Friday, April 13, 2007

E. M. Forster – ‘The Celestial Omnibus’

This collection doesn’t quite give us the Forster of the novels. There are elements of the familiar voice: the snobbery in the air, the foreign travel, the moral certainty that such and such a character is in the right, although neither society nor any other individual can see it. Most of the stories here deal with escape from intolerable social or class-based situations, often into death, and what lies beyond that. A free spirit will feel suffocated, and rebel. But Forster’s imagination, turning on the same themes, comes up with expressions based not on realism, but fantasy. The opening ‘The Story of a Panic’ reminded me a little of M. R. James, with its sleight-of-hand terror. A group of holidaymakers in Italy all at once become ‘terribly frightened’ (p. 11) and run down a hill into a valley, leaving behind Eustace, a schoolboy who thenceforth behaves as though he is possessed. His main adversary in this, the one who tries to keep him in check, is the story’s comically straight-laced narrator. The odd effect of the vagueness on the one hand, and the precisely drawn condescension on the other, is to give the impression that Eustace, who clearly wants desperately to get away from something, is on the run from this very condescension.

‘The Other Side of the Hedge’ is also about escape, but a bit clearer in its allegory. It is a protest against the competitive state of living: if hell is other people, heaven is other people released from their targets. Or as it’s put in the story, once the hedge has been breached and the road (that is, normal, competitive life) left behind:

‘Where does this place lead to?’

‘Nowhere, thank the Lord!’ (p. 43)

And then:

I amused [my guide] by stopping suddenly and saying disconsolately, ‘This is perfectly terrible. One cannot advance: one cannot progress. Now we of the road –’

‘Yes. I know.’

‘I was going to say, we advance continually.’

‘I know.’

‘We are always learning, expanding, developing. Why, even in my short life I have seen a great deal of advance – the Transvaal War, the Fiscal Question, Christian Science, Radium.’ (p. 44)

Progress is measured in activity – it feels a very modern idea, but it is useful to be reminded that this kind of rush pre-dates the internet age. I’m reminded of a recording I heard the other day of Quentin Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant talk, a wonderful find. The whole talk is concerned with finding a style of one’s own, and doing it deliberately – reacting to others’ reaction to you and playing up to their expectations. On the subject of competition, Crisp drawls that it is a mistake to keep up with the Joneses: ‘You must drag them down to your level.’

Another kind of constraint, almost the opposite of the above, is that Harcourt Worters imposes on his fiancée Evelyn Beaumont in ‘Other Kingdom’. She is to be a trophy wife, and must be as superficial as possible, in order that he (not so deep himself) might plausibly be her master. He gives her Other Kingdom Copse, part of the grounds of his house, saying it is absolutely hers, then builds a fence and a bridge against her wishes. She wants to leave it accessible to local couples, who have a tradition of carving their initials on the trees:

They cut their names and go away, and when the first child is born they come again and deepen the cuts. So for each child. That’s how you know: the initials that go right through to the wood are the fathers and mothers of large families, and the scratches in the bark that soon close up are boys and girls who were never married at all. (pp. 99-100)

Evelyn escapes from the man who has prevented this, who would get in the way of her natural vivacity with his pretensions, by turning into a tree. This story finds itself echoed in ‘The Road from Colonus’, in which an old man narrowly escapes being crushed by a tree when he is only just persuaded by his party that he shouldn’t spend the night at the doomed ‘tiny Khan or country inn’ (p. 132) which has so taken his fancy. He believes that staying there will undo the terrible malaise into which his old age has cast him, and his escape is not at all a happy ending (unlike Evelyn’s) – curious, then, that it should be the final ending in the book.

The other thing to escape from (apart from social pretension, clamorous competition and belittling) is literary pretension. Mr Inskip, the ludicrous narrator of ‘Other Kingdom’, provides this as part of the service he understands his employer to require. He relieves an awkward moment between Evelyn and Harcourt:

For us the situation was intolerable. I had to save it by making a tactful reference to the view, which, I said, reminded me a little of the country near Veii. It did not – indeed it could not, for I have never been near Veii. But it is a part of my system to make classical allusions. And at all events I saved the situation. (p. 93)

‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is a more concentrated attack on literary pretension (pitting it against – guess what? Youthful vivacity!), and suggests rather splendidly that up in heaven Achilles and Mrs Gamp are side by side, seeing round visitors. It feels odd, reading in Forster what you’d expect more in an E. Nesbitt book, or even a Harry Potter (the platform you can only reach by running through a wall is similar to the omnibus’s blind alley stop). Or, as I’ve said, an M. R. James story. He brings his purpose to bear, however, and manages to make this collection a light-hearted meditation on the soul in polite torment. Business as usual, then.

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