Interviews

E. M. Forster, The Art of Fiction No. 1

Interviewed by P. N. Furbank & F. J. H. Haskell

“That is not all of Arctic Summer—there is almost half as much of it again—but that’s all I want to read because now it goes off, or at least I think so, and I do not want my voice to go out into the air while my heart is sinking. It will be more interesting to consider what the problems before me were, and why I was unlikely to solve them. I should like to do this, though it may involve us a little in fiction technicalities . . .”

So said E. M. Forster, addressing an audience at the Aldeburgh Festival of 1951. He had been reading part of an unfinished novel called Arctic Summer. At the end of the reading, he went on to explain why he had not finished the novel, which led him to mention what he called “fiction technicalities.”

Following up on Mr. Forster’s Aldeburgh remarks, we have tried to record his views on such matters as he gave them in an interview at King’s College, Cambridge, on the evening of June 20, 1952.

A spacious and high-ceilinged room, furnished in the Edwardian taste. One’s attention is caught by a massive carved wooden mantelpiece of elaborate structure holding blue china in its niches. Large, gilt-framed portrait-drawings on the walls (his Thornton ancestors and others), a Turner by his great-uncle, and some modern pictures. Books of all sorts, handsome and otherwise, in English and French; armchairs decked in little shawls; a piano, a solitaire board, and the box of a zoetrope; profusion of opened letters; slippers neatly arranged in wastepaper basket.

In reading what follows, the reader must imagine Mr. Forster’s manner, which though of extreme amenity is a firm one: precise, yet nonetheless elusive, administering a series of tiny surprises. He makes a perpetual slight displacement of the expected emphasis. His habit was to answer our questions by brief statements, followed by decorative asides, often of great interest, but very difficult to reproduce.

 

INTERVIEWER

To begin with, may we ask you again, why did you never finish Arctic Summer?

E. M. FORSTER

I have really answered this question in the foreword I wrote for the reading. The crucial passage was this:

“ . . . whether these problems are solved or not, there remains a still graver one. What is going to happen? I had got my antithesis all right, the antithesis between the civilized man, who hopes for an arctic summer in which there is time to get things done, and the heroic man. But I had not settled what is going to happen, and that is why the novel remains a fragment. The novelist should, I think, always settle when he starts what is going to happen, what his major event is to be. He may alter this event as he approaches it, indeed he probably will, indeed he probably had better, or the novel becomes tied up and tight. But the sense of a solid mass ahead, a mountain round or over or through which [he interposed, “in this case it would be through”] the story must somehow go, is most valuable and, for the novels I’ve tried to write, essential.”

INTERVIEWER

How much is involved in this “solid mass”? Does it mean that all the important steps in the plot must also be present in the original conception?

FORSTER

Certainly not all the steps. But there must be something, some major object towards which one is to approach. When I began A Passage to India I knew that something important happened in the Marabar Caves, and that it would have a central place in the novel—but I didn’t know what it would be.

INTERVIEWER

But if you didn’t know what was going to happen to the characters in either instance, why was the case of A Passage to India so different from that of Arctic Summer? In both cases you had your antithesis.

FORSTER

The atmosphere of Arctic Summer did not approach the density of what I had in A Passage to India. Let me see how to explain. The Marabar Caves represented an area in which concentration can take place. A cavity. [We noticed that he always spoke of the caves quite literally—as for instance when he interrupted himself earlier to say that the characters had to pass “through” them.] They were something to focus everything up; they were to engender an event like an egg. What I had in Arctic Summer was thinner, a background and color only.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke of antitheses in your novels. Do you regard these as essential to any novel you might write?

FORSTER

Let me think. . . . There was one in Howards End. Perhaps a rather subtler one in The Longest Journey.

INTERVIEWER

Would you agree that all your novels not only deal with some dilemma but are intended to be both true and useful in regard to it—so that if you felt a certain dilemma was too extreme, its incompatibles too impossible to reconcile, you wouldn’t write about it?

