Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Aspects of the Novel ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (14)

    ...the fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect...
        -EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel

I liked this collected series of lectures on what makes for good novel writing much better than almost any of the novels that Forster actually wrote (A Passage to India [see Review] being the lone exception).  Forster treats seven different aspects--the story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm--in a breezy conversational style.  Along the way, he offers examples, both good and bad, from literary history.  I found myself agreeing and dissenting about equally, but the whole thing was immensely interesting and entertaining.

Here are some of the observations that I agreed with and why:

    A story "can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens

One inevitably thinks of James Joyce's Ulysses, which by now has surely retired the title of "the book most likely to remain unfinished". No matter how revolutionary the technique, how insightful the observations or how compelling the characters, a book that you can put down and not care what happens next has failed in its most basic task.

    The constant sensitiveness of characters for each other--even in writers called robust, like
    Fielding--is remarkable, and has no parallel in life, except among those people who have plenty of
    leisure.  Passion, intensity at moments--yes, but not this constant awareness, this endless
    readjusting, this ceaseless hunger.  I believe that these are the reflections of the novelist's own state
    of mind while he composes, and that the predominance of love in novels is partly because of this.

Forster elsewhere sites DH Lawrence favorably, but he seems to me to be an author whose characters are so obsessed by passion as to be too novelistic, if not completely unrealistic.  But, the example I would site here actually is not a case of love predominating to excess, but rather Crime and Punishment (see Review), where the characters' constant awareness of the philosophical and moral implications of their every thought and deed is such that it could only be the product of an author in intellectual overdrive.  If real people truly lived their lives this way, nothing would ever get done.

    In the losing battle that the plot fights with the characters, it often takes a cowardly revenge.
    Nearly all novels are feeble at the end.  This is because the plot requires to be wound up.  Why is
    this necessary?  Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels
    muddled or bored?  Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is
    at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.

Anyone who's ever read one of his books will instantly call to mind James Clavell.  I recall the jarring sensation of finishing his great novel Tai-Pan when, many hundreds of pages into the book, unwilling to see it conclude, but obviously noticing that their were a dwindling number of pages; I could not imagine how he would conclude the main plot line so quickly, let alone tie up all of the remaining loose ends.  And then, BOOM!, our hero is dead and the book is over.  And why?  I was ready to read on for as long as he wanted to keep writing.  Or, at worst, he could have just stopped in mid story and said: "To be continued..."  But Forster is right; the conventions of the novel almost require authors to let the tiger out of the cage at the end, and, more often then not, it leaves a bitter taste in the reader's mouth, regardless of how much we'd enjoyed the book up until that point.

There is much food for thought of this kind in this witty, opinionated, fascinating survey of the novel.  Add to that a really fine hammer job on Henry James and the fact that said hammering upset Virginia Woolf and we're talking big thumbs up here.


Grade: (A-)


E.M. Forster Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: E. M. Forster
    -ESSAY: ‘Recorded and honoured’: New light on E. M. Forster’s last love (Peter J. Conradi, June 2023, TLS)
    -ESSAY: “A Passage to India” on Its 100th Birthday (Sameer Pandya, March 27, 2024, LA Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:
-W(illiam) Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "somerset maugham"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "w. somerset maugham"
    -BIO: Somerset Maugham (British Empire)
    -Knitting Circle: Somerset Maugham
    -Somerset Maugham, "The Fall of Edward Bernard"
    -W. Somerset Maugham's Stories and Books on Film (
    -Maugham, W. Somerset: 1874 - 1965 (EducETH)
    -Literary Research Guide: Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965 )
    -ETEXT: Moon and Sixpence (Self-Knowledge)
    -ETEXT:  Of Human Bondage
    -ESSAY: Listen to your Maugham: Purpose, Method, and Contradiction (Edward G. Green)
    -ESSAY: Somerset Maugham--World Traveler, Famed Storyteller (Craig Showalter, Caxtonian)
    -ESSAY: THE FOLLIES OF WRITER WORSHIP (Julian Barnes, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Grace in the Arts:  THE LIMITS OF GRACIOUSNESS:  A Study of Grace-Resisters in  Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and  Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence (JAMES TOWNSEND,  Bible Editor,  David C. Cook Publishing Company)
    -ESSAY: The Writing Life (Ben Cheever, Random House Bold Type)
    -REVIEW: Gore Vidal: Maugham's Half & Half, NY Review of Books
        Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham by Robert Calder
        A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
        The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
        The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham
        Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham
    -REVIEW: Robert Mazzocco: Slippery Fish, NY Review of Books
        Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham by Robin Maugham
    -REVIEW: Robert Craft: Compositions, NY Review of Books
        Auden: An American Friendship by Charles H. Miller
        This Man and Music by Anthony Burgess
        Glenn Gould: Variations by Himself and His Friends
        Balthus: Drawings and Watercolors by Giovanni Carandente
        The Letters of William Somerset Maugham to Lady Juliet Duff
    -Review of Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham (Doug Shaw)
    -REVIEW: of Moon and Sixpence (Friday May 2, 1919, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham (Edward Tanguay)

    -Books For Writers:
    -Writers on the Net (writing insruction)


its a great book

- Chandra Sekhar

- Jun-26-2006, 05:08