Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer’s meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it’s Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.
As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.
Perhaps his critical medium – BBC radio – made it easy to overlook Forster’s seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith’s appreciation of him:
He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn’t much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him […] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.