Thursday, May 19, 2011

E.M. Forster's THE LONGEST JOURNEY


During my college years I inadvertently signed up for a class in Modernist British Novels (the class schedule had abbreviated the course as Modern British Novels, and I had hopes it would be covering writers like Irvine Welsh and Will Self; because of those three missing letters my expectations were off by almost 100 years). Besides one nonfiction book to familiarize ourselves with the atmosphere of the late 19th century, the class reading consisted of nearly all the works by two authors: Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. It was a demanding schedule, which resulted in us racing through a new novel almost every week. At such a pace the pleasures of a novel can hardly be noted--it's rather like passing through a city on a train, with only a few vivid glimpses retained despite the ground covered.

Though Woolf's work fascinated me, it also felt laborious and difficult. Forster, on the other hand, connected with me in a personal way (this personal sense of connection, of intimacy and camaraderie and not feeling alone, is one of the great gifts that art sometimes gives). But, racing through his works as we did, I had no time to gain any real satisfaction from them, nor to explore what it was that they made me feel. I noted THE LONGEST JOURNEY and PASSAGE TO INDIA as two novels to return to later, and then I moved on to other study-related distractions.

Nearly ten years have passed since that semester, and only very recently have I found the occasion to return to Forster's work. Earlier this year I stumbled across a mildewed copy of THE LONGEST JOURNEY in the free box of a used book store here on campus. The copyright page states that the book I found was printed in 1922, in full compliance with the Wartime Paper and Other Material Preservation Requirements. The spine is cracked, the pages discolored, but the text remains intact.

The book sat on a shelf awaiting me, for several months, as I read through dozens of other books--books that succeeded in distracting me from where I was and what I was doing, escapist books meant to kill time, to turn our consciousness away from the monotony of our daily lives. I felt urges, now and again, to reread THE LONGEST JOURNEY, but new books kept getting in my way, seducing me with their novelty. Finally, bored of the shallow distractions of all these pulp novels, I picked up THE LONGEST JOURNEY, and started to read it again.

It has been, without a doubt, the most fulfilling reading experience I've had in years. The only other book I can remember reading recently that fulfilled me as much as this book has is MISS LONELYHEARTS, by Nathanael West.

Part of the satisfaction comes from the sentence-level eloquence Forster wields. He puts together words artfully, with great invention and wit, and yet maintains a clarity of story that keeps things moving along. Though it is true his approach is often oblique, rather than direct, it's still easy to know what he means, and to see things clearly. Also, an element of precociousness and idealism is worked into every sentence, which masterfully resonates the story's theme.

The theme, too, is something wonderful to me. Imagine if all of the idealism you felt as a teenager was actually your purest state, and if the later abandoning of such idealism for the conventions of the adult world, a process generally labeled "growing up," was actually a descent into perversion and hollowness. It's an ironic take on the "coming-of-age" novel, in which the character is wiser at the start, and degenerates from there. Rather iconoclastic, but Forster makes it work incredibly well. Plus it's very funny.

I'm not one who often thinks of turning books into movies, but the joy I felt with this book made me fantasize about putting it into a format with a potentially larger audience. The characters are so vividly realized, too--real people who come together in ways that show different elements of their reality--that it's fun to think of which actor would best portray each role. Perhaps:

Rickie: Elijah Wood
Ansell: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Stephen: Jack Black
Agnes: Keira Knightley
Mrs. Failing: Meryl Streep
Herbert: Steve Carell
with a soundtrack by The Smiths