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NONFICTION : COMMONPLACE BOOK by E. M. Forster, edited by Philip Gardner (Stanford University; $35).

August 03, 1986|John Espey

In 1978 Scolar Press (London) published a manuscript facsimile of E. M. Forster's "Commonplace Book" with an introduction by his biographer, P. N. Furbank, in an edition of 350 numbered copies. According to the current English "Books in Print" you can still pick up one of these for 150. If you decide to make this investment you may be able to read the 18 pages, "half of them in Latin and some Greek," filled by the original owner of the book, John Jebb, who bought it in 1804.

Jebb, later Bishop of Limerick, left the volume of "some 400 pages of fine quality paper" to his chaplain, Forster's grandfather, the Rev. Mr. Charles Forster. Neither he nor his daughter, Laura, made any use of it and Morgan Forster came upon it when he inherited his aunt's house near the village of Abinger Hammer, Surrey.

Forster's entries begin in 1925. The earlier sections are in essence notes for his "Aspects of the Novel." But variety soon breaks in, and from year-to-year Forster records personal experiences, sentences remembered on waking from dreams, some full dreams, reactions to public events, passages from his reading, his judgment of his own novels, some frank comments on friends and acquaintances and revelations of his own moods. He strikes a valetudinarian note almost from the start: His major works have been written, he is frittering away his time, his reading is haphazard, should he not be doing something more useful than this? For a close reader of his works this volume is a delight. It is not a good introduction for the neophyte.

At five points in the Scolar edition, names and phrases, (in one instance half a page), are masked to avoid embarrassment to living persons. Alas, when one turns to find the originals here, four of the five remain masked. The one "revelation " will mean nothing to most American readers. I emphasize the restored words: ". . . Norman Routledge returned with me and made me scream over his Girton hostess who had illegitimate triplets and fed them in the bath because they were so dirty--thus washing them and the dinner things up at the same time."

For the average reader, this volume would appear to be the wiser choice of the two editions; but the long-term investor may still want to pick up the facsimile as well. As of this writing, the English pound is quoted at $1.5395.

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