Monday, April 27, 2009

Aspects of the Novel

I've been wanting to read this E.M. Forster book ever since I learned it was the source for one of my favorite quotes ever: "How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?" (This especially applies when I am ordering from a restaurant menu.) I always thought the quote came from Alice in Wonderland, but no. Forster describes it as a legendary anecdote about someone's eccentric aunt. I suppose that means we'll never know who really said it first.

The lectures collected in the book address various broad subjects, including character, plot, fantasy, and pattern. They retain both their moderately conversational tone and their old-school orientation (for example, he savages Joyce's Ulysses, so his ideas of "modern classic" and "smut" are rather outdated).

These lectures strike me as a sustained inquiry into what distinguishes a "good" novel from a "bad" one, always in a light, accessible, non-pompous way. Forster also manages to say a few things about life in general. It's a lot like being in a favorite lit class, listening to a particularly insightful professor.

If I was more academically inclined these days--or if my bailiwick was writing fiction instead of an obsession with reading it--I might have taken some notes. As it was, I enjoyed considering character, plot, and so on, in a mild, low pressure way. Imagine your favorite lit class with the particularly insightful professor, while you are, say, lying on the couch on an early spring afternoon. If this sounds like your idea of fun, highly recommended.

Excerpt re: The Story:

Daily life is also full of the time-sense. We think one event occurs after or before another, the thought is often in our minds, and much of our talk and action proceeds on the assumption. Much of our talk and action, but not all; there seems something else in life besides time, something which may conveniently be called "value," something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles, and when we look at the future it seems sometimes a wall, sometimes a cloud, sometimes a sun, but never a chronological chart. . . . So daily life, whatever it may be really, is practically composed of two lives--the life in time and the life by values--and our conduct reveals a double allegiance. "I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it." There you have both allegiances in a single sentence. And what the story does is to narrate the life in time. And what the entire novel does--if it is a good novel--is to include the life by values as well . . . . It, also, pays a double allegiance.


  1. This has been floating around on my TBR-wish list for quite a while. But you already probably knew that, since we seem to share the same TBR list. :)

    Now I really want to get my hands on a copy.

  2. This is now making my TBR list, never even heard of the book before!

  3. Well, who knew it was Forster who said that, after someone else said it. I say it all the time, but I knew it didn't originate with me. (smile)

  4. Rose City, great minds and all that. This one would be ideal for an audio version.

    Oreneta, glad to make the introduction. Gotta keep that list filled up, right?

    Ruth, happy to help. Now you know who to credit, if you're so inclined.


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