Sunday, January 1, 2017

Birthday: the enigmatic E.M. Forster


Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970)

He lived such a long time, and the world changed so much, that Morgan Forster-as his friends knew him- always seemed like an elderly man, a sort of academical Miss Marple.

His father was an architect who died when the boy- who was named Henry but accidentally christened as Edward- was two. The death of an aunt in 1887 left him a fortune- over a million dollars in today’s funds- which covered his needs and made it possible to become a writer.

He was admitted to King’s College, Cambridge, where he was elected to The Apostles, the most exclusive social club there was, and through which some of the UK’s greatest, and gayest, passed for decades. Graduating in 1901, he did The Grand Tour of Europe, then settled down- living with his mother- to write.

He published his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in 1905. A gloss on Henry James’ The Ambassadors, it involves a family trying to retrieve a wayward daughter from an unsuitable marriage to a foreigner, and  works themes to which Forster returned- the insularity of British tourists who felt the need to “see” Europe while complaining endlessly how it wasn’t up to the home standard; the artificiality of class distinctions; and the mysteries of love and friendship.

The Longest Journey (1907) presented readers a Hardyesque tale of a man- more than a little like Forster- who makes his way through life amidst the clamor of his more attractive friends, only to be recognized for his own worth in the end. A Room With A View (1908) is his sunniest work, following a gaggle of English tourists in Florence.

Raised in the “figure it out” way of Victorian England, Forster had, at best, a dim understanding of human sexuality, and life under his demanding mother’s roof had its limits. But he fell for an Indian law student in 1906; though his interest was unreciprocated they remained friends. Forster visited him India in 1912-13, traveling widely and storing up experiences.

Out of that time, he was only able to spend three weeks with his friend, Syed Ross Masood; the day after they parted, Forster visited the Barabar Caves, which became the location of the crux of his imagined Indian novel. On his return to England, Forster tried to write what was to become A Passage to India but promptly got stuck. In an article for The Guardian in 2014, Damon Galgut tried to sort out what kept Forster stuck:
The impact of this parting goes almost entirely unremarked in his diaries and letters, and yet it must have been of huge importance to him. There are only faint but significant clues as to how he felt. In his diary on 27 January, the night before he leaves, he admits that he has had a "long and sad day". Then we find this cryptic entry: "Aie-aie-aie – growing after tears. Mosquito net, fizzling lamp, high step between rooms. Then return and comfort a little."
It seems that something happened between the two men that night. But what? He apparently never spoke about it to anybody else and the diary entry is frustratingly opaque. But it's almost certain that this incident, whatever it was, involved Masood and some kind of rejection. Whether he tried to touch or kiss his friend, it's clear that he made some sort of overture and was rebuffed. And the sparse, telegrammatic style of the words indicate – in his case – how deeply felt they were.
It was in this state of mind that he set off to the caves the next morning. In fact, the visit had been organised by Masood, perhaps as some kind of consolation, though he didn't get up to see his English friend off. In his journal Forster tersely notes: "Left at 6.30. After one glimpse the raw greyness." His mood, one senses, was saturated with the feeling of loss – and he carried this feeling with him into the caves a few hours later.
Is it too fanciful to imagine that everything Forster must have been experiencing that day – a confusion of love, sadness, disappointment and possibly anger – was projected on to the caves, and took form in the imagined attack? It's never explicitly stated in the novel, but it's obvious that Miss Quested is attracted to Aziz. If the assault is a fantasy, it's because her desires have no outlet – and the same could be said for Forster.
In World War I, Forster, a conscientious objector, worked for the International Red Cross in Egypt for three years. While there, he had a memorable romance with a train conductor. He worked on the Indian book some more, with little progress.

He finished another novel, but put it aside, having determined it was unpublishable in his lifetime.

Howard’s End (1916) was another look at class in Britain, through the interrelationships of a nouveau riche family with a German-British family of intellectual bohemians, and a striving bank clerk whose attempts to gain acceptance among them ends in disaster.

Forster returned to India for a year in 1922-23, as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas. His friendship with Masood finally sorted itself out. After nine years’ gestation, it took two more for Forster to complete A Passage to India, which appeared in 1924. Thought he lived another 46 years, Forster never produced another novel.

Comfortably well off, he produced reviews, essays, some short biographies, and whatever else seized his fancy: a film script; some travel books. He was a popular commentator and book reviewer for the BBC in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In 1939 he published an essay in which, discussing his idealized valuation of friendship, he declared, “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”.

It was the sound bite from Hell, coming six years after passage of the infamous Oxford Union debate proposition, "That this house will not fight for king or country.” It was- and remains- cited as a mark of the moral weakness of the British upper classes in the years of appeasement, and assumed new force as the UK’s Burgess-Philby-Blunt Soviet spy scandal brought the Cambridge Apostles under new scrutiny, and fueled the McCarthyite libel that gays were national security risks through the rest of the century.


His mother died, at 90, in 1945, and- rather like the American poet Marianne Moore- Forster enjoyed a long, late-summer victory lap. He had long been out to his friends. He was offered a fellowship at King's College with very nice rooms and few duties; he was nominated for the Nobel Prize thirteen times. In 1951 he did the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera, Billy Budd.

When The Paris Review debuted in 1953, the first interview in its legendary Art of Fiction series was with Forster:

I fumbled about a good deal. It is all right once they are together ... I didn’t know how to get Helen to Howards End. That part is all contrived. There are too many letters. And again, it is all right once she is there. But ends always give me trouble.


