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Friday, March 6, 2015

Passage to E.M. Forster: 3 short stories and what they signify

Following some tips from the list of great short stories fellow blogger Charles May, who blogs exclusively on short stories (check it out), I read some E.M. Forster stories last night - if I'd read them before, it was many years ago, and like most readers I think of Forster as a novelist and a shrewd commentator on the art of the novel. These stories didn't change my view, but they're worth reading once anyway. The 3 I read - The Road from Colonus, The Celestial Omnibus, and The Other Side of the Hedge -- are from the first decade of the 20th century and feel much more like 19th-century stories than like modern ones: far, far away from Joyce and others who were already beginning to open up the form of the short story and to change the way all of us think about literature, about perception, and about the organization of ideas and images. Each of these three stories is about a man (or boy) who suddenly and unexpectedly has a glimpse, vision, or foreknowledge about another way of life, another world that had previously been beyond his grasp. Each is in some manner allegorical, and each tells a variant on the same story: There is a world of beauty that most people, in their petty and competitive race through life, fail to appreciate or even acknowledge. In Hedge, a man who is "running" (or walking) the course of his life for some reason crawls through the thick hedge that borders the race course and finds himself in a world of peace and beauty - he tries to get back to his "race" but is waylaid at several points and eventually learns that his brother, whom he though he had left behind, has also joined him on this side of the hedge. Omnibus - which looks back I think to a Hawthorne story? - is about a boy who sees signs about this bus that will take him on a mysterious journey; adults don't believe him, but he persuades one man to join him on the bus - and the man dies of fear on seeing the celestial vision. The boy returns to reality (is this also an antecedent to The Polar Express - the idea of a child journey that adults cannot recognize?). Road is about an older man traveling with family in Greece; they come to a small village where the man has a vision of beauty and he wants to stay in this spot, but other hurry him off - we'll miss the boat, you won't get your mail, etc. The story then jumps forward - back to home in London - where the man learns that inn in the village was destroyed the very night they would have stayed there (wrecked by the falling tree that was the center of his vision of beauty). Of the three, this is by far the most heavy-handed - though also the only one that, at least superficially, is realistic, devoid of the fantastic. I can see why these 3 were often anthologized - each is very "teachable" - but I think they also show that Forster worked best on a broader canvas.

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