FORSTER

True and lovable would be my antithesis. I don’t think useful comes into it. I’m not sure that I would be put off simply because a dilemma that I wanted to treat was insoluble; at least, I don’t think I should be.

INTERVIEWER

While we are on the subject of the planning of novels, has a novel ever taken an unexpected direction?

FORSTER

Of course, that wonderful thing, a character running away with you—which happens to everyone—that’s happened to me, I’m afraid.

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe any technical problem that especially bothered you in one of the published novels?

FORSTER

I had trouble with the junction of Rickie and Stephen. [The hero of The Longest Journey and his half-brother.] How to make them intimate, I mean. I fumbled about a good deal. It is all right once they are together . . . I didn’t know how to get Helen to Howards End. That part is all contrived. There are too many letters. And again, it is all right once she is there. But ends always give me trouble.

INTERVIEWER

Why is that?

FORSTER

It is partly what I was talking about a moment ago. Characters run away with you, and so won’t fit on to what is coming.

INTERVIEWER

Another question of detail. What was the exact function of the long description of the Hindu festival in A Passage to India?

FORSTER

It was architecturally necessary. I needed a lump—or a Hindu temple if you like—a mountain standing up. It is well-placed, and it gathers up some strings. But there ought to be more after it. The lump sticks out a little too much.

INTERVIEWER

To leave technical questions for a moment, have you ever described any type of situation of which you have had no personal knowledge?

FORSTER

The home life of Leonard and Jacky in Howards End is one case. I knew nothing about that. I believe I brought it off.

INTERVIEWER

How far removed in time do you have to be from an experience in order to describe it?

FORSTER

Place is more important than time in this matter. Let me tell you a little more about A Passage to India. I had a great deal of difficulty with the novel and thought I would never finish it. I began it in 1912, and then came the war. I took it with me when I returned to India in 1921 but found what I had written wasn’t India at all. It was like sticking a photograph on a picture. However, I couldn’t write it when I was in India. When I got away, I could get on with it.

INTERVIEWER

Some critics have objected to your way of handling incidents of violence. Do you agree with their objections?

FORSTER

I think I solved the problem satisfactorily in Where Angels Fear to Tread. In other cases, I don’t know. The scene in the Malabar Caves is a good substitute for violence. Which were the incidents you didn’t like?

INTERVIEWER

I have always been worried by the suddenness of Gerald’s death in The Longest Journey. Why did you treat it in that way?*

FORSTER

It had to be passed by. But perhaps it was passed by in the wrong way.

INTERVIEWER

I have also never felt comfortable about Leonard Bast’s seduction of Helen in Howards End. It is such a sudden affair. It seems as though we are not told enough about it for it to be convincing. One might say that it came off allegorically but not realistically.

FORSTER

I think you may be right. I did it like that out of a wish to have surprises. It has to be a surprise for Margaret, and this was best done by making it a surprise for the reader, too. Too much may have been sacrificed to this.

INTERVIEWER

A more general question. Would you admit to there being any symbolism in your novels? Lionel Trilling rather seems to imply that there is, in his book on you—symbolism, that is, as distinct from allegory or parable. “Mrs. Moore,” he says, “will act with a bad temper to Adela, but her actions will somehow have a good echo; and her children will be her further echo. . . .”

FORSTER

No, I didn’t think of that. But mightn’t there be some of it elsewhere? Can you try me with some more examples?

INTERVIEWER

The tree at Howards End? [A wych-elm, frequently referred to in the novel.]

FORSTER

Yes, that was symbolical; it was the genius of the house.

INTERVIEWER

What was the significance of Mrs. Wilcox’s influence on the other characters after her death?

FORSTER

I was interested in the imaginative effect of someone alive, but in a different way from other characters—living in other lives.

INTERVIEWER

Were you influenced by Samuel Butler in this? I mean, by his theories of vicarious immortality?

FORSTER

No. I think I have a more poetical mind than Butler’s.

