The Longest Journey

19Aug10

Welcome to 2010, where you finish a novel by E.M. Forster called The Longest Journey, Google those words assuming you’ll get some reviews or comments, but all the results are concerned with a video game by the same name.

So what do you say about an acknowledged classic that you didn’t enjoy reading? In fact, the impressive moments were so infrequent it felt like eating a bowl of lard with a few juicy little raisins.

I’m sorry, Edward, I really am. But the events of the novel unfold so slowly I felt like I nearly missed them, the way you’d not be able to actually make note of the moment a flower blooms. I was struck by some of the literary comments from characters, such as “Life is so full in our days that short stories are the very thing; they get read by people who’d never tackle a novel.” It’s a curious insight, though also now an era where people decline short stories saying they want something they can sink their teeth into. Another literary moment concerns a manuscript being returned: “A fragment of red cotton, placed by Agnes between the leaves, had not shifted its position.”

Plot details follow (in case you don’t want them ruined).

Rickie, the writer and central character, pays a “disastrous visit” to a relative, given that there were surprises and hurt feelings. But my idea of a disastrous visit involves an avalanche, and the survivors eating the dead. If nothing else, the novel (which dates from 1922) demonstrates an era of heightened social tension and expectations.

Rickie is pulled from a comfortable, academic world at Cambridge into marriage because he “loved Agnes, not only for herself, but because she was lighting up the human world.”  But this is finally treated as though it was a massive, pointless distraction from writing: “But romantic love is also the code of modern morals, and, for this reason, popular.  Eternal union, eternal ownership – these are tempting baits for the average man.  He swallows them, will not confess his mistake, and – perhaps to cover it – cries ‘dirty cynic’ at such a man as Stephen.”  The unconventional thinking here is interesting, and it’s true Rickie ends up in a loveless marriage, but why would writers decline to embrace life and experience, and how is anyone supposed to know in advance that something will fail?

I enjoyed some of the contemplative and carefully written statements describing characters, such as “the editor was a tall neat man of forty, slow of speech, slow of soul, and extraordinarily kind,” but it rarely feels that enough notable things happen to the characters.  Most of the development and more jarring moments are in the first half: “In this short life Rickie had known two sudden deaths, and that is enough to disarrange any placid outlook on the world.  He knew once and for all that we are all bubbles on an extremely rough sea.  Into this sea humanity has built, as it were some little breakwaters – scientific knowledge, civilized restraint – so that that bubbles do not break so frequently or too soon.”

An insightful perspective, but there are poems and essays that capture this much, and without all the framework and fanfare of a novel.  Perhaps the fault is at least partly in me for my impatience. I was raised by a couple of parents and a television, but have also been reading steadily since the age of twenty, for over twenty years. Still, that hasn’t prevented the TV and surfing the net from rewiring my brain so that I feel little patience for a novel having a long, dainty tea party with a few philosophical ideas.  Here’s Rickie contemplating a friend, Herbert:

“Then what was amiss?  Why, in spite of all these qualities, should Rickie feel that there was something wrong with him – nay, that he was wrong as a whole, and that if the Spirit of Humanity should ever hold a judgment he would assuredly be classed among the goats?  The answer at first sight appeared a graceless one – it was that Herbert was stupid.  Not stupid in the ordinary sense – he had a business-like brain, and acquired knowledge easily – but stupid in the important sense: his whole life was coloured by a contempt of the intellect.”

I don’t want to be a goat, and will admit I may have approached the novel with too little patience, even as I think it’s fair to say times are changing, and we’re changing with them. I won’t go so far as to say classic is another word for dated, because I’ve cherished novels that are older, but I think some of the books approaching a hundred years old are on the horizon of what we consider palatable, and it depends on the approach taken by the novel.

Sorry, Edward. I’ll try you again sometime.

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