Novelists or Dentists

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with some insights into the writing of E. M. Forster. Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London. He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education. Michael now writes full-time. His latest novel, ‘Leefdale’, was published earlier in 2018.
Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018. Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

I once had a fractured tooth which became infected and the infection spread to half of my face. Various attempts were made to save the tooth but they failed and it was eventually extracted. Afterwards, instead of healing normally the site of the extraction developed an agonizing condition known as “dry socket” which painfully protracted the healing process for several weeks.

When the pain of my infected tooth was at its most intense and I was desperate for it to be extracted, I had the fairly commonplace (and understandable) thought that one dentist was worth more to me than all the novelists who had ever written. Assertions similar to this have often been advanced to confute the value of a literary career in favour of the acquisition of a more practical or “useful” occupation: or, indeed, to repudiate the contribution of the arts in general. “Yes, but when are you going to get a proper job?” and so on. A brief reflection will reveal that the observation made when I was in extremis was fallacious. You only have to substitute other jobs or professions for novelists and you will see that the proposition is ludicrous. My only excuse is that I was in appalling pain, was half delirious and needed a dentist to pull my tooth. No-one else would do.

Appropriately, it was after my tooth had been extracted and I no longer needed the services of a dentist that Literature was able to fulfil its indispensable role in my existence and make its contribution to my recovery. In my period of recuperation I felt the need for something soothing and familiar: the literary equivalent of comfort food. And so, I turned to E M Forster’s Howards End. My paperback copy was decades old and fell to pieces in my hands. I downloaded a new one right away with the immediacy of my Kindle.

How delightful it was to renew my acquaintance with the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes: two families representing the opposing sides of Forster’s sublime dialectic; and also Leonard Bast, autodidact and aspiring bibliophile, who, in his unwitting way, is responsible for so much of the development of the novel’s plot. With perfectly judged symbolism, Leonard dies when a bookcase falls on him and buries him in a pile of books. (Forster’s novels often have a high mortality rate).

I first read Howards End when I was in my early twenties, and, at that time, probably understood half of it. I specifically failed to appreciate the subtle synthesis by which Forster resolves his own dialectic.

In my forties, I read the novel again. I comprehended more but had grown intolerant (one of the great sins in a Forsterian universe). I now felt justified, along with various Marxist critics, in dismissing the Schlegels as no more than champagne socialists and bourgeoise reactionaries who, being uncomfortable with their privilege and wealth, sought to deflect criticism from the proletariat by espousing socialism and “doing good”. After all, none of them really suffered, did they? Forster, I decided, just wanted Capitalism with a human face.

My latest reading of Howards End has occasioned one criticism and provided me with a fascinating discovery. First the criticism, which is that the dialogue between Leonard Bast and Jacky now seems embarrassingly contrived and false. It is as though the author had never met anyone from the Basts’ class and was relying on third hand accounts of what such people would say. The result is that Forster, unusually, appears out of his depth and the relationship between Jacky and Leonard is unconvincing. Part of the difficulty is that Jacky is essentially a “flat” character and yet she has to engage domestically with Leonard who is much more in the round. Another quibble: the past relationship between Jacky and Mr Wilcox also seems too coincidental to be believable even though it is vital for the advancement of the plot.

Now the discovery. In a previous post I described at some length Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory or Theory of Omissions. Well, it now seems to me that Forster pre-dated Hemingway in this respect by a decade. In Howards End, there is an oblique suggestion, through the agency of Mrs Avery, that before Mrs Wilcox had met Mr Wilcox, she had been betrothed to a soldier who had been killed in action. The man, according to Mrs Avery, was a better man than Mr Wilcox. There seems no reason for Forster to allude to this unless he is hinting that perhaps Wilcox’s eldest son is the child of another man, which would certainly add an extra dimension to Mrs Wilcox, whom Mr Wilcox regarded as entirely innocent and virtuous. It would also parallel Helen’s pregnancy by Leonard Bast out of wedlock.

Until this reading of Howards End I had never appreciated how much England and the English countryside is foregrounded in the novel. Sometimes sociologically; sometimes scenically; sometimes mystically. It is always there, like another character, involved in the action yet detached from it; often accompanied by Forster’s dire warning that its survival is under threat from building and modern development.

Above all, however, it is Forster’s literary technique, that I shall take away from my most recent reading of Howards End. For example, the dexterity with which he changes viewpoint within a single scene, so that often within the course of just one or two sentences we are privy to Margaret Schlegel’s consciousness and then we are seamlessly segueing into Helen’s thoughts or those of Mr Wilcox or Leonard Bast. At times we may also find ourselves being addressed by the omniscient narrator, the voice of Forster himself, viewing his characters objectively, or from the perspective of the mystical and the “unseen”: making a synthesis of all humanity and reducing their huge differences (such as exist between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels) to barely perceptible bumps in the great fabric: reminding us that the world needs Schlegels and Wilcoxes just as much as it needs novelists and dentists.

