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E. M. Forster (Brief Lives) by Richard…

E. M. Forster (Brief Lives) (2009)

by Richard Canning

Series: Brief Lives

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a very competent, interesting and informative introduction to E M Forster, without any frills. It gives a brief but solid introduction to the man, his writing life and the evolution of his books. Richard Canning takes a chronological approach to his subject, and writes engagingly about him. I received the impression that Forster was a decent and complicated person, who, while struggling with his own sexuality during times that did not accept anything other than the standard (at least outwardly), was also adamant that he wouldn't let his mother know he was homosexual. Given that she lived until she was ninety-five, he had to wait a long time before he could be completely frank in public. He did not publish another novel after his famous A Passage to India in 1924, and lived a long life, dying in 1970 at the age of ninety. I am forever grateful to Canning for quoting Forster thus: '...since even in India he had felt unable to write creatively, telling Reid how "very unhappy" it made him to "see beauty going by and hav[ing] nothing to catch it in"' (52). Writing to me will now always be something to catch beauty in!

Many thanks to Hesperus Press for providing this book, and for their excellent series in general. ( )
2 vote thewordygecko | Nov 12, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book through the Early Reviewer's Program.

This 'brief' book will not offer up many surprises for those already familiar with Forster's life. It is, however, an excellent introduction and as such is recomended.
  beardo | Sep 13, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this biography of E. M. Forster from Hesperus Press, through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, and am very grateful to Hesperus and LT for the chance to read and review it. I've read all of Forster's novels at least once, and I read one full-length Forster biography many years ago. For me, reading Richard Canning's Forster biography in the Brief Lives series was like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

One irony of Forster's place in a series called Brief Lives is that he lived to be 91 years old. Canning manages to convey a sense of this full life, even though the book is not much longer than 100 pages. What I enjoyed best about the book was Canning's inclusion of vivid anecdotes, and telling quotes from Forster's correspondence, that illustrate Forster's personality and values, and bring him to life within a very compact narrative. One of my favorite anecdotes early in the book is about Forster's limited athletic talents, from his time at Cambridge:

Forster tried only once to get involved in the 'hearty' pursuit of rowing. Neither coach nor fellow rowers considered him anything but 'beyond human aid'. A reliable college man, however, he followed the crews' progress to cheer them on. ... 'To be patriotic I rode with them [the rowers] on my bicycle today, with the result that I cannoned into another bicyclist -- or he into me.' He miraculously avoided serious injury (p. 15).

For the most part, Forster was modest about his talents and accomplishments. After receiving some "cautious criticism" from a friend about one of his stories, Forster wrote back, "'I wish you had told me where are the facetiae: they are a most certain fault; and my taste doesn't guide me. Someone told me, many years ago, that I was amusing, and I have never quite recovered from the effects'" (p. 26). Forster once said of his second novel, The Longest Journey, that it "'comes nearest to saying what I want to say,'" although he also said of it, some 28 years after its publication, "'I am amazed and exasperated at the way in which I insisted on doing things wrong there'" (p. 34).

Canning covers all the primary facets of Forster's life and his most significant relationships, beginning with his very close ties to his mother and other female relatives (his father died before he was two), through his studies and development as a writer, his many travels outside of England, and his homosexuality. The last chapter, "Afterlife," discusses Forster's posthumous publications, including the gay-themed novel Maurice, which was completed about 1914, and the enduring popularity of his novels, five of which have been adapted to film. Forster certainly had faults, and Canning includes a few unflattering statements and anecdotes, but overall, the book is a portrait of a fine writer who also strived to be a good person. It's an enjoyable and well-researched introduction to Forster's life and writings.
1 vote HeathMochaFrost | Jul 25, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This short biography of E.M. Forster, part of Hesperus Press' "Brief Lives" series, is an excellent one. It is not, nor is it intended to be, an authoritative work on Forster's life and work. It is, however, a good introduction. In a strictly chronological way, Canning hits the high points, and in so doing, he provides insight into Forster's life, his relationships, public and private.

There's very little discussion of Forster's works, except insofar as they fit within the biographical story. Indeed, if there is any part of the book that could have been eliminated, it is the short last chapter, Afterlife, which is as close as Canning comes to literary criticism. It seems oddly out of place.

While those who have read Forster will naturally find more in this book than those who have not, it can be read with appreciation by anyone, and any reader will find it informative. Definitely recommended.
2 vote lilithcat | Jul 10, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I’ll bet most readers of the British writer and critic E.M. Forster (1879-1970) had no idea that he was gay until the posthumous publication of Maurice in 1971. Until then the author of, most famously, A Room with a View and A Passage to India, would have seemed as conventional as any other writer of his era. He would have been astonished to discover that in the 21st century he has become a gay icon, in company with Oscar Wilde whom he thought trivial.

I discovered Forster’s academic work first: Aspects of the Novel was a set text for my English major at Melbourne. As Richard Canning explains in Brief Lives: E.M.Forster, Forster would have liked to be a don:

It is a very great thing to be a don. I would have given anything and would give anything to be one. (p17)

It would have delighted him that this series of lectures came about because he was invited to give the Clark Lectures in 1927. Always pessimistic about his own efforts, Forster described these lectures as ‘ramshackly‘ (p84) but subsequently published in book form, they became extremely influential and were staple reading in literary criticism. Although the book is now a bit dated in the light of PostModernism and other developments, Aspects of the Novel is still widely read if the eNotes Study Guide is anything to go by.

As Canning notes, Forster had written his best-loved and most successful novels by the time he was in his thirties. (The last one was A Passage to India in 1924). He was interested in issues of social class and hypocrisy, and he was deeply influenced by his travels, most notably to Italy and India. (Interestingly he did not set any of his novels in Germany or Egypt to which he travelled as well). He satirised his own mother as the unbearable Englishwoman abroad but if she did recognise herself she kept on interfering in his life anyway. Inevitably he also modelled some of his characters on his friends, but it seems to have been mostly Forster who broke off some friendships rather than the other way round. It seems more likely that he chose not to continue writing novels because he could not write honestly about what moved him emotionally and he did not know how to write about heterosexual love with any credibility. His preference became literary criticism at which he was equally successful, presenting lectures on BBC radio and writing for all the major newspapers and literary magazines.

Canning is lecturer at Bristol and publishes widely in the gay lit field, so it’s not surprising that he focusses on this aspect of Forster’s life. What Maurice makes clear is the extent to which religious faith constrains sexual identity because the Bible is unequivocal: homosexuality is a sin and therefore it must be repressed. Forster’s character has to choose between faith and love, and can only do so in a fantasy greenwood, not in society. Canning, however, (and he’s not alone apparently) regards it as ‘dated’ because ‘by 1971, gay themes were coming in, but agony and self-agonising were out of style’ (p106). Perhaps in literature they were, but there’s a long way to go before coming out is an easy choice to make, even now.

Other subjects in the Brief Lives series include Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and Tolstoy.

There’s a review of this book at Chroma which is well worth reading, and so is the Wikipedia entry about Forster.

Author: Richard Canning
Title: Brief Lives: E.M.Forster
Series: Brief Lives
Publisher: Hesperus Press 2009
ISBN: 9781843919162
Source: Review copy courtesy of Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program

Cross-posted at http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/brief-lives-e-m-forster-by-richard-... ( )
  anzlitlovers | Jun 16, 2010 |
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Edward Morgan Forster - 'Morgan' to all - was born on New Year's Day at his parents' home, 6 Melcombe Place, Dorset Square, London.
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