From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Beginnings (19)—Aspects of the Novel

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[a] Story in the Room RF
To be human, I often say, is not to know what happens next. It is the very nature of our humanity to wonder about what the future will hold—five minutes, five hours, five days, or five years from now. More than occasionally, what will happen five hundred years hence captures our imaginations; there is an entire (sub-) genre reserved for it. It does not take Immanuel Kant or Martin Heidegger to tell us that what lies at the very heart of our subjective engagement with the big world around us is the inability to know what happens when the "today" page turns toward tomorrow...or the next day, or the next. We want to know, but only time...will tell.

For the novelist and sometime critic E.M Forster (1879-1970), this is precisely the point. "We" don't know what happens next,
but the novelist does, at least in the world of her novel. She knows the beginning, the middle, and the end (sound familiar?), and our series of Beginnings posts benefit today from Forster's oddly imaginative opening to a series of lectures that were published under the title Aspects of the Novel. The section below actually comes from chapter two of the book, an editorial decision I have made, since Forster's printed text reproduces the lecture format, with the introductory material (thank you for inviting me; the lectures are named after so-and-so; and so forth) taking up the first few pages. The first "substantive" chapter is called "Story," and that is the part I have excerpted here.
[b] Next RF
Note the manner in which Forster moves deftly from three different answers to the "what is a novel?" question to an imaginative ethnography of narrative origins among Neanderthal storytellers. I had forgotten how genuinely funny Forster was, but this passage brought it all streaming back to me. Note the point at which I have broken off the entry, too. In this case, Forster is telling an "analytical story," but I chose to break it off just as the morning light was appearing (read his treatment of Scheherazade, below). You'll have to get a copy of the book if you want to see what happens next.

E.M Forster
Aspects of the Novel (1927)
We shall all agree that the fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect, but we shall voice our assent in different tones, and it is on the precise tone of voice we employ now that our subsequent conclusions will depend.

Let us listen to three voices. If you ask one type of man, "What does a novel do?" he will reply placidly: "Well—I don't know—it seems a funny sort of question to ask—a novel's a novel—well, I don't know—I suppose it kind of tells a story, so to speak." He is good-tempered and vague, and probably driving a motor-bus at the same time and paying no more attention to literature than it merits. Another man, whom I visualize as on a golf-course, will be aggressive and brisk. He will reply: "What does a novel do? Why, tell a story of course, and I've no use for it if it didn't. I like a story. Very bad taste on my part, no doubt, but I like story. You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife's the same. And a third man he says in a sort of drooping regretful voice, "Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story." I respect and admire the first speaker. I detest and fear the second. And the third is myself. Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.

For the more we look at the story (the story that is a story, mind), the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone—or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. It is immensely old—goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to paleolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him. We can estimate the dangers incurred when we think of the career of Scheherazade in somewhat later times. Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense—the only literary tool that has any effect on tyrants and savages. Great novelist though she was—exquisite in her judgments, ingenious in her incidents, advanced in her morality, vivid in her delineations of character, expert in her knowledge of three Oriental capitals—it was yet on none of these gifts that she relied when trying to save her life from her intolerable husband. They were but incidental. She only survived because she managed to keep the king wondering what would happen next. Each time she saw the sun rising she stopped in the middle of a sentence, and left him gaping. "At this moment Scheherazade saw the morning appearing and, discreet, was silent." This uninteresting little phrase is the backbone of the One Thousand and One Nights, the tapeworm by which they are tied together and the life of a most accomplished princess was preserved.

[c] Narrative journey RF
We are all like Scheherazade's husband, in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story. Some of us want to know nothing else—there is nothing in us but primeval curiosity, and consequently our literary judgments are ludicrous. And now the story can be defined. It is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence—dinner coming after breakfast, Tuesday after Monday, decay after death, and so on. Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next. These are the only two criticisms that can be made on the story that is a story. It is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms. Yet it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels.
When we isolate the story like this from the nobler aspects through which it moves, and hold it out on the forceps—wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time—it presents an appearance that is both unlovely and dull. But we have much to learn from it. Let us begin by considering it in connection with daily life...[1] 

[1] E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1927), 25-28.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1927.

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