Friday, September 12, 2008

Edward and James

There are those odd books I own that are of great interest to me, pretty slim, constantly recapturing my attention, and yet still remain unread for years and years. One of those books is (was) E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. With the recent publication of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, I figured I would read them back-to-back.

Forster’s book was published in 1927. It was a collection of lectures that he’d given about the novel at Cambridge University. Like Wood’s book, I would say it’s of value to aspiring writers, critics, and just serious readers, but it’s hard to parse the exact value of each book to each of those groups. Forster’s inspired more underlining of extended passages for his writing alone, while Wood’s book pleased me most when it offered bursts of insight and description that replicate his top-notch criticism for The New Yorker and others.

Some of Forster’s book is still widely quoted, like the way he differentiated between story and plot:
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Anthony Lane, in his review of Pulp Fiction, updated this example to fit the work of Quentin Tarantino:
The king died while having sex on the hood of a lime-green Corvette, and the queen died of contaminated crack borrowed from the court jester, with whom she was enjoying a conversation about the relative merits of Tab and Diet Pepsi as they sat and surveyed the bleeding remains of the lords and ladies whom she had just blown away with a stolen .45 in a fit of grief.
Wood is a fan of Forster’s, but also willing to confront him. In the introduction to How Fiction Works, Wood writes that Aspects of the Novel is “canonical for good reason, but now seems imprecise.” And much later in the book, he writes about Forster’s analysis of “flat” and “round” characters, saying, “flatness is more interesting than (Forster) makes it out to be,” and “roundness is more complicated than he makes it out to be.”

And it’s true that Wood’s focus is tighter, with more examples to back up his points. Forster’s lectures had broad titles, like “The Story,” “People,” and “The Plot,” and were full of long passages of his conversationally expressed opinion, whereas Wood’s equally broad chapter headings (“Narrating,” “Character,” “Dialogue”) belie a more atomized structure, 123 “mini-chapter” headings over the course of 246 pages. Because of his reliance on example, Wood’s book also includes a bibliography of about 90 titles -- listed chronologically, from Don Quixote to John Updike’s Terrorist -- many of which I now want to read for various reasons. By contrast, Forster only inspired me, as a reader with a checklist, to deeply reinvestigate Moby Dick for the first time since high school.

In this way, Wood’s books is more like a survey literature course, and Forster’s more like a high-minded address to aspiring novelists.

Here are a few choice bits from Professor Wood:

On Wordsworth and Flaubert, and the way they focused on the “large, bewilderingly various amounts of detail” that came about with city life: “The writer zooms in and out at will, but these details, despite their differences in focus and intensity, are pushed at us, as if by the croupier’s stick, in one single heap.”

On the movement of action in The Bible and other ancient writings: “Time lapses between the verses, invisibly, inaudibly, but nowhere on the page. Each new ‘and’ or ‘then’ moves forward the action like those old station clocks, whose big hands suddenly slip forward once a minute.”

On the “picaresque plot accumulation” in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day: “The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.”

Those are great moments, but I slightly prefer the shaggier and charming (imprecise, I guess, but still enlightening) style of Forster, on display in this passage about Laurence Sterne and Virginia Woolf:
(Woolf) and Sterne are both fantasists. They start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again. They combine a humorous appreciation of the muddle of life with a keen sense of its beauty. There is even the same tone in their voices -- a rather deliberate bewilderment, an announcement to all and sundry that they do not know where they are going. No doubt their scales of value are not the same. Sterne is a sentimentalist, Virginia Woolf (except perhaps in . . . To the Lighthouse) is extremely aloof. Nor are their achievements on the same scale. But their medium is similar, the same odd effects are obtained by it, the parlour door is never mended, the mark on the wall turns out to be a snail, life is such a muddle, oh, dear, the will is so weak, the sensations fidgety -- philosophy -- God -- oh, dear, look at the mark -- listen to the door -- existence is really too . . . what were we saying?
He’s not bad with the aphorism, either. Here he is on judging books:
The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.
And on the unknowable details of birth and death:
Our final experience, like our first, is conjectural. We move between two darknesses.
I lied above, about Moby Dick being the only thing Forster inspired me to read. There's at least two or three others, now that I think of it. So the last thing I’ll excerpt is part of Forster’s thoughts on War and Peace, which actually make me want to tackle that behemoth:
Then why is War and Peace not depressing? Probably because it has extended over space as well as over time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them.
I could go on -- there’s a great, sympathetic paragraph, for instance, about Gertrude Stein, and why experimentalism is doomed to end in failure. But I’ll let you go and find it for yourself if you’re interested.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely entry, quotes. Thanks.
What a crapshoot life is: comforting, really.

Process is all.

4:33 PM  

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