The slim, blue backed Pelican did not at first attract my eye. Pelican as in book, a variation on the P-bird theme of Penguin Books. But eventually I got round to it. Such an unassuming title: Aspects of the Novel . And I would probably not have stayed long with it if it had not been written by E.M.Forster. First published in 1927 (republished as a Pelican in 1962 – 35 years later! How many books will have that happy fate?). Clearly, if a book needed saving this was it. And if a writer needed educating it was I (or should that be me?). Anyway some money changed hands and I slipped the book into a pocket, from where it was tidily placed on a shelf in my sitting room and within an hour or so it was completely forgotten.
But from time to time my Currently In Resident Ex (CIRE) – not quite Circe, though she sometimes considers me to be a bit of a pig – insists I do a book cull and curiously I find it quite easy to get rid of a couple of boxes of books – often those I have read half a dozen pages of and realised they were crap (crap that someone has slaved over for months or years, crap that someone has decided is more worthy of being published than my own worthy books – (publishers note: I have three decent novels in the bottom drawer just itching to be aired) – but that’s another bag of worms. So out go these books and within weeks I am filling up the resultant gaps with, well, books like Aspects of the Novel that really I should read sometime.
And now’s my chance. It was waiting for just this moment.
Forster was in his late forties when he wrote this book – a few short years after publishing his most famous work, A Passage to India. This is a mature reflection on what it takes to be a novel. The book’s simplicity – linguistically, conceptually – immediately caught me up. No archaic language, no arch assumptions about the reader’s class or indeed level of education – that is to say no French bon mots or egregious quotes in Latin. In fact the editor is almost embarrassed about how straight forward it was – being the text of lectures written to be spoken – and with a good sense of what spoken language was really like. He calls it a ramshackly course as it will be his own raw, unacademically guided attempt to make sense of the key ingredients of what a novel is. And as to what a novel is he quotes with approval a French writer (one M. Abel Chevalley – what do you mean you’ve never heard of him?). According to this French critic a novel is ‘a fiction in prose of a certain extent’, to which Forster adds the proviso that the extent should not be less than 50,000 words. A curious case of the positive and negative of a word meaning exactly the same – put the word ‘uncertain’ into the above sentence and it varies its meaning not one iota.
For Forster, it matters not whether a novel is French, Russian or English, eighteenth century or twenty-first, there must be some common denominators and it is Forster’s task to give some meat to these bones. Not an easy task. Novels are “most distinctly one of the moister areas of literature…occasionally degenerating into a swamp.”
The aspects of ‘The Novel’ that Forster considers are ‘The Story’, ‘People’. ‘The Plot’, ‘Fantasy’, ‘Prophecy’, ‘Pattern and Rhythm’.
Now it may seem obvious that a novel should have a story but he’s not wholly thrilled by this. The kind of reader he himself is – in opposition to the kind of reader who likes a bloody good story – is the kind of reader who says: “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story”. But he says this sadly. He likens the story aspect of a novel to a tapeworm that runs from beginning to end. The story is what appeals to the voice that keeps asking: ‘What happens next? But he recognises that the story is the one thing ‘common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels.” And then Forster summarises one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels to devastating effect and we see how negligible a thing is mere story. And yet War and Peace too is a story very dependent on things happening one after the other.
In the chapters on ‘People’ – he devotes two to this subject – he comes up with the delightful formulation that there are ‘flat’ characters and ‘round’ characters. This seems like a moral judgment but in fact he points out that many books require their characters to be flat. That Charles Dickens probably has not one ’round’ character in all his many novels.
Then we come to plot – plot is distinguished from story in that the latter is concerned simply with time sequence, the former is concerned with causality.” ‘The King died and then the Queen died’ is a story. ‘The King died and then the Queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Readers of stories need only have curiosity but readers of plots require intelligence and memory. Central to plot is mystery and the question ‘why?’
And so Forster’s slim book proceeds in the simplest way, with examples extracted from the great works – George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Austen and others – through various novel-related thickets. To what extent do they depend on fantasy? On prophesy? Or to what extent are they concerned with the sound and pattern of words. Some novels epitomise this aspect, others another.
And at the end – well, if you’re like me, you’ve forgotten it all and have to go back and read it over again.
There’s quite a bit of meat in this offering, and some of it is very chewy.