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Howards End

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E. M. Forster, Howards End [London; 1910]

My third or fourth time reading this, which in some moods over the last quarter-century I would have called my favorite novel. It might still be; but I think I can see its flaws more clearly now, or at least the mood of 2017 leaves precious little room for woolly-minded faults-on-both-sides can't-we-all-get-along-isms. "Only connect" has been something of a talismanic sentence for me since high school (not that I'm any good at heeding its advice), but Empire demands a more robust resistance.

This time through, I'm struck by how delicately the comedy of manners which makes up the first half of the book shifts into a quasi-mystical passion play, with a near-mathematical precision to its liturgical procession of sin and redress, sacrifice and new life, towards the end. Two chapters -- the early Beethoven chapter, which uses Helen's imaginative response to the Fifth to set up one recurrent theme, and the last chapter that follows Leonard Bast -- are particularly effective high-wire acts of literary sleight-of-hand, tucking plot improbabilities into the haziness of internal monologue, even as Forster's shrewd, rather droll narrative voice keeps its wits about it. 

I don't think I ever saw, in the years when my imagination was much more in thrall to the faux-medieval Little-Englandisms of Chesterton and his disciples Tolkien and Lewis, how resoundingly the resolution of Howards End echoes their particular anti-modernity streak. It's more than that, of course: the German-English union which produces the book's heroines is a nearly-silent protest against the war that was already brewing in 1910, and its surprisingly direct treatment of sexual relations is (although perhaps only surprising to someone who is also reading a lot of US fiction of the period) about as clear-eyed as it was then legal to get.

I read it slowly over the course of two months, generally a chapter a night (I never realized how delightfully short the chapters were before), wanting to savor it. It's so deeply satisfying on every level, from sentence to theme, that on some level I'm always disappointed whenever I read a book that isn't as good as Howards End.

October 27, 2017