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The Modernist Makes it Personal,
This review is from: The Longest Journey (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
The Longest Journey's suspicious form and strange conclusions were quite accurately detected by Lionel Trilling who declared this novel in comparison to Forster's others to be his least perfect, least compact, least precisely formed and, simultaneously, his most brilliant, most dramatic, and most passionate. Such a multi-faceted existence is an exact indication of the risky and unfamiliar lines upon which modernists walked. One can assume that Trilling considered A Passage to India to be the wiser and more perfect of Forster's novels in comparison. Where A Passage to India is socio-political, The Longest Journey is personal. The philosophical issues portrayed can be interpreted as being in dialogue with Forster's fellow scholars, pontificating upon the arguments of his academic circles. Scholars who engaged with these same philosophical arguments will no doubt warm to the affable and ironical gestures Forster uses to argue his case.
The structure in which Forster composes The Longest Journey sometimes borders on an obsessive control of the novel's plot and particularly the characters. As the events of the story unfold, we see the frame leading us to a central statement about the human condition. The overemphasis of these points crowded with immense symbolism leads us to question the effectiveness of Forster's statements. Particular points in the story, such as Rickie's realisation that Stephen is his half brother and the reintroduction of Ansell teamed with Stephen, leave us in a troublesome position asking whether this highly personal story was sacrificed to the musically fluent style Forster was working. The Longest Journey's most difficult problem is that it introduces itself as a modernist novel whose commitment is to style, yet its story is obviously Forster's personal account of a series of emotions and events in his own life.
The narrator's voice and Rickie's are essentially interchangeable. The only difference between the two is that the narrator is consciously aware of what Rickie's subconscious knows, but can't admit. If Rickie were so closely intertwined with the authorial voice, then it would seem that there is no room for intimacy with the reader. Yet, the story redeems itself through Rickie's struggle because it is so personal in its metaphysical complications. It is only later in the story, as it drifts farther away from Rickie's consciousness that the emotional impact lets go and we are left wandering through labyrinths of overt symbolic designs. The design in which Rickie is brought to his end is ultimately unfulfilling because the tragedy of the human condition makes itself so poignantly clear when the story is brought full circle to the ending ominously predicted from the outset. Instead, we are asked to accept that no life is tragic because of the enduring factor a human's spiritual hope. If Stephen were created as a character more complicated than a pastoral hero, then this resolution might be effective. However, in the troublesome structure it exists in, it falls short of an enlightening resolution.
Within the complex faults that unfold from an authorial voice inseparable from a central character's consciousness, there is a meaning that resounds through. Apart from stylistic concerns, the modernists were intensely concerned about the human's existential crisis that results from an awareness of the bleak resistance to have faith in either scientific or theological assertions. Rickie is the only vehicle with which we can understand and interpret the complicity of an early twentieth century man's reality. The other characters exist as mere paper figures that serve stilted plot functions. It is through Rickie alone that we understand this particular metaphysical crisis. These sentiments are what make The Longest Journey an important work of modernist fiction in the historical sense. Its theoretical importance lies in the fact of its mismatched structural and sentimental tale's existence.
There is an odd coincidence between symbols he and other modernist writers use. For example, Rickie hangs a towel over a painted harp in the room he is sleeping in at Ansell's house just as Woolf wrote about Mrs. Ramsay hanging her shawl over the skull hanging in the children's bedroom. The symbolic meaning of this can be interpreted in various ways. Yet, in Woolf's writing the meaning makes itself abundantly more clear because the style with which she works supersedes the story in To the Lighthouse. This is why To the Lighthouse is a more successful modernist experiment. A writer that does not work within the laws of the form in which they are working will inevitably fail in their efforts. Forster does not seem to be ignorant of these laws, but he is so enthusiastic about the application of them that his obsessive use of the stylistics becomes rather inappropriate.
Forster often declaimed himself as "not a great novelist". The reason he felt this was probably because he was not able to abide by the standards that he himself set as the qualifications for great novels. This is, at least, the primary objection to be made toward The Longest Journey. In Aspects of the Novel Forster writes, "The novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting; he has given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyse his own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results". The obsessive control of style as an opposition to the driving story he wanted to tell in The Longest Journey proves to be a fatal merging of a novelist who wants to keep with the artistic innovations of his time. Forster is too aware of his use of stylistic method to make the novel a wholly satisfactory piece of literature. Yet, because there is so much of Forster in the novel, it remains a very interesting book to serious and passionate readers.