Frank Kermode's first book was written when he was an undergraduate; the author later described it as "deplorable". Evidently he has improved somewhat in the intervening 70 years. His new book, Concerning E M Forster, is an artful and perceptive study of Forster's work, which ranges over all six of his novels, with particular attention paid to A Passage to India. It is also a study, no less inclined to valuation, of Forster the man, a disappointment in Kermode's view - less adventurous and committed than his modernist contemporaries, conservative in his social outlook, an unsystematic reader who seems to have taken a pass on Kafka, Camus and Henry Green.
The book gets off to a surreal start, with Kermode (emphasis on "Ker") offering much unnecessary apology. His choice of Forster as subject of his 2007 Clark Lectures is described as "partly a matter of sentiment" - Forster himself had delivered them in 1927, the result becoming Aspects of the Novel. Displaying a similarly sharp sense of his own inadequacies, Kermode proceeds to outline his own connection to Forster's college, King's, while remaining conscious that "all this academic detail is tedious". He extends this mode into the book's acknowledgements, where he thanks two friends who "did much more than I deserved to improve the book". This is all very unconvincing. The greatest literary scholar since William Empson doth protest too much, methinks.
Mercifully, he drops the mask of exaggerated humility soon enough, and we are in the happier company of Kermode the scholar-critic, a figure confident enough in his opinions to offer hundreds of them. The book proper opens with a dazzling agenda-fixing chapter on Aspects of the Novel, in which Kermode complicates Forster's distinction between story and plot - plot being events related by cause rather than contiguity - drafting The Good Soldier and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as examples. Forster is excused for ignoring narrative theory yet is gently chided for his insufficient attention to Ford's novel and for his blinkered dislike of Henry James. The chapter, underpinned by Kermode's eagerness to understand and, where possible, forgive this distinguished but "straitly limited" writer, is enlivened by his odd accents, off-trail ruminations, and lack of faze when turning from Edwardian literary disputes to French theory of the 1960s. The chapters that follow, on the musicality of Forster's work and specifically A Passage to India, are no less impressive, though they might have been written by someone other than Frank Kermode.
The second half of the book, written to add weight and context to the three Clark Lectures, is given over to what Kermode calls "a causerie" - "a free, rambling stream of more or less directly relevant comment . . . having a remote kinship with the loosely linked gossip column". His gossip is fairly clean, being in fact biographical criticism of the very highest calibre. As practised by this omniscient and flexible writer, the causerie becomes an enjoyably irrational stream of consciousness in which, say, Forster's identification of the missing element that hindered his popularity as a novelist - "sex" - is immediately followed by a paragraph break and the sentence: "Forster loved the East, and especially India." Elsewhere, Kermode writes that "Forster's orientalism may seem unrelated to his reputation as evangel of a more secular spirituality" before supplying a brisk interrogation of Forster's essay "What I Believe".
The book's infirmities, being so rare, serve to emphasise its accomplishments. A tortured locution near the beginning of the book - “A E Housman, for whose poems he had a deep affection, he made unsuccessful attempts to cultivate" - comes as a surprise because of Kermode's limpidity elsewhere. The one donnish touch - "Walking north from Covent Garden I have often found myself recalling some words of Thackeray" - reminds us that Kermode has usually been the least airy of critics. His claim that he had known Forster's novels for 50 years by the time he arrived at King's ludicrously conjures a four-year-old reader of A Room With a View - though that is one way of accounting for the depth of the acquaintance. The repetition of numerous quotations and arguments between the Clark Lectures and the causerie, which somehow confuse matters rather than clarifying them, inspires a sense of gratitude that we were getting them at all.
In a book of such refinement and such erudition, Kermode's modest manner seems all the more affected, though perhaps, with Kermodian magnanimity, we may excuse it as the paradoxical product of serene self-assurance - how Virginia Woolf interpreted Forster's modesty. I suspect that, for all his self-effacement and self-reproof, Kermode realises the value that his work has had for readers without his facility and energy who nevertheless desire a rich understanding of literature. And if he doesn't, he should.
Concerning E M Forster
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 180pp, £14.99
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer