July 5th, 2008


July Books 2) Collected Short Stories by E.M. Forster

2) Collected Short Stories, by E.M. Forster

I'm ashamed to say that the only one of Forster's novels I have actually read is The Longest Journey, though I have seen film versions of A Passage to India, A Room With A View and Howard's End, which all came out at a time in my life when I saw more films than I do now. I knew that one of these stories is "The Machine Stops", a riposte to H.G. Wells' visions of a mechanised future, but I expected the rest to be vignettes in Forster's distinctive but generally naturalistic aesthetic style. I was therefore surprised to find that of the twelve stories, ten can be classified as fantasy (and "The Machine Stops" as science fiction) with only the last one, "The Eternal Moment" having no overtly unrealistic elements. And they are interesting stories, too, sometimes giving a wicked spin to traditional concepts of death and the afterlife, sometimes just being wicked. I hadn't really considered Forster as a genre writer before, so it was quite a revelation.

One trick he does rather well is the unreliable narrator - a couple of his viewpoint characters are overconfident men who reveal enough of themselves that the reader can be sure that the writer does not sympathise with them. I hope this isn't flogging a dead horse, but ninebelow reminded me a couple of days ago of why I have found other uses of the "unreliable narrator" so unsatisfactory, if there is no discernible hint that (to adapt Achebe's phrase about Conrad) the character enjoys anything less than the author's complete confidence. Forster can drop those hints entirely discernibly without damaging the integrity (or readability) of his narrative; one of the things that makes him a great writer.

What book am I reading?

"Maiden aunts are invariably nice, especially, of course, when they are rich; ministers of religion are nice, except those rare cases in which they elope to South Africa with a member of the choir after pretending to commit suicide."


July Books 3) Why I am not a Christian

3) Why I am not a Christian, and other essays on religion and related subjects, by Bertrand Russell

Although I knew from the title that I probably wouldn't agree with a lot of this, I found it a very enjoyable read. It includes essays of varying lengths (the shortest is less than two pages, the longest 27), on the existence of God and ethical questions in general. On the more general questions, Russell is definitely a liberal, opposed to forced conformity and social hypocrisy, and his views are pretty close to mine. I particularly enjoyed a couple of historical pieces - a review of two books on medieval history and a sketch of the life of Thomas Paine.

On the existence of God, the most interesting of several pieces is a transcript of a radio debate between Russell and a Jesuit, where Russell clearly wins the argument about logical proofs, doesn't make as convincing a case on ethics, and has no answer to the question of religious experience. (The Jesuit misses a chance to push Russell on what I have always seen as the weakest point of his side of the argument, that science and logic are not in fact able to explain the whole of human experience; and the anti-God response tends to be to pretend that things which don't fall into the domain of science and logic don't need to be explained, which is then a tautology.)

I still prefer Russell's approach to that of, say, Richard Dawkins, because Russell seems to me to have a better grip of the problem: he quite rightly attacks dogmatic beliefs, be they Christian or Communist, held tyrannously by anyone, and advocates free thinking and debate; and one of his arguments against religion, in particular Christianity, is that it usually fosters and leads to this sort of tyranny. My own view is that it is a categorical error to blame this pattern of human behaviour, which is found and has been found among rulers of all religious backgrounds and of none, on religion per se. (There are also plenty of examples of states with a strong religious consciousness which none the less practice or practiced pluralism, but Russell discounts them as not being religious enough, which by his lights they aren't.)

The book finishes with a long (40 pages) description by the editor, Paul Edwards, of an incident where Russell was barred from taking up a professorship at the City College of New York as a result of an outrageous court judgement, combined with political machinations by (ultimately) Mayor LaGuardia. It is a depressing story, and illustrates that the American system is not always all that it is cracked up to be; but this is perhaps less newsworthy in 2008 than it was in 1940.