He wrote and wrote and wrote, but the result was much more than hack work - a sprawling, dazzling geniusby Edward Pearce / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Simon Raven once described meeting EM Forster at Cambridge. Forster had been given the most practical of honours, a non-teaching fellowship at King’s which gave a dawdling pleasantness to his later life. Raven and his friends were off to play real tennis-the Henry VIII game which separates the toffs from the real toffs-when they bumped into Forster.
He wasn’t going anywhere in particular, said Raven, so he came with us to watch. This seemed to Raven typical of Forster’s idle but immensely successful journey through life. He hadn’t done much work, five or six novels depending on what you counted (this was before the appearance of the suppressed Maurice) and a couple of collections of slack journalism. Overpraised in his prime, knocking off early, giving no offence, sustained by the goodwill of people whose outlook he shiningly reflected, soaking up the consensus.
Raven was unfair. Forster had so much to say and said it. Shutting up was both honest and shrewd; hard qualities to combine. He was the tentative liberal examining Edwardian society, subtly giving voice to the nascent sensibility of the Observer reader. But it is significant that Galsworthy, who held similar liberal views and fought the same corner, is given no such credit. If he lacked the courage to let Bosinney sleep with Irene and live, at least he got halfway to a defiance of Forsyte morality, whereas Forster kept his homosexuality in a drawer. What surely works against Galsworthy is that he went on-and on. The Man of Property is a very fine novel, but The Forsyte Saga is nimiety.
The idea of a little being good and a lot faintly discreditable is more pervasive. The paradigm is Jane Austen: so little, so nearly perfect. (Though bearing in mind her death at 41, and the fact that writing was for her necessarily a part-time activity, her six novels represent far more fluency than Forster’s.) Or, to take fiction within fiction, there is John Updike’s novelist hero Henry Bech. Henry, though possessed of a Jewish sense of humour, is an American Forster, victim of writer’s block over which Updike, that Missouri of prose, has since handsomely flowed. And however hard Henry finds it to write, he comes out on top, his little being admired both by the American establishment, which sends him as a cultural angel to Prague, and by the Czechs greeting him in the street,…