INTERVIEWER

Now, can we ask you a few questions about the immediate business of writing? Do you keep a notebook?

FORSTER

No, I should feel it improper.

INTERVIEWER

But you would refer to diaries and letters?

FORSTER

Yes, that’s different.

INTERVIEWER

When you go, say, to the circus, would you ever feel, How nice it would be to put that in a novel?

FORSTER

No, I should feel it improper. I never say, That might be useful. I don’t think it is right for an author to do so. However, I have been inspired on the spot. “The Story of a Panic” is the simplest example; “The Road from Colonus” is another. Sense of a place also inspired me to write a short story called “The Rock,” but the inspiration was poor in quality, and the editors wouldn’t take the story. But I have talked about this in the introduction to my short stories.

INTERVIEWER

Do you prefigure a shape to your novels?

FORSTER

No, I am too unvisual to do so. [We found this surprising in view of his explanation of the Hindu festival scene.]

INTERVIEWER

Does this come out in any other way?

FORSTER

I find it difficult to recognize people when I meet them, though I remember about them. I remember their voices.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any Wagnerian leitmotif system to help you keep so many themes going at the same time?

FORSTER

Yes, in a way, and I’m certainly interested in music and musical methods. Though I shouldn’t call it a system.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write every day, or only under inspiration?

FORSTER

The latter. But the act of writing inspires me. It is a nice feeling . . . Of course, I had a very literary childhood. I was the author of a number of works between the ages of six and ten. There were “Earrings through the Keyhole” and “Scuffles in a Wardrobe.”

INTERVIEWER

Which of your novels came first to your mind?

FORSTER

Half of A Room with a View. I got that far, and then there must have been a hitch.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever attempt a novel of an entirely different sort from the ones you have published?

FORSTER

For some time I had the idea of an historical novel. The setting was to have been a Renaissance one. Reading Thaïs [by Anatole France] finally decided me to try it. But nothing came of it in the end.

INTERVIEWER

How do you name your characters?

FORSTER

I usually find the name at the start, but not always. Rickie’s brother had several names. [He showed us some early manuscript portions of The Longest Journey in which Stephen Wonham appeared as Siegfried; also an omitted chapter, which he described as “extremely romantic.”] Wonham is a country name and so is Quested. [We looked at an early draft of A Passage to India, in which to his surprise the heroine was found going under the name of Edith. This was later changed to Janet, before becoming Adela.] Herriton I made up. Munt was the name of my first governess in the house in Hertfordshire. There really was a family called Howard who once owned the real Howards End. Where Angels Fear to Tread should have been called “Monteriano,” but the publisher thought this wouldn’t sell. It was Dent [Professor E. J. Dent] who gave me the present title.

INTERVIEWER

How much do you admit to modeling your characters on real people?

FORSTER

We all like to pretend we don’t use real people, but one does actually. I used some of my family. Miss Bartlett was my Aunt Emily—they all read the book but they none of them saw it. Uncle Willie turned into Mrs. Failing. He was a bluff and simple character (correcting himself)—bluff without being simple. Miss Lavish was actually a Miss Spender. Mrs. Honeychurch was my grandmother. The three Miss Dickinsons condensed into two Miss Schlegels. Philip Herriton I modeled on Professor Dent. He knew this and took an interest in his own progress. I have used several tourists.

INTERVIEWER

Do all your characters have real-life models?

FORSTER

In no book have I got down more than the people I like, the person I think I am, and the people who irritate me. This puts me among the large body of authors who are not really novelists and have to get on as best they can with these three categories. We have not the power of observing the variety of life and describing it dispassionately. There are a few who have done this. Tolstoy was one, wasn’t he?

INTERVIEWER

Can you say anything about the process of turning a real person into a fictional one?

