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review 2018-07-22 23:11
E.M. Forster: A New Life
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat

Before judging my reading experience of this book based on my star rating, let me say this:

 

This was not a bad book and there are aspects of this biography that provide a valuable insight into Forster's life and work. However, this biography really follows Forster's life from one angle only, depending on what you expect from a biography, mileage on this may vary.

 

Moffat starts the book with an explanation of her approach, which in turn is based on something Christopher Isherwood said when looking at a stack of biographies about Forster:

"Of course all those books have got to be re-written," he said. "Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing's any good."

That is, Moffat is quoting from an Isherwood biography by John Lehmann here, and whether this is a true account or was written as a dramatic embellishment, I could not say. 

It does, however, go straight to the heart of Moffat's biography ... and also to one of the criticisms I have.

 

Moffat does an excellent job presenting Forster in the context of his sexuality, or more precisely his initial struggles with it and the immense pressure he felt of not being able to live openly for fear of persecution and, indeed, prosecution. Being a young man at the start of the 20th century, Forster would have only been too aware of the trials of Oscar Wilde and would himself witness the arrest of friends and acquaintances over the decades. 

 

His resentment over not being able to tell the stories he really wanted to tell and over having to work within the expectations of societal conventions lead to Forster stopping to write major works of fiction after A Passage to India (1924). That is, he did write another major novel, Maurice, but insisted that it should not be published until after his death as the story tells of the relationship between two men and he feared the repercussions. (Btw, Maurice apparently includes a game-keeper scene that may have inspired D.H. Lawrence - one of the few people who were aware of the manuscript - to mock it in Lady Chatterley's Lover)   

 

Moffat explores Forster's diaries - including his "locked" diaries, which he also only allowed access after his death - in detail and we do get a clear picture of the anxieties and of the passions Forster had, and Moffat does well to connect Forster's diary entries with the lives of his friends, peers, and with perception of homosexuality in society through the decades. 

 

However, this is also the main point where this book fell down for me. Moffat goes into a lot of detail. Salacious detail. Lots and lots of it. At times, I felt like whole chapters were focusing about who bedded whom more so than Forster's life and work. Rather than developing an argument, it felt like some of the descriptions merely served to provide a sensationalist hook. 

 

I really should have liked this more than I did, but the meandering descriptions of relationships (not just Forster's but also of his friends and acquaintances) made me skim over quite a few paragraphs. There was little point to most of them.

 

The other criticism I have is with Moffat's writing style. It did not work for me. Her narrative sounded dramatised in a way that made the book read more like fiction than non-fiction and some of the descriptions, as a result of the narrations, did not sound factual even tho they may have been. This was not helped by the way that references were not clearly marked in the text. They were there, of course, but I should not have to check the reference section in the book to see if a certain line on a page is actually backed up with a source of research. 

 

All in all, this was interesting, but I would not recommend the book without some hesitation.

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text 2018-07-21 22:23
Reading progress update: I've read 83 out of 404 pages.
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat

It appears that the author has given me a rest from her dissection of Forster's love life and we now a have a (hopefully extended) period of discussing the rest of his life.

 

I knew that Forster was a tutor to Elizabeth von Arnim's children but didn't know about the anecdote of his arrival at her castle, or about descriptions his employer. 

 

I am not typing these right here but much of the quotes are also provided in this post on the Books as Food blog. 

 

What was even more interesting, there are some glimpses now about Forster's, Morgan's, development as a writer - the stuff that makes his book stand out so from others of the time: 

While in Nassenheide, Morgan turned to his diary to ruminate on the wider question of how he fit into the world. He felt out of touch with modern writers. In its infancy, the novel had been novel - of all the literary forms, it made the unique promise of showing life truthfully - but the conventions of the nineteenth-century novels Morgan revered had begun to feel a little like a cage. It seemed to him wrongheaded, even trivial these days simply to end a novel with "the old, old answer, marriage": "Artists now realise that marriage, the old full stop, is not an end at all..." Resolving a plot with marriage was part of the imperative of comedy, but the blind optimism of lesser writers seemed dishonest to him: "The writer who depicts [life as a bed of roses] may possibly be praised for his healthy simplicity. But his own conscience will never approve him, for he knows that healthiness and simplicity are not, in all cases, identical with truth. 

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text 2018-07-21 14:08
Reading progress update: I've read 75 out of 404 pages.
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat

I'm conflicted about this one so far. It's not a bad biography but I'm also not thrilled with it...

 

 

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text 2018-07-20 23:07
Back to the Forster Project
Morgan: A Biography of E. M. Forster - Nicola Beauman
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat
A Passage To India - E.M. Forster

It's been a while since I finished The Longest Journey (still need to write a review) and now that tennis plans are on ice for a bit (because of a pulled muscle) and that work has, not slowed down, but has at least moved past the frantic phase, I feel might get the right time and head-space again to enjoy the next read in my Forster project. 

 

I only have two novels left, the short stories, and Aspects of the Novel.

 

But, I have also found two biographies at the library that looked really good:

 

Morgan is the one which I am really excited about because it was written by Nicola Beauman. She's now head of Persephone Books who publish the most marvellous forgotten women writers of the early 20th century. I'm subscribed to their newsletter and it is the only newsletter I actually look forward to receiving. 
So, I can't wait to read what she has to say about Forster. 
 
The other one, by Wendy Moffat, seems to focus more on just one aspect of his life and how it affected his writing. At least, this is what I got from several reviews about the book and which seemed to shelf it under "gender studies" a lot. 

 

So, without further delay, I am off on A Passage to India

 

(Taken on a trip to Simla a few years ago. The book is not set there, but this is what I picture when reading the book.)

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text 2018-07-14 00:52
Reading progress update: I've read 7%.
Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen - Wilhelm von Humboldt

"Nun aber erfordert die Möglichkeit eines höheren Grades der Freiheit immer einen gleich hohen Grad der Bildung, und das geringere Bedürfnis, gleichsam in einförmigen, verbundenen Massen zu handeln, eine größere Stärke und einen mannigfaltigeren Reichtum der handlenden Individuen."

 

Roughly, this translates as:

 

"Now, the possibility of a higher degree of freedom always requires an equally high degree of education, and the lesser need to act, as it were, in monotonous, united masses, [requires] a greater strength and a more manifold wealth [i.e. diversity] of acting individuals."

 

The [ ] are my own clarifications and are based on my reading/interpretation of Humboldt's text.

 

This section goes on to say that it should be the aspiration of a ruler of a state to break the shackles of its own people and facilitate that greater degree of freedom. 

 

This was written at around 1792 - and hence the reference to "rulers" rather than governments - but not published until much later because it did not pass the censors (the book was/is pretty radical).

 

It is kind of painful to read this at a time of what seems to be a period of political regression on the idea that a government has to place value on the education of its people.

 

I'm intrigued where Humboldt takes his argument and where he saw the "limits of state action" as the title denotes.

 

 

 

 

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