Sunday, June 6, 2010

Revisiting E. M. Forster

At the time of his death—in June 1970, at the age of ninety-one—E. M. Forster was known primarily as the author of five novels, all published many decades earlier. His other legacy, relegated almost to a sort of backdrop, consisted of everything else he’d published in book form: twelve short stories, dozens of essays and reviews, and a few ventures into biography, criticism, and travel writing. Soon after his death, however, it became apparent that he had written vastly more: a sixth novel, Maurice, finished and saved for posthumous publication; a seventh, Arctic Summer, left unfinished at novella-length; enough uncollected and unpublished short fiction to more than double his total number of stories; scores of additional uncollected essays and reviews; an abundance of private writings of various kinds; and more than fifteen thousand letters. Much of this material found its way into print in subsequent years, mostly through the Abinger Edition of Forster’s works, and books and essays about Forster have continued to multiply as well. And yet, today, after all this posthumous attention, he is still regarded mainly as the author of those original five novels—while the “everything else,” though greatly expanded, remains relegated to a distant second place.

Forster achieved major success as a novelist by his early thirties (with Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, and Howards End), and then, in his mid-forties, after A Passage to India, he famously stopped publishing fiction. As a result, he is often said to have “abandoned” fiction in midlife, but that term is misleading, given that he went on to write a book’s worth of audacious short stories, meticulously revised the first few chapters of Arctic Summer, and, most importantly, continued to fine-tune, on and off for a half century, his novel Maurice, which, like the stories, could not be published in its author’s lifetime due to its homosexual theme. All of these works were left for posthumous publication. Their relative merits and appropriate place in the Forster library have been debated, but their significance—to both their author and to those of his readers who cherish them—can’t be denied.

After he stopped publishing fiction, Forster did not remove himself from the public sphere; he continued to publish nonfiction, and became a familiar, rather avuncular figure to the British public as a BBC radio broadcaster.

Yet nearly a half-century after his death, there has still never been a single one-volume collection of all of his short stories (the overtly “homosexual” ones remain segregated in a separate edition, as if they might taint the others by association). Likewise there is no single-volume selection of essays that spans the author’s full career to bring together his most important and lastingly relevant short nonfiction. And Forster’s slightly creaky Aspects of the Novel, a book derived from a series of lectures, remains the standard text to reference for his aesthetic beliefs, even though it could be wisely augmented, if not eclipsed, by an astute, brief selection of his more engaging pieces on Austen, Proust, Woolf, Voltaire, and others.

The posthumous novels Arctic Summer and Maurice remain undervalued. In the case of Arctic Summer, there is the usual tendency to pay less attention to that which is unfinished; but Maurice has received quite a lot of attention through the years. It has been, and still is, disparaged and dismissed by critics who fault it as “wish fulfillment” and “sentimentality” or declare it unrealistic, or, with upturned nose, “unpersuasive.” These complaints are hard to fathom, as the book is very much of a piece with Forster’s other novels—far more so than has been recognized. Its author, never much interested in realism, always had an instinct for melodrama (consider the courtroom scene in A Passage to India) and from the start defined himself as a defender of the sentimental and supernatural in fiction. More to the point, Maurice is a gay romance novel; in one emblematic scene, a forbidden lover, the living embodiment of the yearning protagonist’s deepest desires, not only seeks him out but makes an entrance through a moonlit bedroom window—from a balcony, no less. How could anyone read such a book and not realize that it is intended as a work of wish fulfillment? Of course it is sentimental; why wouldn’t it be, when that’s the whole point? Realism? Forster? One might as well fault Shakespeare for including a ghost in Hamlet. Maurice is, among many other things, a sort of Brontë novel for gay men, beautifully wrought and interwoven with other, more modern elements, and written at a time when the concept itself was completely radical. It is every bit as worthy of classic status—and, met on its own terms, as powerful, on the level of humane emotional resonance—as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

Wendy Moffat begins A Great Unrecorded History, her new biography of Forster, with a rich, resonant sequence in which Christopher Isherwood and John Lehmann get together a few months after Forster’s death to pore over the unpublished manuscript of Maurice, which the two men plan to shepherd into the world. It’s a fitting start for this partly revisionist biography, which deliberately places Forster’s sexuality center stage and provides a detailed portrait of his sexual development and various amorous adventures and misadventures.

This focus, however, exacts a price. Through a plethora of confessional quotations, Forster the diarist and letter writer remains in front of us page after page, but Forster the conscious literary artist hardly puts in an appearance; his most fully realized artistic self—a self significantly different, larger, and in certain ways truer than the everyday person—is mostly absent. There are other problems, too, comparatively minor ones, such as occasional unevenness of tone and texture; but although A Great Unrecorded History doesn’t match the scope and skill of P. N. Furbank’s indispensable E. M. Forster: A Life, it does have virtues of its own, twenty-first-century candor among them. Its portrait of Forster’s delicately calibrated relationship with Bob Buckingham, which endured for decades alongside—one might almost say “interwoven with”—Buckingham’s marriage and led to a remarkable friendship between Forster and Buckingham’s wife May, is particularly good, as is a vivid chapter devoted to Forster’s 1947 trip to America and his visits in New York with the painter Paul Cadmus. Here and in other of its best passages, the book adds memorable brushstrokes to the existing portrait of one of the finest writers in history.

In this it joins another, perhaps even more impressive volume added to the Forster bibliography in recent years, The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster 1929-1960: A Selected Edition. Published by the University of Missouri Press in 2008 after more than a dozen years of scholarly development, the book rescues for posterity another side of Forster’s identity: that of the plainspoken radio broadcaster who, thoroughly established as one of the greatest of English novelists, spoke about books directly and unpretentiously to the British public through the “wireless.” Gathered and meticulously but unobtrusively annotated are a generous selection of seventy of his carefully constructed broadcasts on such subjects as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Rebecca West, D. H. Lawrence, the Bhagavad-Gita, and many more. Begun by the late Mary Lago and completed by Linda K. Hughes and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, the book is a shining example of the irreplaceable cultural contributions that scholarly presses make at their best. And so the Forster canon continues to grow. 



Seven of my favorite quotations from E. M. Forster

• Only a writer who has the sense of evil can make goodness readable.

• Nonsense and beauty have close connections.

• The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.

• The final test for a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.

• The work of art assumes the existence of the perfect spectator, and is indifferent to the fact that no such person exists.

• The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.

• At night, when the curtains are drawn and the fire flickers, my books attain a collective dignity.

For further reading:

My post about the film version of Maurice