I am rereading The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. I first read it about 15 years ago at a gallop, caught up in the loves and hates of the main protagonists and the doomed marriage of Soames and Irene Forsyte played out into the next generation.
But this time I have been discovered much more in the trilogy. Galsworthy and his contemporaries Arnold Bennett and Max Beerbohm tended to be dismissed as old-fashioned and hopelessly Victorian by their innovative successors like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence. But no amount of innovation can substitute for a well-told story with complex characters using language that is both accessible and yet profoundly fresh at the same time.
This time what has struck me is Galsworthy’s insights into the minds of men (they just happen to be men) in the last years of their lives. I am 15 years older than I was when I first read the book and am now quick to remember that life is finite and must be grasped with everything one has before it expires. So this time a chord is struck for me by the musings of Jolyon Forsyte, a man in his early 80s, enchanted with his house and his grandchildren, and still stirred and fired by life.
“Nowadays Nature actually made him ache, he appreciated it so. Every one of these calm, bright, lengthening days, with Holly’s hand in his, and the dog Balthasar in front looking studiously for what he never found, he would stroll, watching the roses open, fruit budding on the walls, sunlight brightening the oak leaves and saplings in the coppice, watching the water-lily leaves unfold and glisten, and the silvery young corn of the one wheatfield; listening to the starlings and the skylarks, and the Alderney cows chewing the cud, flicking slow their tufted tails; and every one of these fine days he ached a little from sheer love of it all, feeling perhaps , deep down, that he had not very much longer to enjoy it. The thought that some day – perhaps ten years hence, perhaps not five – all this world would be taken away from him, before he had exhausted his powers of loving it, seemed to him in the nature of an injustice brooding over his horizon.”
Then many years later his own son “Young” Jolyon at 72 discovers he has a heart condition that could kill him at any time.
“He had taken it [his diagnosis] with a smile – the natural Forsyte reaction against an unpleasant truth. But with an increase of symptoms in the train on the way home he had realized to the full the sentence hanging over him. To leave Irene, his boy, his home, his work – though he did little enough work now! To leave them for unknown darkness, for the unimaginable state, for such nothingness that he would not even be conscious of wind stirring leaves above his grave, nor of the scent of earth and grass. Of such nothingness that, however hard he might try to conceive it, he never could, and must still hover on the hope that he might see again those he loved! To realize this was to endure very poignant spiritual anguish.”
I wonder if this was how my own father felt in the last years of his life, already diagnosed with the disease that would kill him. That is what great literature does – it makes you look around you and feel more acutely what may be happening inside the heads of other people in other places and times and in other phases of their lives. For that alone, Galsworthy deserved his Nobel Prize.