Thursday, January 5, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster

Old Bestseller: The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster

a review by Rich Horton

Of course it is silly to list this book as a bestseller. And indeed, even Forster's best known novels, A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924), while they likely sold well enough, do not appear on the online bestseller lists I can find. But certainly Forster remains one of the major and best remembered 20th Century novelists (in part because he has been widely adapted, and somewhat recently, to film), despite a curiously short career.

Forster was born on the first day of 1879, and died age 91 in 1970. An aunt left him a significant legacy when he was 8, enough that he would never have to work for a living. He attended Cambridge, and subsequently traveled widely, mostly with his mother, with whom he lived until her death. (Forster was, of course, homosexual, and had a long time relationship with a married policeman.) He was a conscientious objector, and worked for the Red Cross during the First World War. He published his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in 1905, and three more novels appeared by 1910. A Passage to India, his last novel to appear in his lifetime came 14 years later, and Maurice (written before the first War) was only issued posthumously (presumably because of its homosexual theme). That means that he wrote essentially no fiction for the last half of his life. He did write criticism, and was a successful broadcaster.

The Collected Tales comprises two previously published short collections: The Celestial Omnibus (1911) and The Eternal Moment (1928). The omnibus edition seems to date to 1947 from Knopf. My edition is a 1968 Modern Library reprint. According to Forster's 1946 introduction to the collected edition, they were all written before World War I. Presumably most were published in magazines, and I have indicated the first place of publication where I could find it. Forster writes that they "represent all I have accomplished in a particular line"; and it's fairly clear that the line he means is, basically, Fantasy. All the stories are fantastical save the title story of the second book, "The Eternal Moment". (One of them, of course, the most famous, "The Machine Stops", is Science Fiction.)

The stories are:

The Celestial Omnibus:
"The Story of a Panic" (8400 words)
"The Other Side of the Hedge" (2200 words)
"The Celestial Omnibus" (6000 words) (Albany Review, January 1908)
"Other Kingdom" (6600 words)
"The Curate's Friend" (2800 words) (The Pall Mall Magazine, October 1907)
"The Road from Colonus" (4400 words)

The Eternal Moment:
"The Machine Stops" (12,800 words) (The Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909)
"The Point of It" (6200 words)
"Mr. Andrews" (1700 words)
"Co-Ordination" (2600 words)
"The Story of the Siren" (3000 words) (The Atlantic Monthly, October 1923 (possibly published elsewhere earlier))
"The Eternal Moment" (11,800 words)

I'll touch on each story at least briefly. First, from The Celestial Omnibus: "The Story of a Panic" concerns a boy named Eustace, who is quite as repellent as Eustace Scrubb at the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has an encounter with an elemental -- evidently Pan -- and is utterly changed. "The Other Side of the Hedge" is one of several quite allegorical -- or, perhaps I should say, overtly metaphorical -- stories about conventional life vs freer-thinking life, in this case cleverly portraying ordinary life as a constant walk along a path -- as oppose to life on the other side of the hedge bordering the path. "The Celestial Omnibus" is another story like that, about a boy who finds and take a curious bus that says it goes "To Heaven". He takes the trip and is enchanted -- but is not believed, especially by a rational and well-educated family friend who ends up agreeing to also take the bus -- with unfortunate results. "Other Kingdom" concerns a rich man who marries a beautiful woman of the lower classes, and proves unable to understand her more authentic responses to natural beauty. "The Curate's Friend" is an interesting case -- a young curate is on a picnic with his intended, Emily, who, we are told, eventually was an estimable wife. But on this picnic he encounters a Faun -- and somehow he can't forgot the Faun, whom only he can see, and who promises to make him happy. In the end Emily leaves him for an artistic young man, while the curate never marries, and remains "friends" with the Faun, whom he must always keep secret from his congregations. Even without knowing Forster's sexuality, what's going on here seems pretty obvious -- this is the story of a young churchman confused about his sexuality, finally released when he falls for a young man, who remains his "friend", but concealed, throughout his long career as a "lifelong bachelor". Finally, "The Road to Colonus" is about an old man visiting Greece, who suddenly finds an inn and its people who seems wonderful to him -- but his family won't let him stay, and he returns to England, to learn of the strange fate of the inn ... and to continue to regret.

The Eternal Moment opens with "The Machine Stops", the longest and by far the most famous story here. This is set in a future where people live isolated in explicitly beehive-like cells, all their needs provided by "the Machine", communicating with other people only electronically (except for distasteful meetings to procreate), almost never travelling. Vashti is a woman wholly of her time, but her son Kuno is something of a rebel. He insists that she come to visit him (very unusual), and she hears of his disturbing trip to the surface -- now, it seems, uninhabitable -- but alluring to him. The story continues as people begin to treat the Machine as a God even as it is decaying, and by the end this Machine-driven civilisation is collapsing, the only hope remaining being those "homeless" who have recolonized the surface. This is quite interesting and more fully realized than most of the rest of these stories.

"The Point of It" is another of Forster's diatribes against conventionality -- a superficially successful man dies and goes to what he hopes is Heaven only to realize that he is in Hell, a Hell reserved for those who took the easy way with every controversy. "Mr. Andrews" is yet another story about the afterlife, with the title character, a worthy and conventional Englishman, dying and going to Heaven, on the way meeting a brawling Turk -- both are saved when they beseech the guardian of Heaven to let the other in -- and their salvation, in the end, is to escape Heaven. "Co-Ordination" is a bit different -- a satire of then "Modern" education, wherein a middle-aged piano teacher is freed from her frustrating job even as, in the afterlife, both Beethoven and Napoleon try to intervene. "The Story of the Siren" is another piece about a visitor to the Mediterranean encountering a supernatural being -- though in this case it's really about the danger of actually meeting a Siren, as happened to a local man the visitor hears of. And the book closes with another long story, and the only non-fantastical piece in the whole book, "The Eternal Moment". Miss Raby, a middle-aged novelist, is visiting a town on the border of Italy and Switzerland that had been the subject of her first, very successful, novel. She finds to her horror that the fame bestowed on the town by her novel has caused it to change -- tourism has made it much richer, and coarser. Worst of all is her encounter with a local man who had propositioned her on her first visit -- now he is a corrupt -- and fat -- concierge at the largest hotel, and he has forgotten her entirely. None of this is helpful for her relationship with the respectably retired General she had been thinking of marrying. It's a pretty fine story -- unlike the other stories it reads like the germ of a Forster novel that he decided (correctly, I'm sure) only needed 12,000 or so words to tell. The themes here -- class and honesty in personal relationships -- seem more closely allied with the themes of Forster's novels.

Except for this last story, Forster seems to have regarded the short form as a vehicle for the somewhat didactic presentation of ideas, using fantastical tropes metaphorically to carry the burden of his, well, lectures. Sometimes these are intriguing, sometimes a bit forced, even a bit trite. I tend to think his real strength is realized in his novels -- even as I confess guiltily that I haven't read any of them. (Though A Room With a View, at any rate is in my TBR pile, though that pile is intimidatingly high.)

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