FORSTER

A useful trick is to look back upon such a person with half-closed eyes, fully describing certain characteristics. I am left with about two-thirds of a human being and can get to work. A likeness isn’t aimed at, and couldn’t be obtained, because a man’s only himself amid the particular circumstances of his life and not amid other circumstances. So that to refer back to Dent when Philip was in difficulties with Gino, or to ask one and one-half Miss Dickinsons how Helen should comport herself with an illegitimate baby, would have ruined the atmosphere and the book. When all goes well, the original material soon disappears, and a character who belongs to the book and nowhere else emerges.

INTERVIEWER

Do any of your characters represent yourself at all?

FORSTER

Rickie more than any. Also Philip. And Cecil [in A Room with a View] has got something of Philip in him.

INTERVIEWER

What degree of reality do your characters have for you after you have finished writing about them?

FORSTER

Very variable. There are some I like thinking about. Rickie and Stephen, and Margaret Schlegel—they are characters whose fortunes I have been interested to follow. It doesn’t matter if they died in the novel or not.

INTERVIEWER

We have got a few more questions about your work as a whole. First, to what degree is each novel an entirely fresh experiment?

FORSTER

To quite a large extent. But I wonder if experiment is the word?

INTERVIEWER

Is there a hidden pattern behind the whole of an author’s work, what Henry James called “a figure in the carpet”? Well, do you like having secrets from the reader?

FORSTER

Ah, now, that’s a different question . . . I was pleased when Peter Burra noticed that the wasp upon which Godbole meditates during the festival in A Passage to India had already appeared earlier in the novel.**

INTERVIEWER

Had the wasps any esoteric meaning?

FORSTER

Only in the sense that there is something esoteric in India about all animals. I was just putting it in; and afterwards I saw it was something that might return nonlogically in the story later.

INTERVIEWER

How far aware are you of your own technical clevernesses in general?

FORSTER

We keep coming back to that. People will not realize how little conscious one is of these things; how one flounders about. They want us to be so much better informed than we are. If critics could only have a course on writers’ not thinking things out—a course of lectures . . . .

INTERVIEWER

You have said elsewhere that the authors you have learned most from were Jane Austen and Proust. What did you learn from Jane Austen technically?

FORSTER

I learned the possibilities of domestic humor. I was more ambitious than she was, of course; I tried to hitch it on to other things.

INTERVIEWER

And from Proust?

FORSTER

I learned ways of looking at character from him. The modern subconscious way. He gave me as much of the modern way as I could take. I couldn’t read Freud or Jung myself; it had to be filtered to me.

INTERVIEWER

Did any other novelists influence you technically? What about Meredith?

FORSTER

I admired him—The Egoist and the better-constructed bits of the other novels, but then that’s not the same as his influencing me. I don’t know if he did that. He did things I couldn’t do. What I admired was the sense of one thing opening into another. You go into a room with him, and then that opens into another room, and that into a further one.

INTERVIEWER

What led you to make the remark quoted by Lionel Trilling, that the older you got the less it seemed to you to matter that an artist should “develop.”

FORSTER

I am more interested in achievement than in advance on it and decline from it. And I am more interested in works than in authors. The paternal wish of critics to show how a writer dropped off or picked up as he went along seems to me misplaced. I am only interested in myself as a producer. What was it Mahler said?—“anyone will sufficiently understand me who will trace my development through my nine symphonies.” This seems odd to me; I couldn’t imagine myself making such a remark, it seems too uncasual. Other authors find themselves much more an object of study. I am conceited but not interested in myself in this particular way. Of course, I like reading my own work, and often do it. I go gently over the bits that I think are bad.

INTERVIEWER

But you think highly of your own work?

FORSTER

That was implicit, yes. My regret is that I haven’t written a bit more—that the body, the corpus, isn’t bigger. I think I am different from other writers; they profess much more worry (I don’t know if it is genuine). I have always found writing pleasant and don’t understand what people mean by “throes of creation.” I’ve enjoyed it, but believe that in some ways it is good. Whether it will last, I have no idea.

 

* The famous fifth chapter of The Longest Journey begins “Gerald died that afternoon.”

** Burra was the author of the preface to the Everyman edition of A Passage to India.