Over the last week I have read a strange text: Commonplace Book by E. M. Forster. Bits of it thrilled me, some of it made me punch the air with excitement, a few passages genuinely moved me, but there were several sections that almost made me fall asleep. That is because this was not a “book” in any true sense of the word – it was not planned or structured – but was instead an odd sort of occasional diary and repository for quotations and any other miscellany Forster encountered and wanted to preserve.
A commonplace book was a thing, a scrapbook, an old Victoriany idea. Forster found an old book, originally belonging to his grandfather or great grandfather or great uncle or something, an old relative, that had never been used, and in the mid-1920s, just after the publication of his final novel, A Passage To India, he began to write in it. Then, over more than forty years, he filled it with notes on books he read, transcriptions of letters, snippets of overheard conversations, bits of poetry, his primary ideas for essays and stories (and unwritten novels), notes on places he visited, art he had seen, people he had met, facts about science, about history, about art and architecture, comments on current events and all sorts of other “commonplaces” that occurred to him.
Forster was, of course, the author of many novels as a young man. As well as the one mentioned above, his other big hits included Howards End and A Room With A View, both of which are still well-respected novels. For the second half of his 90 year life, though, he was an essayist and an academic, writing short gay fiction that would not be published until after his death, much like the novel, Maurice, which he wrote in the same part of his life as he wrote his others. In Commonplace Book, though, Forster makes no secret of his sexuality, makes no secret of himself either, in opposition to the many characters in his novels who are thin self-fictions. Here he is aloof, pompous, bitchy, horny, critical, depressed, ill, aging and ALIVE. Here is half a lifetime’s worth of engagement with the written word and the living world – he travels, he has affairs, he has friends, he makes new ones, he changes opinions, he develops ideas, he learns about the development of aerospace technology and the growing understanding of the nature of the universe and the age of the earth. He is inquisitive, he is witty and he is smart.
There are some excellent passages on humanist attitudes towards death, there is a terrifying page where he lists all of the effects of aging on his body, there are the sad moments where, in his 80s, he almost dies, there is the awareness of the reason for the ending of his note-making…
This is a poignant book. It made me laugh and it (often) made me think. I am approaching this, though, as a big fan of Forster’s work who’s read pretty much everything he published, certainly far more than everything that is still in print. For me, this was an interesting and a rather unique insight into the psychology of an author whose works I have long enjoyed. As an idea, it’s great and it’s interesting, but I struggle to believe many other people would enjoy this as much as I did. It was an interesting read, for me, but I’m a strange, literary* man.
* This morning I received in the post a targeted mail shot trying to sell me a subscription to the Times Literary Supplement. I’ve arrived…
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