WIR #9: Aspects of the Novel

aspects_of_the_novel-125Forster, E. M. (Edward Morgan). Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt. Copyright © 1927, by Harcourt, Inc. Copyright renewed 1955, by E. M. Forster.

E. M. Forster at Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._M._Forster


This book is, as I said, a pleasure to read (I finished it earlier this evening). It is also educational in the extreme. (This book was originally a series of lectures — the Clark lectures, we are told — "which were delivered under the auspices of Trinity College, Cambridge, in the spring of 1927.") Forster, being far more educated than I am, is the owner of a vocabulary that makes me feel like the words that spew out of my mouth (or that fumble off my fingers onto the keyboard) are little more than the squeaks of gutter rat. Yet it's not just Forster, but also some of the works that he quotes. Take, for example, Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm. Says Forster by way of introduction:

You all know Miss Dobson — not personally, or you would not be here now. She is that damsel for love of whom all the undergraduates of Oxford except one drowned themselves during Eights week, and he threw himself out of a window.

The beginning of Forster's introduction has a subtle humour about it that is easily missed if one doesn't read carefully (and I've learned recently that some who should do not — indeed, there are among us professional writers whose reading comprehension is, well, disgustingly appalling — it's no one who reads this blog so far as I know). The following Beerbohm paragraph quoted by Forster leaves me feeling thoroughly out-of-the-loop:

Through the square, across the High, down Grove Street they passed. The Duke looked up at the tower of Merton, ώς οῠποτ᾿ αὗθις άλλὰ νῦν πανύστατον. Strange that tonight it would still be standing here, in all its sober and solid beauty — still be gazing, over the roofs and chimneys, at the tower of Magdalen, its rightful bride. Through untold centuries of the future it would stand thus, gaze thus. He winced. Oxford walls have a way of belittling us; and the Duke was loth to regard his doom as trivial.

I've lived in England, and I've lived in Greece, too. I used to live in Oxfordshire, and have visited Oxford, so I recognize the Oxford University landmarks mentioned — the tower of Merton and the tower of Magdalen. Yet, despite having lived in Greece, not too far from Athens, and knowing how to read a very little bit of the language — extremely little, I assure you! — I know I have not accurately transcribed the Greek that appears in this paragraph. Greek is an incredibly complex language, with many diacritical marks, nevermind that it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (the Russian language gets its alphabet from the Greek). Yet, despite trying letters with different diacriticals and plugging the different combinations into Google's translator, I could not decipher this phrase at all.

That one Greek phrase left me with two distinct reactions: First, that if the author could not be bothered to put what he wanted to say into English, then why should I bother to read it? Although it is not without value, this is, on some level, a base and knee-jerk reaction and nearly devoid of thought. Second, it left me wishing I knew enough Greek to understand the phrase, and it's this second reaction that I prefer.

The reading of Forster's book, for me, is full of marvelous discovery. To wit, the paragraph that follows the Beerbohm excerpt:

Has not a passage like this — with its freedom of invocation — a beauty unattainable by serious literature? It is so funny and charming, so iridescent yet so profound. Criticisms of human nature fly through the book, not like arrows but upon the wings of sylphs. Towards the end — that dreadful end often so fatal to fiction — the book rather flags: the suicide of all the undergraduates of Oxford is not as delightful as it ought to be when viewed at close quarters, and the defenestration of Noaks almost nasty. Still it is a greak work — the most consistent achievement of fantasy in our time, and the closing scene in Zuleika's bedroom with its menace of further disasters is impeccable.

Forster brings me delight in this summation, makes me yearn to read Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, despite any flagging at the end. (The previous chapter of Forster's book, titled "Plot," addresses among other things the faults of fiction due to the writer's need to wrap things up, to tie off loose ends. This is what Forster refers to specifically when he says "that dreadful end often so fatal to fiction." The chapter from whence come the quotes you see here is titled, "Fantasy.") What delights me most, however, are those flying sylphs and Noaks's defenestration.

Sylphs? Says my dictionary (read it all; it's incredibly fascinating):

sylph (silf), n. 1. a slender, graceful girl or woman. 2. one of a race of dainty, imaginary beings supposed to inhabit the air. [from NL sylph(ēs) (pl.), coined by Paracelsus; apparently blended sylva (var. sp. of L silva forest) + Gk nýmphē NYMPH] —sylphic, adj. —sylphlike, sylphish, sylphy, adj. —Syn. 2. SYLPH, SALAMANDER, UNDINE (NYMPH), GNOME were imaginary beings inhabiting the four elements once believed to make up the physical world. All except the GNOMES were female. SYLPHS dwelt in the air and were light, dainty, and airy beings. SALAMANDERS dwelt in fire: "a salamander that . . . lives in the midst of flames" (Addison). UNDINES were water spirits: By marrying a man, an undine could acquire a mortal soul. (They were also called NYMPHS, though nymphs were ordinarily minor divinities of nature who dwelt in woods, hills, and meadows as well as in waters.) GNOMES were little old men or dwarfs, dwelling in the earth: ugly enough to be king of the gnomes.
—The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition. New York: Random House. Copyright © 1979 by Random House, Inc. p. 1331.

This is a prime example why I love dictionaries, and why I pay attention to everything, including the etymologies. This is just delicious.

Now, regarding defenestration, when first I read it I recognized the word, but its meaning failed me. You're gonna love this, but, first, let's take a look at its etymology:

DE- + L fenestr(a) a window + -ATION. (The 'L' abbreviation means it's a Latin word. Fenestra is Latin for window. You can see this in French, where the word for window is la fenêtre.)

Before I give you the definition, try to guess what it is yourself. I'll wait.

Got your guess ready? Good.

"The act of throwing a person or thing out of a window." Defenestration. Beautiful, isn't it?

Obviously, Forster's book is incredibly rich. You can see here what I got out of it with just a few paragraphs.

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