- Difficult Rhythm: Music and the Word in E. M. Forster
Musicologist Michelle Fillion's Difficult Rhythm is an ambitious project. While studies of music's representation in the British novel have often been able to illuminate [End Page 248] particular scenes in the works of authors such as George Eliot, they sometimes cast a narrow beam that does not widen outward to revise scholarly understanding of a given work as a whole, let alone the author's oeuvre or biography. Yet Difficult Rhythm attempts to do all these things, and takes its justification from Forster himself. The book's title is taken from one of Forster's Clark lectures, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1927, in which he argued that great novels should imitate music's ability to set in motion, through a careful concatenation of chords, a trembling vibration that continues to affect the listener even after the music has stopped. Such a "difficult rhythm," if achieved, would allow to reader, like the listener, suddenly to apprehend "something that has never actually been played" (qtd. in Fillion xvii). While Forster was clear that novels should imitate music, he was much less sure that music could signify anything definite; his conviction, then, that novelistic form should mirror musical form indicates, for Fillion, a deliberate, modernist ambivalence in not only the themes but the forms of Forster's works.
The book's two great strengths are the quality of its research and the clarity, and sometimes even the beauty, of its writing. That clarity, however, results at times in glossing over potential difficulties. The book is marred by too-frequent speculation; the words "likely," "may," and "surely" appear with alarming frequency. The first chapter, for example, provides readers with a concise biography of Forster's musical life, where no argument need be made and only matters of fact need be recounted. Yet we are told that Forster "likely made swift progress" in his early piano lessons, while his poor performance of scales was "likely a sore point with his mother" (2); during his university years, his college conversation group, The Apostles, "may well" have discussed "the dominating musical figures of the day" (4). The five following chapters, each of which features a close reading of one of Forster's novels in the context of Forster's musical knowledge and beliefs, often repeat this hesitant tone. Chapter 3's argument that The Longest Journey is best understood as a revision of key characters and plot points in the operas of Wagner, while formally imitating Wagner's use of leitmotif, is promising, but studded at key points by the words "surely," "likely" (47), and "may" (54). The same is true for Chapter 5, which considers the Four Serious Songs of Brahms that share the concert program with Beethoven's Fifth in the much-discussed fifth chapter of Howards End. Fillion rightly suggests that Forster's choice of program is not haphazard, but again important moments in her argument that Brahms's songs represent a "stark realism" that presages the impossibility of "only connecting" are presented as only "likely" or "surely" (87) true.
This frequent difficulty in applying the book's musical background to its literary examples is due to a frequent assumption that music is ahistorical. Fillion's general modus operandi, in this chapter and others, is to argue that a given musical work conveys an essential, unchangeable message or mood—such as stark realism—which each chapter is at pains to explain with musical examples. Yet whether Forster himself, or contemporary audiences, saw the work in the same light is only sometimes considered. More attention to this question through more extensive use of historical sources such as periodical essays and music reviews would have greatly strengthened the book's arguments.
In part these omissions are due to the size of the task that Fillion has set herself: each chapter painstakingly walks non-musical readers through musical technicalities, often including a page or more of sheet music, in such a way as to clarify...