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Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970)

English author and critic, member of Bloomsbury group and friend of
Virginia Woolf. After gaining fame as a novelist, Forster spent his 46
remaining years publishing mainly short stories and non-fiction. Of his
five important novels four appeared before World War I. Forster’s major
concern was that individuals should ‘connect the prose with the passion’
within themselves, and that one of the most exacting aspect of the novel
is prophecy.

«If human nature does alter it will be because individuals manage to
look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people — a very few
people, but a few novelists are among them — are trying to do this.
Every institution and vested interest in against such a search:
organized religion, the State, the family in its economic aspect, have
nothing to gain, and it is only when outward prohibitions weaken that it
can proceed: history conditions it to that extent.» (from Aspects of the
Novel, 1927)

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London as the son of an architect, who
died before his only child was two years old. Forster’s childhood and
much of his adult life was dominated by his mother and his aunts. The
legacy of her paternal great-aunt Marianne Thornton, descendant of the
Clapham Sect of evangelists and reformers, gave later Forster the
freedom to travel and to write. Forster’s years at Tonbridge School as a
teenager were difficult — he suffered from the cruelty of his
classmates.

Forster attended King’s College, Cambridge (1897-1901), where he met
members of the later formed Bloomsbury group. In the atmosphere of
skepticism, he became under the influence of Sir Jamer Frazer, Nathaniel
Wedd, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and G.E. Moore, and shed his not very
deep Christian faith. After graduating he travelled in Italy and Greece
with his mother, and on his return began to write essays and short
stories for the liberal Independent Review. In 1905 Foster spent several
month in German as tutor to the children of the Countess von Armin.

In the same year appeared his first novel, WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD.
In the following year he lectured on Italian art and history for the
Cambridge Local Lectures Board. In 1907 appeared THE LONGEST JOURNEY,
then A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1908), based partly on the material from
extended holidays in Italy with his mother. The first part of the novel
is set in Florence, where the young Lucy Honeychurch is visitng with her
older cousin Charlotte Bartless. Lucy witnesses a murder and becomes
caught between two man, shallow, conventional Cecil Vyse and George
Emerson, who kisses Lucy during a picnic. The second half of the novel
takes place at Windy Corner, Lucy’s home on Summer Street. She accepts a
marriage proposal from Cecil. The Emerson become friends of the
Honeychurches after George, Mr. Beebe, who is a clergyman, and Freddie,
Lucy’s brother, are discovered bathing nude in the woods. Finally Lucy
overcomes prejudices and marries George. Forster also wrote during the
pre-war years a number of short stories, which were collected in THE
CELESTIAL OMNIBUS (1914). Most of them were symbolic fantasies or
fables.

HOWARDS END (1910) was a story that centered on an English country house
and dealt with the clash between two families, one interested in art and
literature, the other only in business. The book brought together the
themes of money, business and culture. «To trust people is a luxury in
which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it.» (from
Howards End) The novel established Forster’s reputation, and he embarked
upon a new novel with a homosexual theme, MAURICE. The picture of
British attitudes not long after Wilde was revised several times during
his life, and finally published posthumously in 1971. His personal life
Forster hid from public discussion. In 1930 he had a relationship with a
London policeman. This important contact continued after the marriage of
his London friend.

Between the years 1912 and 1913 Forster travelled in India. From 1914 to
1915 he worked for the National Gallery in London. Following the
outbreak of World War I, Forster joined the Red Cross and served in
Alexandria, Egypt. There he met the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, and
published a selection of his poems in PHARAOS AND PHARILLON (1923). In
1921 Forster returned to India, working as a private secretary to the
Maharajah of Dewas. The land was the scene of his masterwork A PASSAGE
TO INDIA (1924), an account of India under British rule. It was Forter’s
last novel — and for the remaining 46 years of his life he devoted
himself to other activities. Writing novels was not the most important
element in his life. In the book he wrote: «Most of life is so dull that
there is nothing to be said about it and the books and talk that would
describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of
justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social
obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the
distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we
pretend.» After Forster’s death his literary executors turned down
approaches from Joseph Losey, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and Waris
Hussein, to make a feature film version of the book, but eventually
David Lean was approved as director. Forster had shared with T.E.
Lawrence a dislike and distrut of the cinema. The two last chapetrs of A
Passage to India Forster had also written under the influence of
Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Later Lean was criticized that
he produced his own vision of India, not Forster’s. He also changed the
ending of the story, defending himself: «Look, this novel was written
hot on the movement for Indian independence. I think the end is a lot of
hogwash so far as a movie is concerned.» (from David Lean: A Biography
by Kevin Brownlow, 1996)

