by E.M. Forster (1904-1920)
It might be because I just read hundreds of pages of pulpy, early 20th-century sci-fi shorts, but Forster’s collection strikes me as masterful. His characterizations are consistently strong and artful, and his themes of humanism, the loss of nature and artistic creativity are both stirring and sorrowful. The writing itself is clear yet lyrical, and a higher competence radiates through every line.
Perhaps the greatest feature of these stories is their ambiguity, something I hadn’t fully realized I value in short fiction. But indeed it is this quality which I now believe elevates short stories to the realm of art — otherwise they’re mere diversion (as were the science fiction stories I just finished).
The collection itself is not strong throughout — about half of the stories are trivial exercises in parody or unsubtle philosophical statements. But the rest range from thought-provoking incision to haunting beauty. They are soul-nourishing in the same way as Hesse and the best of Graham Greene (with perhaps even shades of Tolstoy?), with their attention to spirituality in the midst of the story-telling. It’s surprising that they’re as readable as they are, given their heft and age; but I read the whole collection in a handful of sittings.
The first six stories were originally published in The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories, and it is a more solid group than the last six, first published in The Machine Stops and Other Stories. Among the first six only “The Other Side of the Hedge” and “The Curate’s Friend” fit into that trivial category I mentioned above. Among the other four my favorites were “Other Kingdom,” about a woman of nature who is slowly being tamed by her aristocratic fiance, and “The Road from Colonus,” a heartbreaking tale of an old man who is thwarted in his one final wish. I must admit I’ve read “The Celestial Omnibus” so many times that it has somewhat lost its effect on me, although I do believe it’s a great story overall.
Among the second group of stories, “The Machine Stops” and “The Eternal Moment” are outstanding, and not only for their near-novella lengths. “The Machine Stops” is noteworthy as Forster’s only true science-fiction story, and one of the earliest serious attempts at the genre. It is about a society that is totally run by The Machine, in which people don’t have to do anything so have stopped doing everything. With almost a century’s anticipation he not only predicts the basic framework of the Internet, but he recognizes how it ultimately leads to our fragmentation and isolation as individuals. When your room “is in touch with all that (you care) for in the world,” you might never want to leave your room or physically interact with anybody.
“The Eternal Moment” is maybe the best story in the entire book. It’s hard to explain exactly why, because the story of an author who revisits the sleepy village she put on the map through one of her novels is superficially unimpressive. The characterizations are remarkable, as is the sense of crushing nostalgia that Forster develops with his protagonist’s remembrance of an unconsummated affair. This mixes in a fascinating way with her self-recrimination over “spoiling” the village by attracting tourists with her novel. The denouement’s naked realism is both heartbreaking and inspiring, two adjectives that don’t really go together all that often.
As for the introduction, I read it after the rest of the book as I typically do (to avoid spoilers), and rarely have I found an introduction that needs so badly to be an afterword. I knew nothing of Forster’s homosexuality so it was interesting to read the stories free of context and then think back on them with the new background knowledge. “The Story of the Siren,” “The Curate’s Friend,” and “The Point of It” certainly become more complex through the lens of Forster’s self-repression.
All in all this is a strong collection from a strong writer who often gets lost in the mix of turn-of-the-century Brits. I highly recommend it to any fans of classic literature or British literature. And just because I absolutely agree with Forster’s description of himself I’ll include this quote from the back cover: “I do flatter myself that I can tell a story without exaggerating. . .” It’s not as easy a feat as you might think.