Evan X. Merz

musician/technologist/human being

It’s really difficult to write about E. M. Forster

When I started getting into A Room with a View a few years back, I kept reading it over and over again. In each reading, I would find something new. Something would be changed, revealed, or transmuted into something new. It was fascinating. But there were still things that I didn’t understand. Some of the places and artists were obscure. Some of the referenced literature was very obscure.

I started taking notes on the novel. Whenever I came across something that was obscured by distance, time, or education, I would look it up online and produce a little note to myself about it. Eventually, I had enough of these to think, ‘hey, I should share these with other people!’

That’s where things got tricky. After all, I don’t want to share spurious or incorrect notes. I want to share notes that increase the enjoyment of the book for casual readers and fans. But how can I know if one of my notes is incorrect? How can I be sure that what I’m pointing out isn’t very subjective or obvious?

So I thought I should at least read his other novels to get some context. I read his first novel first. Where Angels Fear to Tread is, in most respects, not a great novel. But it does begin to reveal Forster’s unique approach to realism. Next I picked up The Longest Journey. That book is truly boring. It was a slog to get through, and I don’t know how anyone enjoys it without knowing a lot about Forster’s biography.

Then I read The Machine Stops, which is fabulous and unique and ahead of its time. So I thought maybe Forster had a particular gift for short fiction? So I read all of his short fiction that was in collections (which I know now is not all his short fiction). It was excellent, but there wasn’t very much of it. So I went back to the novels. I finished with Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Maurice, each of which is a masterpiece in its own way.

Then I went back to my original task. I could finally say something about Forster’s most popular book from a position of authority, right?

Well, no. I soon learned that Forster produced even more essays and non-fiction than he produced fiction. I read his guide to Alexandria, and some of his essay collections. I couldn’t get through it all, and some of his collections are difficult to acquire these days.

Then I thought I should read a biography. So I read Wendy Moffat’s excellent book.

At this point, I’m years away from my original task. I have more or less forgotten that I ever wanted to say anything about Forster and his most famous novel. Still, I’ve realized that he also wrote a lot of letters, and the selected letters are available in bound collections. I’m duty-bound to read them, right?

I read as much of the letters as I could, but I think you can see the problem. It’s really hard to say anything with authority about a writer who produced such a massive volume of words as EM Forster. The novels, essays, non-fiction, lectures, and letters amount to such a vast quantity of work that I would put it up against even the most fecund modern novelists. It’s unbelievable.

Then there’s the critics, biographers, and academics. I can see how a grad student could get very dis-heartened. How can you hope to add to the vast discourse on such a popular, beloved author?

I don’t know if I will ever finish taking notes on A Room with a View (and now Forster’s other novels too). All I know at this point is that the journey has become the goal. Reading and studying Forster’s work and the work about Forster has become a little hobby of mine. Maybe I won’t ever say anything about Forster, but I’ll have a lot of fun not saying it!

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Evan X. Merz

Evan X. Merz holds degrees in computer science and music from The University of Rochester, Northern Illinois University, and University of California at Santa Cruz. He is a programmer, musician, and author of Empress blog software. He makes his online home at evanxmerz.com.