Passage to India (1924) — Adela Quested visits Chandrapore with Mrs
Moore in order to make up her mind whether to marry the latter’s son.
Mrs Moore meets his friend Dr Azis, assistant to the British Civil
Surgeon. She and Adela accept Azis’s invitation to visit the mysterious
Marabar Caves. In this trip Mrs Moore nearly faints in the cave and goes
mad for an instant. Adela asks Azis, «Have you one wife or more than
one?» and he is shocked. «But to ask an educated Indian Moslem how many
wive he has — appalling, hideous!» She believes herself to have been the
victim of a sexual assault by Azis, who is arrested. Adela is pushed
forward by his frieds and family but she admits that she was mistaken.
«Something that she did not understand took hold of the girl and pulled
her through. Though the vision was over, and she had returned to the
insipidity of the world, she remembered what she had learnt. Atonement
and confession — they could wait. It was in hard prosaic tones that she
sais: ‘I withdraw everything.'» Mrs Moore dies on the voyage home at
sea. «The heat, I suppose,» Mr Hamidullah says. Azis has changed his
liberal views. «We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I
don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty-hundred years
we shall get rid of you; yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman
into the sea, and then’ — he rode against him furiously — ‘and then,’ he
concluded, half kissing him, ‘you and I shall be friends.'» — The
novel’s title derives from Walt Whitman, but the American poet’s
celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal as bringing together East
and West is qualified by Kipling’s assertion that ‘ne’er the twain shall
meet.’ The Nobel writer V.S. Naipaul has claimed once that Forster knew
hardly anything about India: «He just knew a few middle-class Indians
and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce.»

Forster contributed reviews and essays to numerous journals, most
notably the Listener, he was an active member of PEN, in 1934 he became
the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties, and
after his mother’s death in 1945, he was elected an honorary fellow of
King’s and lived there for the remainder of his life. In 1949 Forster
refused a knighthood and in 1951 he collaborated with Eric Crozier on
the libretto of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, which was based on
Herman Melville’s novel (film 1962, dir. by Peter Ustinov). Forster was
made a Companion of Honour in 1953 and in 1969 he accepted an Order of
Merit. Forster died on June 7, 1970.

«So Two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two
because it permits criticism.»

Forster often criticized in his books Victorian middle class attitudes
and British colonialism through strong woman characters. However,
Forster’s characters were not one-dimensional heroes and villains, and
except his devotion to such values as tolerance and sense of comedy, he
was uncommitted. «For we must admit that flat people are not in
themselves as big achievement as round ones, and also that they are best
when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a
bore. Each time he enters crying ‘Revenge!’ or ‘My heart bleeds for
humanity!’ or whatever his formula is, out hearts sink.» (from Aspects
of the Novel) The epithet ‘Fosterian’ — liberal, unconventional,
sceptical, moral — had started to circulate since the publication of
Howard’s End. Forster’s famous essay ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’ (also:
‘What I Believe’), which was originally printed in 1938 in the New York
Nation reflected his concern for individual liberty. He assumed liberal
humanism not dogmatically but ironically, writing in unceremonious
sentences and making gentle stabs at pomposity and hypocrisy «If I had
to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I
should have the guts to betray my country.» (from ‘Two cheers for
Democracy’) The British Humanist Association has reissued this classical
work and similar essays.

For further reading: E.M. Forster by Lionel Trilling (1943); The Novels
of .M. Forster by J. McConley (1957); Down There on a Visit by
Christopher Isherwood (1962); The Achievement of E.M. Foerster by J.
Beer (1962); The Cave and the Mountain by Wilfred Stone (1966); E.M.
Forster: a Life by B.N. Furbank (1977-78, 2 vols.); An E.M. Forster
Dictinary by Alfredo Borello (1971); An E.M. Forster Glossary by Alfredo
Borello (1972); The Bloomsbury Group by S.P. Rosenbaum (1975); A
Bibliography of E.M. Forster by Brownlee Jean Kirkpatrick (1986); E.M.
Forster, ed. by Harold Bloom (1987); A Passage to India by Judith
Scherer Herz (1993); A Passage to India, ed. by Tony Davies and Nigel
Wood (1994); The Prose and the Passion by Nigel Rapport (1994); Morgan:
A Biography of E.M. Forster by Nicola Beauman (1994); E.M. Forster:
Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. by Jeremy Tambling (1995); The
Modernist as Pragmatist by Brian May (1997); Queer Forster, ed. by
Robert K. Martin and George Piggford (1997); Howards End, ed. by Paul B.
Armstrong (1998)

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