Monday, September 28, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

A Room with a View

There is nothing like falling in love, although when it goes smoothly it can be quite boring to outside observers.  Luckily for fiction, it rarely goes smoothly.

E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (#79) is the nicest romance on the Modern Library’s list.  Nevertheless, it is a romance with issues and impediments, and in Forster’s masterful hands a compelling tale that travels back and forth between sensuous Italy and farcical Britain.

Lucy is a well-bred, obedient young woman with something smoldering inside her.  Through the coincidences of British upper-class travel she twice crosses paths with a father and son who might be well-bred but are not necessarily obedient, at least not to British propriety.  The father, Mr. Emerson, is romantic and philosophical.  His voice is the foil to the reliable expectations laid out before Lucy, which she had readily bought into.  It isn’t that Lucy is not allowed to be herself; it’s just that even as herself she hadn’t felt any inclination to rebel against her predictable, respectable future. 

But Lucy has a passionate soul. We can see it in her piano playing: she plays Beethoven with a particular, almost unsettling degree of feeling. We even see it in her relationship with her younger brother Freddy, who is at the age between boyhood and manhood and is overflowing with impetuous life, tolerated and indulged by his mother and his sister.  Lucy has a certain something, which is perceived by Mr. Emerson’s son, George, but not at all by her chaste beau, soon fiancĂ©, Cecil.  And therein manifests Lucy’s conflict.

The older people in this story are very interesting, and an examination of their characters and their relationships could fill pages.  There is Mr. Emerson, Lucy’s mother Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy’s cousin and chaperone Charlotte, a romance novelist named Miss Lavish, and the local vicar Mr. Beebe.  They have created little families for themselves among one another, but each is without a life partner.  There is fun and sociability in their lives, there is friendship and companionship, but there is no romance.  If Lucy and Charlotte hadn’t encountered the Emersons on their Italian sojourn in Florence, Lucy might have grown predictably into the same enjoyable but non-romantic life, and she might have been satisfied with it.  But she did meet the Emersons, and each of these older people, in his or her own way, encourages the young ones toward love, which in this novel is synonymous with life.

A motif is the celebration of the nude male as the symbol of art, passion, and freedom.  In Florence, this type of art surrounds the British visitors and challenges their aesthetics and their morals (as does the sometimes violent passion of the Italian people).  Back in England, it is echoed in a spontaneous, playful swimming outing with Freddy, George, and Mr. Beebe (representing three ages of a man), which is accidentally seen by Lucy, Cecil, and cousin Charlotte.  They are scandalized, mostly on behalf of the young, pure women, but maybe they are only very slightly scandalized.  Maybe at least two of them are also awakened to the beauty that life contains.

The tone and the structure of this novel are like a piece of Beethoven’s music – the “Moonlight” sonata comes to mind.  The novel is melodic, with a somewhat brooding undercurrent punctuated by bright notes of joy and also with discordant notes that sit a moment and then resolve themselves.  This is what falling in love, real love, is like as well: the uncertainties induce extreme unhappiness, even sparks of irritation and anger.  But then the merest appearance of the object of one’s infatuation is like shafts of sun, like a snatch of song in perfect harmony. The real love between Lucy and George illuminates the inadequacies of the supposed love arrangement between Lucy and Cecil.  Once that light is shined, it can’t be turned off again.

The message of this novel is an exuberant one, celebrating happiness.  Mr. Emerson says it best:  Do we find happiness so often that we should turn it off the box when it happens to sit there?” he asks a conflicted Lucy.  And: “By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes--a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.