P. J. M. Scott's recent E. M. Forster: Our Permanent Contemporary is an unusual book for readers of modern fiction, one that informs us as much about the author, Mr. Scott, as it does about Forster or Howards End or A Passage to India. Indeed, Scott's book is an essay (to borrow Steiner's phrase) in the old-criticism, a display of the author's encounters with Forster's fiction as well as with Forster himself, and a revelation of Scott's somewhat idiosyncratic attitudes toward contemporary life on his way to telling us of his experiences with Forster's oeuvre. I could not help but think of one of Ford's characters, Christopher Tietjens in Parade's End, as I read through Scott's book, and, to the extent that one is already familiar with, say, Aspects of the Novel or A Room with a View, one will alternatively chuckle, criticize, or marvel at Scott's asides as the reader glances through familiar territory with Tory-colored glasses.
For Scott, Forster's is the "unlikeliest art in the tradition of British fiction," in part because he is the "last great Romantic poet in English letters." Quoting G. D. Klingopulos, Scott agrees that in the horribly dogmatic age of the modern, Forster represents "an attractive, though not easily imitable, intellectual shrewdness, delicacy, and responsibility," and states further that Klingopulos' remark "packs into one sentence the whole theme of [Scott's] own study." In addition to Forster's bucolic romanticism and intellectual sensibility, Scott also sees Forster as the master of characterization through dialogue, creating, "in full, the beauty of a benevolent personality and the way (such a personality) reverberates through, and beyond, its lifetime . . . so that the perception of it—as benefic—is not at all sentimentalized."
With these qualities firmly in mind, Scott, a real enthusiast of Forster, doesn't hesitate to label the novelist's shortcomings and strengths. First off, Forster is a failure when acting as a "fictionist of homosexual relations," making his treatment of homosexuality neither "an insight into other human issues" (such as fixed vs. protean identity themes) nor a means of displaying men "being in love with each other." According to Scott, Forster represents his homosexual protagonists as simply "having copulative encounters (in essence)" and appears incapable of rendering "the process of a developing acquaintance and interest in a whole personality . . . likewise the after-history of a commitment." This [End Page 363] summary specifically includes Maurice, although Scott felt great "excitement" when reading the fragment Arctic Summer.
Scott then reevaluates all the major and many of Forster's minor works. He thinks Aspects of the Novel "an extraordinary mixture of brilliant insight and superficial comment," as Forster's essays suffer generally from too chatty a tone. Where Angels Fear to Tread has two flaws—being too short and suffering from a "young man's heartlessness" (Forster was twenty-five when he wrote the novel). A Room with a View, "the most playful work in the canon," exhibits in its central concern the hope "that while life itself remains, no individual is necessarily 'frozen . . . withered up all through.'" This philosophy comes to life through Forster's use of "tone of voice"; he can "bring his characters to life by making them talk." Howards End, although "one of the major master pieces of Narrative art," fails "as a whole because though on the philosophical plane Forster may have got his antithesis right—weighing death against money—on the level of action it is still born." And finally, A Passage to India, whose "most essential theme of all is humanity's need of an epiphany," a "desire for the revelation of Life's Meaning, and in a particular form: 'the Maker of al thing' visiting the world and befriending our species—explaining existence and justifying suffering that way."
One could go on, but the pattern should be clear; Scott has read Forster deeply, known him...