Thanks for visiting my blog today.

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Miniatures with a huge perspective

Get more details of Michael’s books on his Amazon Author Page

or take a look at his latest novel.


Miniatures with a huge perspective

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with some insights into the writing of Guy de Maupassant.

Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London.
He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education. Michael now writes full-time. His latest novel, ‘Leefdale’, was published earlier in 2018.
Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018. Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

Whilst visiting relatives I found myself discussing my novella Julia’s Room with my sister-in-law. She mentioned her fondness for short stories and revealed that she’d recently downloaded on to her Kindle one of the volumes from Guy de Maupassant’s collection.

Guy de Maupassant! The mention of the name instantly transported me back to my days as a drama student when I’d first discovered that wonderful author’s little jewels of short stories and read every one I could find. As soon as my sister-in-law and I finished our conversation I began browsing in the Kindle Store for Maupassant’s work. I was delighted to find his complete output of short stories, including many I had never heard of before: his novels were there too. I downloaded the first volume of his collected short stories for free and began to consume them with relish one after the other: as a chocolate addict might devour a large box of chocolates.

Guy de Maupassant was born on August 5, 1850 near Dieppe, in France, into a prosperous family background which included minor Norman aristocracy. He was nineteen and studying Law in Paris when the Franco Prussian war broke out. Maupassant volunteered and saw action as a private before later serving in the Quartermaster Corps. This is why the war and the Prussian invasion of France permeate some of his most memorable stories.

After his demobilisation in July 1871 Maupassant returned to Paris and his Law studies and eventually, with his father’s assistance, became a successful civil servant. Maupassant’s parents had separated when he was thirteen. Laure, his mother, was a friend of Gustave Flaubert and she asked the writer to concern himself with her son’s welfare while he was in Paris. Thus began Maupassant’s literary apprenticeship. Whenever Flaubert was in Paris he invited Maupassant to lunch and cast a critical eye over his prose. Flaubert also introduced Maupassant to writers such as Emile Zola, Henry James, Ivan Turgenev and Edmond Goncourt.

Maupassant was virtually unknown until, in April 1880, he became one of six writers from Zola’s Medan Group who contributed to a collection of short stories on the Franco Prussian war published under the title “Les Soirées de Medan” (Evenings at Medan). The book takes its title from Zola’s home at Medan, near Paris, where his Medan group attended literary dinners. The most acclaimed story in “Les Soirées de Medan” was Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” (Ball of Lard or Ball of Tallow). It brought Maupassant not only fame but launched him on a decade of intense creativity.

Maupassant was a vigorous and athletic outdoors man. He was a keen swimmer and oarsman who loved rivers and the sea. Apparently he would row fifty miles a day on the Seine simply for pleasure. He was also vigorous in other ways and had a prodigious sexual appetite that he quite often satisfied with prostitutes. That is why we find prostitutes featuring prominently in so many of his stories, often portrayed in a positive light or even as heroines. In his masterpiece “Boule de Suif” it is the prostitute Elizabeth Rousset who is the true Christian and has greater generosity and stronger moral principles than any of her travelling companions despite their higher rank. Elizabeth is amongst a group of people representing a microcosm of French Society: they are fleeing from the advancing Prussian army in a coach towards Rouen. Knowing her occupation, the other passengers cold shoulder Elizabeth but change their attitude towards her when they are dying of hunger and she generously gives them food and wine from her picnic basket. The travellers arrive at an inn which they find is occupied by Prussian soldiers. A Prussian Officer detains the coach party and refuses them permission to continue with their journey unless Elizabeth Rousset sleeps with him. Elizabeth who is fiercely anti-Prussian and deeply patriotic refuses. At first her fellow travellers support her patriotism but gradually they grow angry with Elizabeth for impeding their progress. After all, they reason, why shouldn’t she sleep with the officer? It’s only her day job, isn’t it? Eventually, after much coercion, Elizabeth goes to bed with the Prussian. The party is allowed to move on but now, in the coach, Elizabeth’s fellow travellers will not even acknowledge her; nor will the self-righteous hypocrites give her any of their food even though she has none.

