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  • Forster's Sentences
  • Judith Scherer Herz

Because Forster's sentences are so lithe in their length, the short and the long, so rhythmically spaced and placed, they might as well be constructing poems rather than novels or stories. However, when Forster tried to write poetry, the idea of "the poem" seems to have turned those sentences into singsong. Hampered by rhymes, by a structure and tonality that were already out of date, they retain only the pathos and confusions of desire, the mild amusement of satire. Of course, both of those qualities are latent in the prose, but it will be my argument here that the unit of the sentence contains and constrains them, indeed often justifies them.

How do we describe Forster's style? Late, late Victorian? Not quite modernist? Essayistic or its opposite—overdone, tending to the purple? Ever since Virginia Woolf identified whimsy as a marker of his style, critics both sympathetic and less so have used that word and associated adjectives (droll, facetious) to mark a degree of distaste or hesitation, the minus sign in the critical grading system. This putative whimsy, combined with a suspicion of the recurrent element of fantasy, of "sermonizing," the unease about Forster's liberal humanism, and a sense that he's too elusive can't quite be pinned down have contributed to judgments about Forster that scrutiny of his sentences might mitigate or at least complicate. It is certainly the case that Forster talks in his novels, the quality labeled sermonizing, but he often makes that talk his characters' experience. It is insinuated into their thoughts; it belongs to the way characters are filtering the moment, thinking the words without directly uttering them, but nonetheless in possession of these words.

Howards End: Goblins

Frank Kermode was far too good a critic, too various and learned, not to be occasionally wrong. As I write this sentence the very day that his death has been announced, I am tempted to retract, to reframe, but I [End Page 4] don't. Kermode was a critic, scholar, reader, whose manifold writings I deeply admire and learn from. And he admired Forster, and over the years wrote beautifully about his work, and did so again in his last book, but.... It's that "but" that I am after, for I find throughout Concerning E. M. Forster (2009), which consists of the four (in)formal Clark lectures from 2007 followed by a wide-ranging excursus, a causerie he called it, about the writing, about the writer, a useful example of the uneasy give and take (the give abundantly present in the fine pages on Passage to India) that marks much current writing on Forster.1 In Kermode's reading, the Fifth Symphony scene in chapter five of Howards End in its

conjuring up shipwrecks and elephants and goblins is an enemy of the music [my italics]: "A triumphant conclusion, but the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things." I admit to my inability to write down these words without wincing a little. They make me wonder if I can trust Forster when he writes other things. Then it strikes me that he is just being droll.2

No! Neither droll nor "just droll." Forster's sentence swerves away from what indeed had been droll, amusing, the comic appraisal of ways of listening to music, the Teutonic, the British, the analytical, each bearing the impress of its listener. But once the goblins appear in the mix, offered a few paragraphs earlier by Helen's excited imagination, "panic and emptiness" attending them, they pick up the text's opening scenes and begin a process that bears on and echoes within, indeed unsettles everything that follows. As Helen listens, the notes she hears as elephants and goblins mean "this or that," but it is the narrator who sets them in motion, whose sentences give them both agency and urgency.

There have been over the years several illuminating readings of the sentence that made Kermode wince. One, Andrea Weatherhead's 1985 musically informed article, "Howards End: Beethoven's Fifth," reads novel and symphony...


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