Magazine article The Spectator

E. M. Forster and Frank Kermode

Magazine article The Spectator

E. M. Forster and Frank Kermode

Article excerpt

Any follower of literary blood sports should take a look at a review in the Weekly Standard, a conservative American magazine. You can find it on a site called Arts & Letters, which my son obligingly bookmarked for me. The present edition - at least I suppose it is the present one, not that it matters, since I understand that you can use the internet to summon articles from the vasty deep of time past - features the review, by Joseph Epstein of Sir Frank Kermode's 2007 Clark Lectures devoted to E. M. Forster. Forster's own book, Aspects of the Novel, had its origins in the same Cambridge lectures.

Epstein has armed himself with a two barrelled shotgun, one barrel for Kermode, the other for Forster, whom he admits to having admired in his youth.

Kermode is gunned down first as a timid and conventional critic, incapable of offering anything but received opinion. We are reminded how quickly he abandoned his editorship of Encounter as soon as its ultimate source of funding (from the CIA) was revealed. Some may think this honourable, and certainly I doubt, given Sir Frank's immense distinction, if it would have occurred to many of us that 'he vacated his editorship faster than a preacher with an underage boy departing a bordello under police raid'.

Epstein explains Kermode's 'timidity' by his struggle to break through the English class barrier. Consequently, he has always been careful to 'sit on the right side of the fence'. Well, perhaps, though it may be that as an American Epstein's view of the English class barrier is just a bit out-dated - and was so even when Kermode was a young man. After all, one can think of academics rising from what used to be called 'humble backgrounds', who shattered that barrier and continued to lay about them with zest and indignation.

Having had his fun with Kermode, Epstein directs the other barrel at Forster, the liberal hero. Bloomsbury, he tells us, may have laid great emphasis on the importance of personal relations, but it set a pretty poor example of how to conduct them. 'It would be difficult, not at all incidentally, to find a group of people who betrayed one another more - sexually and in other ways - than the Bloomsbury Group.' This is splendid stuff, despite the ugly repetition of the word 'group', though one might add that they don't seem to have taken the sexual betrayals to heart; all part the great game of personal relations, as it were. …

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