize what he has to say concerning human nature and human relationships. The important point being that within such limits as he does impose we feel strongly impelled to accept as true all that happens. This because he writes with a convincing sincerity, at times passionate in its appeal to the reader.
None of his people are entirely good or wholly evil. The strange contradictions he reveals are at first 'confusing and we are left wondering quite how to interpret them. This is not accident on Forster's part. Mrs. Moore who knows the truth lifts no hand to save Dr Aziz. Does Forster retrospectively justify her action by Aziz's subsequent acquittal? Both Gino and Stephen Wonham, sons of nature are capable of coarseness, deceit and brutality. Yet they are majestic; are heroes. They are a law unto themselves and rightly. It is said of Rickie in 'The Longest Journey' that he 'suffered from the Primal Curse, which is not—as the Authorized Version suggests—the knowledge of good and evil, but the knowledge of good-and-evil'. This is basic to Forster's philosophy of life; a part of his profound uncertainty. He regards with deep suspicion divinely inspired absolute moral laws. The knowledge of good-and-evil then is the Primal Curse. It is no wonder that none of his people satisfy the longing of some for black or white outright. Instead they meet greys of varying depth and intensity and only if particularly obtuse fail to identify some such curious blending in themselves.
Forster is both artist and craftsman. He binds each of his stories together not so much by the people in them as by significant buildings and places. These assume almost symbolical reference and recur again and again, giving ballast and centrality to his work. Thus 'Howards End the home of Mrs. Wilcox page 8 is the focal point and to it is continually related the outside world of London—paradox of commerce and culture. Both the 'Longest journey' and 'A Passage to India' are divided into three component parts to form an integrated whole. Cambridge, Sawston and Wiltshire in themselves distinct and separate, have each their human counterpart in Ansell, the Pembrokes and Stephen Wonham respectively. Rockie is the centrifugal force about whom the story plays. Again in 'A Passage to India', the Mosque, Caves and Temple present three aspects of man's inner life. The unifying link being Mrs. Moore. She it is who meets Dr Aziz in the Mosque, who visits the Marabar Caves with him and whose memory wakes in the mind of Professor Godbole in the Temple. 'He had with increasing vividness, again seen Mrs. Moore, and round her faintly clinging forms of trouble. He was a Brahman, she Christian, but it made no difference, it made no difference whether she was a trick of the memory or a telepathic appeal. It was his duty, it was his desire, to place himself in the position of the God and to love her, and to place himself in her position and to say to the God: "Come, come, come, come". This was all he could do. How inadequate! But each according to his own capacities and he knew that his own were small.... "Such a passage has more than charm; it is irradient with an Oriental beauty. Peter Burra has ably described the three parts of these two books as ' planned like symphonies in three movements that are given their shape and their inter-connections by related and contrasted localities'. This is so. And particularly in 'A Passage to India' do we travel beyond mere words. Truths which find comprehension in the same way that music is comprehended. A total response is called direct from the human heart. An invocation to mingle with the Gods of Truth and Beauty and the more tangible Deities who are the stars and night and earth and hills and long-winding rivers of water which flow to limitless seas. Such is Forster's appeal.