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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 22 October 2018

“Aspects of the Novel” by E M Forster

The writer of classic novels including A Passage to India, Howard's End, Room With a View, Maurice, and Where Angels Fear to Tread, eloquently explains his understanding of this art-form.

He professes difficulty in defining the novel, citing works as diverse as Tristram Shandy, Emma, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, and The White Peacock. Theis is a man who has read widely! He settles for the novel being “a fiction in prose” of at least 50,000 words. (p 25)

The novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist.” (p 40) “A story is a narrative of events arranged in time-sequence.” (p 44) The secret is to keep the reader turning the pages. “Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense - the only literate tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages.” (p 41) Therefore a story “can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” (p 42) “Telling a story ... shock-headed public gaping around the camp-fire and only kept awake by suspense ... storyteller needn't pick up loose threads. As long as he keeps his shock-heads excited he needs no plot.” (p 160) However, a novelist aspiring to be an artist should “Interest the reader in people - not in what happens next.” (p 174)

Novels are about characters. But here he distinguishes fiction from memoir or biography or history because “A historian ... is quite as much concerned with character as a novelist, but he can only know of its existence when it shows on the surface.” (p 55)

He points out that novelists tend to ignore many of the facts of life such as " birth, food, sleep, love and death.” (p 57) In novels most babies “come into the world more like parcels than human beings. When a baby arrives a novel it usually has the air of having been posted ... one of the elder characters goes and picks it up and shows it to the reader, after which it is usually laid in cold storage until it can talk or otherwise assist in the action.” (p 60) “The treatment of death, on the other hand, is nourished much more on observation, and has a variety about it which suggests that the novelist finds it congenial. He does, for the reason that death ends a book neatly.” (p 61) Furthermore “Food in fiction is mainly social. It draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so.” (p 61) Sleep is useful when dreams can be recounted but a character “is never conceived as a creature, a third of whose time is spent in the darkness.” (p 62) And novels are obsessed with relationships. “The constant sensitiveness of characters for each other ... is remarkable, and has no parallel in life, except among people who have plenty of leisure.” (p 62) Thus “Homo Fictus ... is generally born off, he is capable of dying on, he wants little food or sleep, he is tirelessly occupied with human relationships. And - most importantly - we can know more about him than we can know about any of our fellow creatures, because his creator and narrator are one.” (p 63)

He distinguishes between flat and round characters. “Flat characters were called ‘humours’ in the seventeenth century, and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures ... They are constructed around a single idea or quality ... Really flat characters can be expressed in one sentence.” (p 73) “One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized ... they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere.” (p 74) “A second advantage is that they are easily remembered by the reader afterwards.” “Dickens’s people are nearly all flat ... Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence ... Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognise the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow.Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. ... His immense success with types suggests that there may be more to flatness than the severer critics admit.” (p 76)

He is sceptical about the idea of point of view pointing out that both Dickens in Bleak House and Tolstoy in War and Peace shift viewpoints “A novelist can shift his viewpoint if it comes off ... Indeed this power to expand and contract perception ... this right to intermittent knowledge - I find it one of the great advantages of the novel-form, and it has a parallel in our perception of life.” (p 83)

He explains how plot can be distinguished from story: “A plot is ... a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” (p 87) And what is essential about a plot? “This element of surprise or mystery - the detective element as it is sometimes rather emptily called - is of great importance in a plot ... Mystery is essential to a plot ... To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.” (p 88) However, “Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.” (p 93 - 94) “Incidents and people that occurred at first for their own sake now have to contribute to the denouement.” (p 94)

Some plots have patterns eg: the shape of an hour-glass in a cross-over plot or the shape of a circle or a chain which binds “the scattered incidents together with a thread woven out of their own substance.” (p 136) However, he warns that "A rigid pattern ... may externalise the atmosphere, spring naturally from the plot, but it shuts the doors on life, and leaves the novelist doing exercises, generally in the drawing room. Beauty has arrived, but in too tyrannous a guise. ... tyranny as it grows powerful grows petty.” (p 145) He cites Henry James.

He has many more insights, beautifully (and sometimes confrontationally) expressed:

  • Books have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they contain.” (p 30 - 31)
  • The world of beauty was largely closed to Dickens, and is entirely closed to Wells.” (p 34)
  • We move between two darknesses. Certain people pretend to tell us what birth and death are like ... but it is all from the outside.” (p 57) 
  • Let us think of people as starting life with an experience they forget and ending it with one which they anticipate but cannot understand.” (p 58)
  • Food the stoking up process, the keeping alive of an individual flame, ... taken over by the individual himself, who goes on day after day putting an assortment of objects into a hole in his face without becoming surprised or bored.” (p 58) 
  • When human beings love they try to get something. They also try to give something, and this double aim makes love more complicated than food or sleep.” (p 59)
  • One of the illusions attached to love is that it will be permanent. Not has been - will be.” (p 63) 
  • All our experience teaches us that no human relationship is constant, it is as unstable as the living beings who compose it, and they must balance it like jugglers if it is to remain.” (p 63) 
  • All this we know, yet we cannot bear to apply our bitter knowledge to the future; the future is to be so different; the perfect person is to come along, or the person we know already is to become perfect. There are to be no changes, no necessity for alertness. We are to be happy or even perhaps miserable for ever and ever.” (p 63)
  • If God could tell the story of the universe, the universe would become fictitious.” (p 64)
  • You will have noticed in daily life that when people are inquisitive they nearly always have bad memories and are usually stupid at bottom.” (p 87)
  • For two inquisitive people to be friends must be impossible.” (p 88)
  • Perhaps our subject ... has stolen away from us while we theorize, like a shadow from an ascending bird. The bird is all right - it climbs, it is consistent and eminent. The shadow is all right - it has flickered across roads and gardens. But the two things resemble one another less and less, they do not touch as they did when the bird rested its toes on the ground.” (p 101)
  • The saying of St Catherine of Siena that God is in the soul and the soul is in God as the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea.” (p 122)
  • The fantasist ... manipulates a beam of light which occasionally touches the objects so sedulously dusted by the hand of common sense, and renders them more vivid than they can ever be in domesticity. ... It characterizes these novels and gives them ... roughness of surface.” (p 124)
  • As a rule, evil has been feebly envisaged in fiction, which seldom soars about misconduct or avoids the clouds of mysteriousness. Evil to most novelists is either sexual and social, or something very vague ... they want it to exist, in order that it may help them on with the plot, and evil, not being kind, generally hampers them with a villain.” (p 128)
  • Immediate Past is like a stuffy room, and the succeeding generation waste their time in trying to tolerate it. All they can do is to go out leaving the door open behind them. The door may be spacious, witty, harmonious, friendly, but it smells, and there is no getting around this.” (p 161)
  • Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.” (p 165)
  • H.J. in The Turn Of The Screw is merely declining to think about homosex, and the knowledge that he is declining throws him into the necessary fluster.” (p 171)
  • Only a writer who has the sense of evil can make goodness readable.” (p 171)
  • Time bears all its son's away unless they look sharp.” (p 173)

Stupendous and eye-opening. October 2018; 187 pages

Another similar book of literary criticism is The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock

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