In “Boule de Suif” Maupassant is challenging the reader’s stereotypical assumptions and asking why we should automatically think that women who are prostitutes are lesser human beings than the rest of us. Why, Maupassant asks, should a prostitute be assumed to have given up all claims to humanity because of her choice of profession? Why should it be assumed that being a prostitute deprives one of all integrity, honesty, morality, patriotism? “Boule de Suif” is a piece of feminist literature because in it Maupassant asserts a woman’s right to choose. At times her body may be for sale but she still retains ownership of her essential self and that includes the right to deny any man her favours. It is obvious that Elizabeth Rousset’s fellow coach travellers are morally inferior to her. In return for permission to continue their journey across occupied France they have pressurized Elizabeth to allow the Prussian officer his conquest knowing that she regards it as an act of fraternization with the enemy. This is what makes these “virtuous” people traitors and the prostitute, Elizabeth Rousset, heroic. Similarly, in “Mademoiselle Fifi”, another story set in the context of the Franco Prussian war, a group of prostitutes are invited to dinner in a chateau occupied by officers of the invading Prussian army. After much abuse the girls refuse to be cowed by the triumphalism of their oppressors and it is Rachel, a prostitute, who displays the greatest heroism and strikes the patriotic blow.

Maupassant’s attitude towards prostitution is perhaps best articulated in his long short story, “Madame Tellier’s Establishment”. At the start of the story he describes the attitudes of the respectable tradesmen of the little town where Madame Tellier’s brothel is situated. We learn that Madame is highly respected, and that she came from a respectable family of peasant proprietors and had taken up her profession just as naturally as she would have become a milliner or a dressmaker. The men of the town visit the brothel as guiltlessly and as frequently as they would visit a café. Maupassant asserts that the prejudice against prostitution which is so profound and intense in France’s large towns is not found in the rural areas of Normandy where it is simply regarded as a paying business and the ambitious peasant sends his daughter to keep a brothel in the same spirit as he would send her to start up any other enterprise. There are strong elements of cynicism and shrewd commercialism here as well as chauvinistic attitudes towards women which deeply offend our modern sensibilities; yet how refreshingly free from moral cant and hypocrisy it is, particularly from a man writing in the Nineteenth Century. What lingers in the mind long after we have read “Madame Tellier’s Establishment” is the essential humanity of Madame Tellier and her group of working women.

Maupassant rarely lectures us. He makes no moral judgments about his characters but like Chekhov he simply presents them to us, sets them in motion and asks us to make up our own mind about their actions. His thought is not as profound as Chekhov’s and his characters are less reflective, driven more by their material desires and sensual appetites but, like Chekhov, Maupassant has the ability to capture in his stories the beating heart of life and expose its palpitating presence to our astounded sight. And again, like Chekhov, he brilliantly sets up a story, quickly establishing his actors and their setting with breathtaking spareness and economy; using only the exact and appropriate word, gesture, colour or tone to instantly create a complete world and its characters. And what a huge range of characters: Norman peasants; invading Prussians; bureaucrats; respectable bourgeoise; prostitutes; sporting types; tradesmen; businessmen; journalists; the nobility. All human life is there, as a newspaper once famously asserted. That is another affinity Maupassant has with Chekhov: he portrays people from all levels of society with complete authenticity. His dialogue convinces whether it is delivered out of the mouths of the peasants or the nobility.

All the time I am writing this I am conscious that I mustn’t divulge too much of Maupassant’s stories because I don’t want to spoil the reader’s appreciation of their denouement. I shall avoid calling these denouement “twists” because that would suggest that they have been put in at the end simply to supply the reader with a specious and meretricious thrill. The denouement in each of Maupassant’s short stories is always plausible and emanates naturally out of the plot. It gives us a start of recognition and the surprise of finding something unexpected and new amongst the familiar so that we say to ourselves ‘Oh, but now I see’ and are provided with a greater insight into the human condition than we had before. Yet there is no reason to suspect that, by supplying his denouement, Maupassant has tricked us by being dishonest or deceitful. Rather, we feel that our understanding has been enhanced or expanded. He convinces us that with simply an extra moment’s thought or the possession of just one more fact we surely would have anticipated the denouement all along. For example, in “Harriet”, Harriet’s first kiss must be one of the most unexpected, surprising and ghoulish in fiction, yet it seems strangely inevitable and fills us with compassion. In “Love. Three Pages from a Sportsman’s Book” when we learn the true identity of the dead lovers their love becomes so much more poignant, powerful and mysterious. And in “Mademoiselle Fifi” the ending, which reveals how the prostitute, Rachel, escapes retribution by the Prussians, is sublime.

In January 1892 Guy de Maupassant attempted suicide by cutting his throat and was committed to Dr Blanche’s nursing home in Paris. He was in the advanced stages of Syphilis. He died on the 6th July 1893, a month before his 43rd birthday. In addition to the six novels he produced, de Maupassant wrote over three hundred short stories and it is for these that he will be chiefly remembered. He was a miniaturist but his small canvases encompassed huge sections of nineteenth century French society. I have made a resolution to read his complete oeuvre even though I am, as ever, engrossed my own writing.

