Only Dissect

My degree began with Modernist literature, which was both a good and bad thing, and I remember finding E.M. Forster a chore even at the time. He didn’t have the transgressive potential of a Conrad, a Woolf or a Joyce, but he didn’t fit into my sense of the Victorian novel. Whilst his distinction between story and plot in Aspects of the Novel continued to be useful, I had a sense that he couldn’t plot for shit. Too often a key scene was obscure (whatever happened in the cave) or took place between the chapters (the death of Mrs Moore). He fell between two stools.

I think I read the major novels Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Howards End and Passage to India; the latter and the curious The Longest Journey were the closest to being likable. I didn’t read, and still haven’t read, Maurice. A reread of Howards End was due, thanks to the play of The Inheritance, and I wondered if I would have matured after nearly thirty years.

I haven’t.

Various people suggested I should subject myself, oh god no make it stop, the Merchant Ivory film, as if two hours in the company of Bonham Carter, Thompson and Hopkins would be more pleasurable. Whilst knowing the film might have been useful, but I’ve no real wish to revisit it.

On the one hand we have the wealthy Wilcoxes and the half-German Schlegels, largely leisured, Arnoldian philistines and barbarians I suspect, who live on their invertments and money from the colonies. On the other hand, an insurance clerk Leonard Bast, clearly trying to better himself. Whilst the start of the novel is an engagement between Paul Wilcox and Helen Schlegel, the plot really starts to get under way when one of the Schlegels inadvertently steals Leonard’s umbrella, throwing them together. That start to want to help him improve his station, whilst not quite taking him seriously. They warn him his employer is about to go bust — but his new job is no safer.

I guess this is meant to be a social comedy, set as the First World War is clearly coming and the British-German relationship is going to get more complicated. I didn’t really care enough about the upper middle class characters and Bast seems set up to be a hapless victim and as much the victim of his own idiocy as social engineering. Leonard has stood by Jackie, a fallen woman whose seducers turns out to have been known to us all along. But she is also one of the people who will bring him down.

At the heart of the novel is the property of Howards End, although I can’t help but feel that it could have played a bigger role than it does — but then Woolf’s lighthouse is more important as symbol than destination. I couldn’t help but feel that it was comparable to a gothic novel, where architecture defines character and it should be a more haunting presence than it felt. But I kept getting confused as to which Wilcox and which Schlegel was which, and there is something in Forster’s tone that I seem to have an allergic reaction to:

For the Andante had begun–very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen’s mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered, and she gazed at the audience, or the organ, or the architecture. Much did she censure the attenuated Cupids who encircle the ceiling of the Queen’s Hall, inclining each to each with vapid gesture, and clad in sallow pantaloons, on which the October sunlight struck. “How awful to marry a man like those Cupids!” thought Helen. Here Beethoven started decorating his tune, so she heard him through once more, and then she smiled at her Cousin Frieda. But Frieda, listening to Classical Music, could not respond. Herr Liesecke, too, looked as if wild horses could not make him inattentive; there were lines across his forehead, his lips were parted, his pince-nez at right angles to his nose, and he had laid a thick, white hand on either knee. And next to her was Aunt Juley, so British, and wanting to tap. How interesting that row of people was! What diverse influences had gone to the making! Here Beethoven, after humming and hawing with great sweetness, said “Heigho,” and the Andante came to an end. Applause, and a round of “wunderschoning” and pracht volleying from the German contingent. Margaret started talking to her new young man; Helen said to her aunt: “Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing”; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

in its wavering between indirect thought or thought and authorial interpolation I just seem to slide off the prose.

Of course, there is the famous passage:

[Margaret] would only point out the salvation that was latent in [Wilcox’s] own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

It’s one of those sentiments, like truth being beauty and beauty being truth, that doesn’t feel quite as wise as it seems. Can you ever connect? How do you connect? Is it enough? Is one connection another disconnection or a dissection? Are we meant to take it seriously when the speaker is hardly wise?

Alas, I didn’t feel any more connection than in 1989.

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