SELECTED LETTERS OF E.M. FORSTER; Volume Two, 1921-1970.Edited by Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank. Belknap/Harvard. 365 pp. $20.

WE LIVE in an age when the laundry bills and shopping lists of famous literary persons are extensively annotated by erudite academics and sold for large sums by university presses under the label "Collected Letters." So it is extremely refreshing that E. M. Forster, author of those distinctively liberal English novels Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924), should have avoided this treatment. Instead, we have a sensitively and wittily annotated selection of his letters, under the editorship of Mary Lago and Forster's biographer P.N. Furbank, of which this is the second volume. It is some years since I read Furbank or Forster, and still more since I refreshed my memories of Forster's novels, those restrained, almost aggressively liberal-humanist works of fiction which encapsulate the torments of Edwardian free-thinkers as they escaped from the 19th century. But the letters make me want to go straight back to the fiction, so charmingly does the man project himself through his correspondence.

At the beginning of the book he is in India, serving as secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas and collecting copy for A Passage to India, the last and greatest of the five novels published in his lifetime. There is some fine comedy surrounding the writing of it; Forster hated the job, was indeed bored by the "tiresomeness and conventionalities" of all fiction-forms. He felt burnt out and irritable, confronting a society of "denuded little men" who couldn't even laugh at each other, and was convinced that he had "no message to give the world." He groaned and grumbled as he wrote and welcomed letters from his literary crony J.R. Ackerley, alleging that he lifted chunks from them wholesale into "my etiolated novel." He was quite convinced he couldn't ever write another; there was no sensation of a decline in powers, but "my patience with ordinary people has given out" (what a key to the craft of fiction this is). Finally it was done, and he admitted that "publishers fall into ecstasies," but that is because he had only "sent them those chapters that are likely to make them ecstastic, concealing the residue in the W.C. until the contracts are signed." There is some posing in this, of course, but the real sweat of it comes through, and it is a wonderful antidote to the pretensions of literary criticism.

Meanwhile he displays a great openness to the world around him. He writes A.E. Housman a fan letter but leaves off his address so that Housman won't waste time replying to him. He goes to Garsington Manor, the all- too-celebrated literary salon of Lady Ottoline Morrell, takes a likingto the abrasive Wyndham Lewis against his hostess' expectations (and perhaps malicious hopes), and spots that Lady Ottoline's daughter "is sometimes a young lady talking highly about Thomas Hardy, sometimes a shattered child: rather pathetic." He has tea in Dorset with Hardy himself, and is reduced to silent giggles when Hardy shows him the gravestones of his cats, all killed by trains -- "'How is it that so many of your cats have been run over, Mr. Hardy? Is the railway near?' -- 'Not at all near, not at all near.' It was so like a caricature of his own novels or poems." He writes splendidly straightforward letters of praise to Virginia Woolf, though privately admitting to reservations about her personality and work. He is irritable only with his mother, whom he sometimes prefers to address in the third person ("Mummy would have loved the situations . . .") and who is clearly not a liberating influence; on one occasion he is obliged to stage "a slight nervous breakdown" to get his way at home.

FORSTER'S liberal benevolence towards humanity is not much in fashion these days, and there has been something of a rebellion against the sheer moderateness and kindness of outlook which shines through his novels. But the letters, far from weakening one's admiration for his sensible optimism, add depth to an understanding of his personality, for there is no escaping the fact that they are the work of someone unashamedly good. As soon as he finishes writing A Passage to India, life begins to seem desperately boring to him; but, far from grumbling, he writes to an acquaintance that he is anxious not to arouse depression in other people by airing his own flaccidity of mind. Often preciously near complacency, he always just manages to avoid that sin. In a fine letter to Lord David Cecil about that writer's life of the poet Cowper, The Stricken Deer (1929), Forster compares his own minor mental discomforts with the terrible depression and fear of hellfire suffered by Cowper at the end of the 18th century and observes with relief that educated people in the Freudian age have "a few more straws to cling to."

There was, of course, a dark side to Forster's moon -- his strange, lifelong (from the 1930s) love-affair with a policeman, Bob Buckingham, a subject inclined to inspire lampoonery in those who knew of it by hearsay but were not well acquainted with Forster or Buckingham themselves. The book contains some of Forster's letters to the man he calls "my lover and beloved" and records a little of his petulance when, early in the relationship, Buckingham married and fathered a child. But thereafter there is simply coziness, with few hints of sexuality: "My dear Bob . . . The happiest hours of my life will always be the short hours we can spend together . . . Talking to you alone every now and then about the little things that happen to me -- that's what I like and we haven't had a talk for such a time."

Forster lived to be 91, spending his latter years living in his old Cambridge college, King's. While there, in his mid-eighties, he wrote a letter to Noel Annan, head of the college, which exactly catches his own wayward, very English outlook, and sums up the charm of this volume. Annan was all in favor of the expansion of universities, much in fashion at the time (the mid '60s). Forster says he doesn't care for it: "I have come to the conclusion that . . . I have a growing -- perhaps ingrowing -- respect for smallness . . . I jib at grandiose projects." Forster's very absence of grandiosity gave him a voice which present-day literature all too often lacks.