Details of all Michael’s books at on his Amazon Author Page.

Attempting to read War and Peace for the umpteenth time.

Have you seen The Last Station directed by Michael Hoffmann?

It’s a fantastic film and we watched it twice back to back on DVD.

The film tells the story of the last years of Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy had a tumultuous relationship with his wife Sofya which lasted for many years and resulted in thirteen children. In his eighties Tolstoy made a dramatic escape from Sofya and his comfortable home life and ended up at the tiny railway station at Astapovo where he became very ill and died.

Seeing the film reminded me of the several attempts I’d made over the years to read Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace.

On every occasion I’ve managed a few chapters and given up. It’s a huge novel: well over 1000 pages in the print version but some commentators say it’s the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy himself said War and Peace is “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle”. Tolstoy regarded Anna Karenina as his first true novel.

I think there are two reasons I’ve never got into War and Peace. I’ve always found the Russian names so confusing and have got fed up with having to keep re-reading to sort out the names of the characters. The main reason is that the huge size of the book necessitates a very small print size which is uncomfortable to read. Now with the advantage of Kindle I can adjust the font size and have already found that this has made some obscure classics more accessible. So, I’ve downloaded a currently free version of  War and Peace onto my Kindle and this time I’m determined to read it right through.

The book page for War and Peace quotes the opinions of some of the big names in literature.

“The last word of the landlord’s literature and the brilliant one at that.” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“The best ever Russian historical novel.” —Nikolai Leskov
“One of the most remarkable books of our age.” —Ivan Turgenev
“This is the first class work!… This is powerful, very powerful indeed.” —Gustave Flaubert
“The best novel that had ever been written.” —John Galsworthy
“This work, like life itself, has no beginning, no end. It is life itself in its eternal movement.” —Romain Rolland
“The greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.” —Thomas Mann
“There remains the greatest of all novelists — for what else can we call the author of ‘War and Peace’?” —Virginia Woolf
“Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction.” —Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve never come across Romain Rolland before but a quick Google tells me he’s a French writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915.

Rolland’s most famous novel is the 10-volume roman-fleuve (a sequence of related, self-contained novels) Jean-Christophe (1904–1912), which bring together Rolland’s interests and ideals in the story of a German musical genius who makes France his second home. The novels explore Rolland’s views on music, social matters and understanding between nations. Most of the Kindle versions of Jean-Christophe are French and I doubt that my rusty recall of the language would get me very far but there is an English translation of the first four volumes which I’ve downloaded. I read the opening of the first novel in the free sample and the style seems surprisingly modern. I’ll let you know how I get on with it but meanwhile there’s War and Peace.

As I said, War and Peace is massive:

Book One set in 1805 has 28 chapters. There are fifteen books and two epilogues. Book Ten set in 1812 has 39 chapters. There are in fact 365 chapters in total so if I was to read one chapter each day it would take a whole year to finish. Watch this space!

Thanks for reading my blog today.

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Book of the Day at with details of a free Kindle download.


Literary Chocolate!

At the birth of this blog I promised you chocolate.

And here it is.


News Flash

I was thrilled yesterday to find that the Evelyn Waugh Society has linked to one of my blogposts. If you’re interested in knowing more about this giant of English Literature, the Evelyn Waugh Society website explores many fascinating aspects of Waugh’s life and writing.

There’s a new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s comedy novel Decline and Fall on BBC One. Did you watch it? The adaptation is in three parts and it started last week.

In a nutshell, from the BBC blurb:

When Paul Pennyfeather is unfairly expelled from Oxford University, it kick starts a disastrous chain of events that no one could have anticipated.

Jack Whitehall (Fresh Meat) is playing Paul Pennyfeather and veteran actor David Suchet (Agatha Christie’s Poirot), is Dr Fagan. The cast also includes Eva Longoria, Douglas Hodge, Vincent Franklin, Stephen Graham, Gemma Whelan and Katie Wix. It’s a strong cast with lots of good cameo roles as well.

Through no fault of his own, Paul is sent down from Oxford. He needs a job and goes to a recruitment agency for school teachers. He is sent to a minor public school, Llanabba, in Wales where the pupils are unruly and discipline is difficult to maintain. Paul asserts his authority with the pupils using one of the funniest classroom one-liners ever:

There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of any possible merit.

And Paul’s class settles down to work in diligent silence!

Paul’s success in classroom management catapults him into other management roles for the Headmaster culminating in a dramatic fireworks display at the end of episode one. Well worth watching.

There’s a good review from The Guardian and we’re looking forward to the next episode on Friday.

Hope you enjoyed your chocolate break! 🙂