Saturday 14 April 2018

E.M.Forster, The Celestial Omnibus, Proust

The first three paragraphs of my copy of 'The Celestial Omnibus' by E.M. Forster have pencil brackets around them. This was a passage for translation I chose circa 1978, trying for completeness in the classroom as elsewhere, I willed the students to sense the moment of beginnings and endings before they fell into the messy pit of translation into french.

At dawn an early twentieth century boy rides an omnibus from the dead-end alley signposted To Heaven, opposite his house, at dawn, the steaming horses driven by Sir Thomas Browne, physician of the queasy soul. He meets a swathe of world literature and is home for tea.

I found the same brackets around the end of Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts, with its pageant in the garden, suffusing land and history, and then, the pageant over, the house giving little cracks as if it were very brittle, very dry, the garden returns to primeval forest. 'On the top of their matted branches birds sang...'.

When the boy takes the omnibus again next day, with Mr Bons, a family friend and possibly the wisest man in the world, owner of vellum books, and seven copies of Shelley, they are driven by a Dan someone, a sallow man with terrifying jaws and sunken eyes—Dante.

Marcel Proust said he wrote about his own past because he had no imagination. E.M. Forster, out of similar need, and only a tad more imagination, rehearses in his stories all he can't entirely deal with in his life.

Between the wise Mr Bons and the innocent boy, Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf, is perfect literacy and dependency, an entirely period fantasy of which I am a late product. I am drawn to writers who find their safety in books, and, by extension, their authors. The celestial omnibus is driven by writers. The nether world is peopled by characters: Mrs Gamp, Mrs Harris, Achilles, Tom Jones and the Duchess of Malfi; the soundtrack is Wagner. Heaven is nether, it's a riot, and, the boy, in his innocence, gets back home to hand the cake-stand on another day.

Mr Bons the wise, who knows his Keats from his radishes, does not come back.
The body of Mr Septimus Bons has been found in a shockingly mutilated condition in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works. The deceased's pockets contained a sovereign purse, a silver cigar-case, a bijou pronouncing dictionary, and a couple of omnibus tickets.

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