restricted access E. M. Forster, and: The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80 (review)
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Reviewed by
Norman Page. E. M. Forster. New York: St. Martin's, 1987. 133 pp. $24.95.
Durrell, Lawrence and Henry Miller. The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80. Ed. Ian MacNiven. New York: New Directions, 1988. 528 pp. $26.95.

In his admirably lucid, though theoretically thin, account of the major novels, Norman Page firmly places E. M. Forster in the great tradition of English realistic fiction. To understand the shape of Forster's career, Page argues, one must first situate it in the context of earlier novelistic conventions, conventions clearly at odds with the experimentalism associated with avant-garde art:

Forster's contribution to the tradition of the novel was not that of a great innovator or experimentalist: his most ambitious novel, A Passage to India, belongs to the same decade as Women in Love, Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, but it is a more traditional work than any of these. In many respects he is closer to the great nineteenth-century novelists than to the most historically significant of his own contemporaries, though he was certainly not unaware or unappreciative of what the latter were doing.

Arguing that Forster's vision is primarily "moral" and his technique essentially "mimetic," Page avoids the ironic view of Forster favored by such earlier readers as Alan Wilde or Frederick Crews. For Page, the quintessential Forster is the sensitive, impressionable young man from Cambridge who, after a period of prolonged and often painful adolescence, went on to write social fiction noteworthy for its life-affirming openness and humanity: a fiction "liberal, humane, skeptical, unconventional, relentlessly moral without being ponderous."

Given this antiironic view of Forster's achievement, it is hardly surprising that Page aligns him with the ethical tradition exemplified by Jane Austen and George Eliot. True, he does acknowledge the problematic elements of Forster's personal life—his homosexuality, his dependence on his mother, his tormenting bouts of loneliness, his limited range of professional experience; but these serve only to narrow the focus of his novelistic reference, never to darken or diminish its ultimate clarity. Hence, Forster's development as a novelist is seen here as a rather straightforward affair in which the theme of "conversion," that is, of a character's transcendence of his or her emotional conditioning, is elaborated progressively from one end of his career to the other. After a witty and incisive introduction to the author's life, Page examines this masterplot in a novel-by-novel analysis, beginning with the "Italian" fiction (Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room With a View) and concluding with A Passage to India, where the need for human contact and connection undergoes a cosmic apotheosis.

With only rare exceptions, Page firmly upholds the underlying authority and consistency of Forster's ethical agenda. For all its admirable clarity, therefore, his book suffers from a severe and fundamental limitation—one indicated in the passage quoted above. Because he equates modernism with conscious experimentalism, he often fails to see the undeniable density and indeterminacy of Forster's fiction, an indeterminacy that actually belies any notion of "a flexible but consistent authorial presence." In his chapter on The Longest Journey, for example, Page [End Page 808] expresses his surprise that Forster seems to share Rickie's idealized view of Gerald at the same time that he shows us the latter's "coarseness of nature and bluntness of moral perception"; in his discussion of Howard's End he assumes that Forster wants to achieve a stabilizing "synthesis" between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, even though the narrator steadily resists any such facile harmonies; and in his otherwise illuminating account of A Passage to India, he simply asserts that Aziz could not have molested Adela, whereas the novel nowhere conclusively denies this possibility.

Implicit in these examples is Page's new-critical tendency to disdain any ambiguity that might impair the alleged unity and wholeness of a literary work. In short, what is missing from his monograph is any necessary sense of the dialogic interplay between Forster's moral vision and his modernist skepticism. By such interplay, I refer to his marvellous capacity—shared by other modernists as well—for dispersing his "authorial presence...