Julian Barnes: “I was wrong…”

Julian Barnes wrote in The Guardian of 2.12.16:

“…I first read EM Forster when an English master handed out a list of Great Books to be read one summer holiday. A Passage to India was on that list. I still have the Penguin edition – a reprint of 1960, costing three shillings and sixpence – in which I read the novel. There are no notes in the margin, not a single cry of “Irony!” It clearly made little impression on me. Later, of my own volition, when I was about 20, I read A Room With a View, and actively began to take against Forster. It seemed to me a fusty, musty, dusty read, with rather antique prose and a storyline and characters which failed to engage me. The English novelists of the next generation – Huxley, Waugh, Greene – spoke to me with much more clarity.

So what made me change my mind? It began from a quite unexpected source, an anthology of food writing. There I came across Forster’s description of the breakfast he was served on an early-morning boat train to London in the 1930s:

“Porridge or prunes, sir?” That cry still rings in my memory. It is an epitome – not, indeed, of English food, but of the forces that drag it into the dirt. It voices the true spirit of gastronomic joylessness. Porridge fills the Englishman up, prunes clear him out, so their functions are opposed. But their spirit is the same: they eschew pleasure and consider delicacy immoral … Everything was grey. The porridge was in grey lumps, the prunes swam in grey sauce … Then I had a haddock. It was covered in a sort of hard, yellow oilskin, as if it had been in a lifeboat, and its inside gushed salt water when pricked. Sausages and bacon followed this disgusting fish. They, too, had been up all night. Toast like steel: marmalade a scented jelly. I paid the bill dumbly, wondering again why some things have to be. They have to be because this is England, and we are English.

This wasn’t at all like my long-formed picture of the novelist: it was funny, subversive, delightfully unpatriotic, and all too true by the sound of it. But this might just have been a moment of aberration, I assumed. What finally did the trick was just as left-field: a conversation I had a few years later with a friend about opera. In my 60s I belatedly fell in love with opera, and we were discussing its representation in fiction. “Oh,” she said, “and there’s that scene in a provincial Italian opera house in Where Angels Fear to Tread.” It was Forster’s first novel, published in 1905. Not one I’d tried and failed with before. It looked agreeably short.

And then it surprised me from the very first chapter: it was swift, witty and satirical, with a fine eye for English manners and English snobbery. Here are a couple of lines conveying the essence of the starchy, stuck-up Harriet: “Harriet, though she did not care for music, knew how to listen to it;” and “‘Everyone to his taste!’ said Harriet, who always delivered a platitude as if it was an epigram.”

It could have been just coarsely satirical; instead, the tone is perfectly pitched

The opera-house scene, when I got to it, was brilliant. The work being performed is Lucia di Lammermoor, a knowing nod to the same opera’s famous appearance in Madame Bovary. This in itself showed spirit, if not recklessness: a first novelist, five years into the 20th century, taking on one of the great scenes of the greatest 19th-century novel. And yet Forster emerges unharmed by the comparison. His opera scene is his own. The production of Lucia is camply bad; the local audience riotously over-relaxed; the English visitors embarrassed and stuffily disapproving. It could have been just coarsely satirical and humanly disparaging; instead, the tone – of ironical amusement at the cheerful follies of the world – is perfectly pitched. And the scene also contains the following lines, which had me reaching for my annotating pencil:

There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence.

Where was that fusty, musty, dusty writer I had imagined Forster to be? Nowhere at all in this first novel of his. Next I read Howards End, and finally realised what a grown-up novelist Forster is; how serious his concerns; how good he is on marriage, friendship, love and hopeless desire; how well he writes about women; on the choice between art and life, art and money, taste and vulgarity; how well he understands the power of convention and the unheroic but necessary journeys a life entails; how wry and sly he can be, and yet how powerfully reflective...”

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