Please, is that an omnibus?
The New Edition of The Celestial Omnibus
This new edition of Forster’s first collection of short stories is a bibliophile edition. Holding it in your hands, you notice the wonderful cover and endpaper design by Amélie Keller, connecting you to the time of the art nouveau. This is the time in which Forster’s stories are set: the end of the Victorian and the beginning of the Modern era. There are six stories: “The Story of a Panic,” “The Other Side of the Hedge,” “The Celestial Omnibus,” “Other Kingdom,” “The Curate’s Friend” and “The Road from Colonus.”
The first story of the collection is “The Story of a Panic.” It was the first story Forster ever wrote, and the circumstances of its creation remained vividly with him as long as he lived. It was written with the help of a genius loci: Forster received the first part of the story while taking a walk near Ravello/Italy in May 1902. Interestingly, the last story of the collection is the second of three instances of the effects of a genius loci in Forster’s entire oeuvre. Reading these stories is a revealing experience. We get to know a young and a fresh author, much as in his gay short stories of The Life to Come. There does not seem to be a filter in between the heart of the author and the text as we can read it. ‘Dry’ Forster was said to be, the ‘maiden aunt’ of English literature, leaving behind him an ephemeral impression only. The reason, some people argue, might have been that he did not want to include too many hints towards his very self in his texts. However, this happed—if it happened at all—only with the texts he composed in a creative struggle. These short stories were created in a different way: they came to Forster naturally; he did not have to look for them.
In most of the stories of this collection, the author adapts themes from the classics or introduces classical characters to the English landscape. In “Other Kingdom,” he tells us the story of a woman who escapes her hopeless situation by becoming a dryad of her own wood. In “The Road from Colonus,” Forster echoes the tragedy of Oedipus and Antigone in the story of Ethel and her father Mr. Lucas, an old man who wants to die a dramatic death in Greece. Unlike Oedipus, he is ‘rescued’ by his daughter, but actually diminished fatally by her.
Traditionally, editorial notes help the readers of such stories to understand all the interrelations to the classics, to literary theory or to the life of the author. Not in this edition. Following closely the Sidgwick and Jackson edition of 1924 but leaving out the original dedication “To the Memory of the Independent Review,” this book comes with the texts only. Is this a good idea?, one may ask. With this collection having been out of print for years, one had expected some critical edition, not such a beautiful book. The square format and the artistic cover hint at such a beautiful rather than a critical edition. So does the layout: the curved initials, the font, the endpaper.
The cover story is a parable about reading and feeling. “The Celestial Omnibus” takes a boy and a well-read but emotionally mutilated man “to heaven.” On their strange journey, the two meet characters from mythology and literature. While the man recognizes them with his mind, the boy experiences them with his heart. In the end, the boy arrives in heaven, whereas the man fails and ends up not only emotionally but also physically mutilated. Only the boy was able to connect the mind with the heart. How shall we read the classics—or literature in general—then? This is what teachers ask after having read the story with their pupils. With enthusiasm and an open heart. This is the answer pupils ought to give, but still people have to rely on dusty old textbooks or much too critical editions of Forster. Here we have an edition which speaks to the heart. We have a book which looks beautiful, which does not smell of cheap adhesive and which does not look as if the author was only read in classrooms nowadays. This book enables us to read Forster without thinking of all the secondary literature and the history and the things teachers once told us.
This new edition of Forster’s The Celestial Omnibus is recommendable to every Forsterite, to every bibliophile and to everybody who wants or has to read Forster’s stories. Some people will probably have to get a critical edition from the library to accompany the reading, but if they do not, they can open their hearts as well as their minds. The result of such a reading could be more revealing and inspiring, but definitely, it would be closer to the intention of the author. Snowbooks have understood Forster’s plan.
Forster, E. M. The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories. 1911. London: Snowbooks, 2005. 160 pp., ISBN: 1-905005-00-8, recommended price: £ 9.99.
The book can be ordered directly from the publisher: http://www.snowbooks.com/
Or from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.de.