Friday, March 14, 2014

The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga is a magisterial cycle of novels that dissects 19th century English society, its morals, mercantile culture and failings. It's an intellectual and artistic tour de force not to be missed.

The Forsyte Saga actually comprises in one volume three novels and two short stories. The first novel, The Man of Property, was published in 1906. A short story, The Indian Summer of a Forsyte, followed in 1918, which whetted Galsworthy's appetite to pursue the story of the Forsytes. From then on, the novelist and playwright seems to have thrown all his energy into writing two more novels, In Chancery (1920) and To Let (1921). A short story interlude between the two, Awakening, was published in 1920.

At 850 pages, the The Forsyte Saga is indeed long. The good news is that Galsworthy is a master storyteller, superbly skilled at organising his large cast of characters, setting them in motion and giving them believable individual personalities. The interplay between the novel's huge cast is brilliantly handled. The reader never has to strain to keep up with the sprawling Forsyte Family.

The introduction notes that Galsworthy has never earned the critical praise that many of his contemporaries did, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. The reason seems to be his chosen mode of narrative fiction, concentrating on plot and character, rather than innovating new literary forms. It seems to me that Galsworthy anticipates many of the moderns (the general 'inwardness' of his characters have a strongly existensial dimension), while his writing exhibits many of the best qualities of the 19th century novel. He strikes a happy medium between inward looking Virginia Woolf and the social concerns of George Eliot.

The main character of The Forsyte Saga is Soames Forsythe, a fourth generation Forstye as listed on the family tree illustration at the start of the Saga. He is a lawyer and connosier, a collector of things. His wife, Irene, dislikes him intensely. She knows that she is merely another one of his objects. To try and take Irene away from London life and hopefully get her to fall in love with him a little, Soames employs the modern architect Philip Bosinney to design an awe inspiring house. The problem is, Irene falls in love with Bosinney. Things, as you'd expect, don't end happily. And that's just the first novel! The next two novels follow Soames and Irene, along with large parts of the Forsyte clan, through many dramas and heartbreaks. The Forsyte Saga also superbly documents the commercial English upper classes of the times, their morals, manners and complacent politics. The sections on the Boer war, and the attitudes of the upper classes, are brilliantly done and utterly compelling, especially if you find the politics of the time interesting. The whole nation is deluded into thinking that the looming war will be a frolic rather than a dangerous military mission. The English, blinded by their imperialism, don't see how the other half lives and feels.

Central to the series is the character of Soames Forsyte, who personifies the self-made, upper English classes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Reading the early parts of The Forsyte Saga, especially The Man of Property, with its descriptions of the petty, vain lifestyles of the propertied classes, you come to understand why Oscar Wilde railed against the rigid English life and morality of the time, and its hypocricies. It's all about money and keeping up appearances. No wonder he had such an axe to grind!

Soames Forsyte is unconsciously caught within this competitive, mercantile culture. He's unhappy, but can't figure out why, and that's his tragedy. He amasses wealth and high standing in his community, yet at heart his life is empty and vacuous. He seems unhappily trapped, but doesn't know what is making him so unhappy. The notion that money must bring happiness is taken for granted and never questioned.

The Foryste Saga really is an intellectual, technical and aesthetic tour de force. Galsworthy's writing has a beautiful precision that is like a finely done architect's drawing. His portrait of Soames Forsyte as a materially rich yet spiritually empty shell, doomed to perpetual unhappiness, still has many lessons to teach us, a hundred years after it was first written.

The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy. Published by Penguin Modern Classics.ISBN: 9780141184180  RRP: $24.95