Friday, 15 January 2010

Writing About Reading: Howards End by E M Forster

For what seems like a very long time, I've been struggling through E M Forster's Howards End. (Note, no apostrophe. Lynne Truss will be proud.)

Why struggling, I hear you ask. Well, I'm afraid to say, I'm going to blame my commute. Most of my London life, I've lived a fair distance from work. When I worked for emap in Mornington Crescent, and commuted from Clapham South (ah, the never-ending joys of the Northern Line), I used to fairly race through books. All kinds: long, short, rubbish, non-fictional, modern, historical, everything. Even when I moved to VL, the trip from Wandsworth to London Bridge provided me with enough time to plough through a fair amount of exciting literature.

But now I'm finding it harder to keep going with books. The 12-ish minutes I'm actually on the train between home and work get taken up with finding a seat, putting on make-up, fiddling with my iPod. When I finally get whatever it is I'm reading out of my bag, we're pretty much there.

So I limped through Howards End like someone just learning to read. Some mornings, I'm sure, I simply re-read what I'd read the evening before, just trying to find my place on the page. Fragmented doesn't even cover it. It doesn't make for a great book-devouring experience.

Which is a shame, because it turns out Howards End is amazing. Of course, lots of people know this already. It's not a well-read, studied, learned, and inwardly digested (thanks, Mr Prall) classic for nothing. I'm aware I'm not bringing anything new to the literary criticism cannon here. I was just surprised how brilliant it was, to be honest.

I've read A Room With a View, and I thought it was quite fun, and liked it in a "I've lived abroad" kind of way. I took up Howards End expecting quite a serious, flat, quiet, but enjoyable, study of English manners in the early 1900s. I had no idea how much more it would be than that. Getting through it at the snail's pace I've sunk to, I found myself totally shocked by the twists and turns of the story, and which characters ended up being more dominant, and which, seemingly, didn't. I'd get home from another revelation and think (spoiler alert), "She's marrying him?" or "She's pregnant!" and be really blown away.

I also liked spotting little epigrams throughout the book; I've turned down the page corners where things amused me, and would like to make a note of them somewhere. It reminded me of reading Austen, but male, and from in another time, of course:
I believe we shall come to care about people less and less. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It's one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place."
- Margaret Schlegel, Ch 15
Now I've finally finished, typically, I'm really interested. I want to read more and more and more about the book. I want to know about E M Forster. I want to know what people have written about the book and E M Forster. It's an Eng Lit/Mod Hist graduate's sickness, I believe. I'm crawling my way through the introduction by David Lodge, and it's all very interesting. I've found out that A Passage To India is said to be Forster's real masterpiece. Worrying; I guess I'll have to read this now, too. And that On Beauty by Zadie Smith is supposed to be both a tribute to and a riff on Howards End. So there's another for the list.

But for now, I'm just hoping to increase my reading speed. Or do something drastic to increase the time I spend commuting...

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