Why is that?

It is partly what I was talking about a moment ago. Characters run away with you, and so won’t fit on to what is coming.

...We all like to pretend we don’t use real people, but one does actually. I used some of my family. Miss Bartlett was my Aunt Emily—they all read the book but they none of them saw it. Uncle Willie turned into Mrs. Failing. He was a bluff and simple character (correcting himself)—bluff without being simple. Miss Lavish was actually a Miss Spender. Mrs. Honeychurch was my grandmother. The three Miss Dickinsons condensed into two Miss Schlegels. Philip Herriton I modeled on Professor Dent. He knew this and took an interest in his own progress. I have used several tourists.


Do all your characters have real-life models?


In no book have I got down more than the people I like, the person I think I am, and the people who irritate me. This puts me among the large body of authors who are not really novelists and have to get on as best they can with these three categories. We have not the power of observing the variety of life and describing it dispassionately. There are a few who have done this. Tolstoy was one, wasn’t he?


You have said elsewhere that the authors you have learned most from were Jane Austen and Proust. What did you learn from Jane Austen technically?


I learned the possibilities of domestic humor. I was more ambitious than she was, of course; I tried to hitch it on to other things.


And from Proust?

I learned ways of looking at character from him. The modern subconscious way. He gave me as much of the modern way as I could take. I couldn’t read Freud or Jung myself; it had to be filtered to me.


Did any other novelists influence you technically? What about Meredith?


I admired him—The Egoist and the better-constructed bits of the other novels, but then that’s not the same as his influencing me. I don’t know if he did that. He did things I couldn’t do. What I admired was the sense of one thing opening into another. You go into a room with him, and then that opens into another room, and that into a further one...

He also found love, at 53. It is a measure of the times how many British writers obsessed over romances between the classes, gay or straight (D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a case in point). In 1930, Forster met a police constable, Bob Buckingham, with whom he formed a bond lasting four decades. After Buckingham married, and after some miscues, husband, wife, and shy writer fell into an affectionate relationship, sharing time with their copper; Forster introduced them into his social and literary circles, and helped them financially; the Buckinghams gave him a welcoming family circle and, late in life, care as a series of strokes in his 80s weakened him. He died, at 91, in their home, May Buckingham holding his hand.


In 1971, Forster’s estate published Maurice, the novel he wrote in 1913 and set aside. It was a succes de scandale, coming out at the dawn of the gay rights movement, portraying the relationship of two men trying to make a life together that could end in something other than exile, imprisonment, or death. While Thomas Mann and Andre Gide had beaten him to the topic, and more frankly (Forster marked Proust down for turning all his lovers into women in Remembrance of Things Past), the Continent was not England. In Maurice, a character remarks, “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice was not reckoned up to Forster’s standard (Lytton Strachey, reading it in manuscript, wrote Forster he wouldn’t have given Maurice and Scudder six months, given the class differences between them)- few authors have made such a reputation on such a small output- but it is, nonetheless, a remarkable work.

In it, only a decade after Oscar Wilde’s death in exile (“I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort,” Maurice confesses) Forster imagined, if a bit clunkily, a world thought impossible to exist, the mere imagining of which authorities sought to suppress for decades.

Ironically, the fact that the book could be published-and made into a movie in 1987- meant the oppression it protested had already begun to pass into irrelevance. What would have been a true scandal in 1914 quickly became a period piece in the 1970s. By 1977 Forster’s biographer, P.N. Furbank had pretty comprehensively outed Forster to the general public. Since then the pendulum has swung back and forth over the significance, if any, of Forster’s sexual orientation to his work; the current consensus is that it informs everything he wrote.

Irish writer Colm Toibin summed up Forster’s work in a review of a 2010 biography:

Forster believed that his own life as a novelist had been stunted by his inability to make fiction out of his sexual desires. This was how he explained his silence as a novelist after “A Passage to India.” While this seems to make sense, it is perhaps too easy, and perhaps even untrue. It may be more true to say that Forster wrote the five books on which his reputation rests because he desperately needed to create characters and situations that would expose his own plight in ways that were subtle and dramatic without being obvious or explicit. His true nature was not only homosexual, it was also wounded, mysterious and filled with sympathy for others, including foreigners and women. Despite his best intentions, he allowed all of himself into the five novels published in his lifetime, and only part of himself into “Maurice.”
There is a strange moment in Moffat’s book when she refers to “Maurice” as Forster’s “only truly honest novel.” But “Maurice” is, while fascinating in its own way, also his worst. Perhaps there is a connection between its badness and its “honesty,” because novels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors; because the lies and metaphors are chosen and offered shape and structure, they may indeed represent the self, or the play between the unconscious mind and the conscious will, but they are not forms of self-expression, or true confession.
Because of his silence about his sexuality, some of Forster’s friends, including Virginia Woolf, felt sorry for him, and believed also that he had a drab life as a literary man — dominated by his mother — who could no longer write. But Moffat, with considerable care and a sort of sympathy that Forster himself would have appreciated, makes the case for his life as an exemplary one. Forster set out to love and be loved, and he did this despite all the odds. He also wrote with beauty and clarity. He stood for liberty, the individual, the sensuous life. He had a gift for ­friendship.
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