E.M. Forster on Henry James

More from EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. (I introduce what this book is about here.)

Now here’s what THRILLED me about this book. It has to do with my enduring hatred of Henry James. EM Forster uses James’ novels as examples in his lecture on “patterns”. James’ novels, of course, fit into highly rigid patterns … and while EM Forster clearly admires the skill of the writing … he has a lot of reservations about relying so heavily on patterns.

What thrilled me about this lecture is that it put into words for me just what it is that bothers me about Henry James.

Let us examine at some length another book of the rigid type, a book with a unity, and in this sense an easy book, although it is by Henry James. We shall see in it pattern triumphant, and we shall also be able to see the sacrifices an author must make if he wants his pattern and nothing else to triumph.

Wow. Okay then. Forster then breaks down the plot and pattern of The Ambassadors which, yes, I have read.

The Ambassadors … is the shape of an hourglass… The plot is elaborate and subtle, and proceeds by action or conversation or meditation through every paragraph. Everything is planned, everything fits; none of the minor characters are just decorative … they elaborate on the main theme, they work. The final effect is pre-arranged, dawns gradually on the reader, and is completely successful when it comes. Details of intrigue, of the various missions from America, may be forgotten, but the symmetry they have created is enduring.

Plot description follows for many pages. I want to make clear that Forster has great admiration for James’ writing. He is quite complimentary here and there. But the books leave him cold. Here is his explanation, finally, why:

The beauty that suffuses The Ambasadors is the reward due to a fine artist for hard work. James knew exactly what he wanted, he pursued the narrow path of aesthetic duty, and success to the full extent of his possibilities has crowned him. The pattern has woven itself with modulation and reservations Anatole France will never attain. Woven itself wonderfully. But at what sacrifice!

So enormous is the sacrifice that many readers cannot get interested in James, although they can follow what he says (his difficulty has been much exaggerated), and can appreciate his effects. They cannot grant his premise, which is that most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel.

I almost screamed HURRAY when I read that. That’s IT. Yes, I do feel that James’ “difficulty has been much exaggerated”. I do not find his books “difficult” at all. I find them boring and lifeless. His characters do not make an impression. I do not care, basically. But Forster gets to the heart of it. Yes – I “cannot grant [James’] premise” … I cannot grant “that most of human life has to disappear” for him to write a good novel.

Forster ends his lecture with this:

The James novels are a unique possession and the reader who cannot accept his premises misses some valuable and exquisite sensations. But I do not want more of his novels, especially when they are written by someone else, just as I do not want the art of Akhenaton to extend into the reign of Tutankhamen.

Thanks, EM. You just made my own feelings clear.

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2 Responses to E.M. Forster on Henry James

  1. Eccentrica says:

    I laughed when Daisy Miller died. The hussy.

  2. Laura says:

    I cared about Isabel. I thought it was very ironic that she was destroyed by her uncle’s loving bequest, coupled with her independent spirit that everyone had been so admiring of. She turned down men with whom she might have been vaguely dissatisfied, and settled on the one who made her positively miserable. It was as though she had some perverse character flaw that pushed her straight to disaster. Or maybe she was just doomed. They warned her about fortune-seekers, and I found the point in the book in which she realized that despite everything she had fallen prey to one emotionally evocative. But even with all this, she struggled to find and hold onto some personal integrity. And I wondered at the end what she was going to do about her marriage, and what was going to happen to Pansy.

    But, to each his own, I reckon.