Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Room with a View

Author: E.M. Forster
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1908

I've been trying my best to get through The Longest Journey, according to my edition's introduction E.M. Forster's favorite among his own novels. So far, despite the objectively small word count, the title's proving to be an understatement. If my experience is any indication, it's subjectively the equivalent of taking the Greyhound from Rio de Janeiro to Miami, with a brief stop in Vladivostok along the way.

This, therefore, isn't a review of The Longest Journey; look for one of those in about the year 2379, at this rate.

The same introduction describes A Room with a View as Forster's "most optimistic" work, which I think is literary-critic code for "low body count."* It's certainly my favorite among Forster's novels, his opinion be damned. Made more famous by the truly lovely 1985 Merchant-Ivory film**, A Room with a View follows the romance of Lucy Honeychurch, an upper-middle-class English girl, and George Emerson, a solidly upper-lower-class young Englishman. They meet in Italy, where they're staying at the same hotel. George and his father offer to trade rooms with Lucy and her chaperone, since the ladies are terribly upset that their rooms have no view of the picturesque surroundings. After some comically protracted dithering, the chaperone agrees; she does insist, however, on taking the young man's room herself for the sake of propriety, even though it's the better one.

This is the kind of satire at which Forster excels, and the overall lightheartedness of the novel keeps his attitude from becoming too caustic, as it does in most of his other works. Lucy and George return to England, end up living in the same neighborhood by a series of more or less realistic accidents, and are forced to choose between their natural feelings and the expectations of their parents and acquaintances. It is all So Very, Very English, Old Chap.

The great downfall of Forster's works -- present in this one, too, although the charm and atmosphere of A Room with a View far outweigh its faults -- is, paradoxically, the same as his greatest critical asset. All of his novels explore tension between the natural and the artificial, between truth and the fictions about themselves that people try to present to the world, and between feeling and reason. Social mores vs. philosophical morals in twelve rounds, ding! Forster had a keen eye and a pen that could slice diamond; he's the malicious man's P.G. Wodehouse, if you will. There's endless material for more or less mind-numbing Ph.D. theses in Forster's works.

I'm sure that among those many long papers there's at least one that discusses the flipside of this: Forster himself was such a product of the same environment that generated his targets that he often doesn't realize it when he is, himself, being a bit of a stuffy prat. Natural, honest emotion is something for which to strive, and yet one can't really be like that, you know, there must be some standards, Forster seems to say. That the tension present in his works was also present in the author is unsurprising, and it definitely contributes to the interest of the novels. It also creates a certain chaos within them. One's never quite sure what Forster's message is, because I don't think he ever got it straight in his own mind.

This book almost deserves five stars, but there's something just a little off-putting about Forster's style that holds me back. Observant readers may have noticed that I'm a sucker for authors who seem to like their protagonists, and Forster, at best, reaches a sort of indulgent contempt. Four stars, and highly recommended to anyone who likes books with vicars and butlers in them.

* Both The Longest Journey and Howards End are non-stop death from beginning to end. However, lest any readers get their hopes up, please note that none of these deaths involve any excitement or action of any kind. Rather, one gets the impression that now and then a character keels over from sheer Britishness and/or a lack of proper tea service.

** The movie has amazing scenery: Julian Sands takes off his clothes, and there's also some good shots of the Italian countryside.

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