restricted access Commonplace Book (review)
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E. M. Forster. Commonplace Book. Ed. Philip Gardner. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986. 372 pp. $35.00.

E. M. Forster's Commonplace Book was first published in 1978 in a superb facsimile edition by Scolar Press, of London, who are also the British publishers of this transcription. Since my review of the facsimile edition is quoted on both the British and the American jackets of this new one, I will requote myself, and add the reference to that earlier account, which is a much fuller appreciation of Forster's extraordinary work than that I can offer here:

Read as the closest available approximation to Forster's unwritten novel, the Commonplace Book comes to resemble something like Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook. One works out the life pattern of the central character, the novelist who is simultaneously writing and not writing, dissipating emotions and ideas in notebooks—only one of them golden—as one reads on. Recurring doubts, reiterated concepts, variegated themes are woven together by the reader with a delighted, hard-earned sense of discovery.

("E. M. Forster's Commonplace Book," Contemporary Review, 234 [May 1979], 251-55.)

Now my delight is that so much of the substance of Forster's careful collection of his own thoughts and others' has been made easily available. However, I am also immensely more aware that much of the power of the original depends on Forster's artful use of his own changing calligraphy. The difficulties of coping with the variations account for my earlier sense that discovery was "hard-earned." Readers of the transcription will have an easier time; yet, as Philip Gardner wisely warns, "Forster's original is more intimate, more dramatic, and more versatile than a printed edition is capable of being."

In my own reading of the transcription I was quickly driven back to the facsimile by my sense of loss. It took me awhile to orient myself, since there is no key to the pages of the original, so carefully numbered as well as designed by Forster. Once in place, I developed a strong desire to get out my own favorite pen in order to approximate, record, redecorate, or somehow indicate something of the variations. Any owner of a facsimile will find the transcription a very handy reference as soon as the bounds of Forster's original pages are noted into it. Many of the most difficult passages are perfectly transcribed; it is an admirable advance in the direction of understanding and clarity. However, I strongly recommend that all owners of the transcription track down the nearest of the 350 fac-similes [End Page 661] scattered around the world and apply their own ingenuity to the recalcitrant cold print. At a minimum, and without reference to the original or its facsimiles, it is worth noting with care, from the general set of the pages and the run of the annotations in the rear of the volume, the differences between the subsidiary breaks within entries and the major breaks between them. Forster usually extended the heading or the opening words of his main entries into the left margin that he ruled on each page. The paragraphs within an entry are men left-justified, not necessarily to the ruled margin, without opening indentation; quotations are generally marked by quotation marks and, if short, often by a larger handwriting. The cold print of the transcription puts quotations into smaller type without quotes, in the modern style, and, in preserving something of the original leftward justifications, marks paragraph breaks within entries by a blank line and indicates breaks between entries by a double blank. On some pages the variations between the size of print and the depths of the related blanks cause confusion. To choose an extreme instance, when Forster opens a late Tennyson entry with centered lines of poetry, there is no leftward heading to indicate the major break; Herbert and Tennyson run strangely together on the page (244). In the original, Herbert has one page and Tennyson the next, with half a page empty between. The annotation records this space, though the transcription itself provides no larger break.

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