Rickie Elliot, a Cambridge graduate, grapples with his existential ideals and literary aspirations with the unpleasant practicalities of life.
I have to admit upon buying this book I committed the age old sin of judging by its cover. If there's one thing I love about TK Maxx, it's scouring through their book section. Amidst the cook books and travel guides, you're guaranteed to find a random literary gem. A quick scan of the blurb and an impulse purchase was made - little did I realise how poignant it was that I came to choose The Longest Journey at the time.
Completing my final year exams, I felt disillusioned with life in general. It felt odd not to have the comfort of knowing I'd be returning to education in September to alleviate any guilt from a somewhat idle summer. Neither did it help that the overwhelming task of properly starting a 'working life' had become more apparent than ever before. I immediately missed the library and the silent camaraderie of that environment. I really appreciated that this revision period would be the last of my life, and I would never really engage in learning in quite the same way again.
The Longest Journey has been the perfect read for such an ambivalent time. Centred on Rickie Elliot, the protagonist of the novel and a recent graduate of Cambridge, the story follows his endeavours to appreciate and understand the philosophical ideals of truth and beauty, his search for a higher purpose and his ill-advised marriage to the object of his infatuation, Agnes Pembroke. The novel is split into three parts, tracing Rickie's journey from university, his engagement to Agnes and relationship with the morally dubious Aunt Emily, to his reluctant career as a public school teacher.
Rickie is an idealist and indulges in the solace he derives from the common purpose he and his friends share at Cambridge - the quest for higher knowledge. Grappling with existentialism, Rickie deplores that he has yet to possess the same grade of thinking as his peers. Yet what he might lack in philosophical acumen, Rickie makes up for in a more personable appreciation of the human condition - specifically, the fragility of relationships.
"But he was not cynical - or cynical in a very tender way. He was thinking of the irony of friendship - so strong it is, and so fragile. We fly together, like straws in an eddy, to part in the open stream. Nature has no use for us: she has cut her stuff differently. Dutiful sons, loving husbands, responsible fathers - these are what she wants, and if we are friends it must be in our spare time.
'I wish we were labelled.' said Rickie. He wishes that all the confidence and mutual knowledge that is born in such a place as Cambridge could be organised. People went down in the world saying 'We know and like each other; we shan't forget. But they did forget, for man is so made that he cannot remember long without a symbol; he wishes there was a society, a kind of friendship office, where the marriage of true minds could be registered."
It's passages like these I found comforting. If you're in the same ambiguous transition, you find an affinity with Rickie. For all his grandiose notions of seeking the ultimate good in people - an endeavour for which he is chastised for by his practical-minded friends -
'You think it so splendid to hate no one. I tell you it is a crime. You want to love everyone equally and that's worse than impossible. It's wrong.'
- he ironically hits upon the effect of such practicalities on our lives. We lose friends to make way for social convention and propriety, and this is what Rickie finds so lamentable - despite engaging in these conventions himself. This is evident in his engagement to Agnes and his later career as a school teacher - one that carries him further away from his real enthusiasm in becoming a writer.
The novel moves swiftly from one third to the next, though at times the narrative dwells just a little too long on scenic or architectural descriptions. This is quite at odds with Rickie's point of view, which is almost always concerned with moral propriety and higher ideals. To me it was always a way of reminding the audience of the contrast between Rickie's inner dialogue and that of his surrounding milieu.
Otherwise, Forster isn't too concerned with the intricate complexities of how relationships develop. He identifies the most significant moments and important transitions and uses these to drive the story and Rickie's journey forward.