This is one of the novels of E.M. Forster which is unlikely to become a Merchant-Ivory film. It’s troubled, at times too dark for prime time, and treats with underlying themes cherished by the author but largely indecipherable to his readers, unless the reader be a serious Forster fan.
As a Penguin Classic, the book merits not just an introduction (by novelist/critic Gilbert Adair) but a lengthy afterword and appendices, with much maundering by Forster which again would be of interest mainly to students of the author or of lesser-known novels of the twentieth century.
The book centers on Rickie, a man who aspires to be a writer, much like Forster himself, whose lack of success and bevy of self-doubts drives him into a largely loveless marriage and a career circumscribed by a dry sense of duty. Rickie has a clubfoot and some people, myself included, take this as a metaphor for Forster’s own “disability” – his homosexuality, which would have made it impossible for him to truly connect in a heterosexual partnership. Forster examined this more frankly in his short novel Maurice, which was made into an empathic and intellectually satisfying movie if not exactly a blockbuster.
Somewhere in Adair’s critique about the book we read, “Marx once famously remarked that, the past being forever condemned to repeat itself, what once had been viewed as tragedy was destined to recur as farce.” Within the book, we see that in his attempt to downplay the virtues of Rickie and overplay the villainies of his half-brother, Stephen, a decent story has been ploughed under. Had Rickie been just a tiny bit less self-abnegating and his sibling just a shade more able to display his finer qualities, fate might have brought the two men to happier outcomes. As it is, the novel must end in a tragedy that now seems purple in its contrivance, with a denouement that is powerless to save it from pathos.
Nonetheless, Forster himself liked The Longest Journey, perhaps because it was a framework for grappling with themes that dared not speak their names. He did consider it an autobiographical work. Unfortunately for a modern reader, this noire novel offers little of the gravitas of the author's more beloved, less symbolic works, such as Passage to India and Howard’s End.