Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What We're Reading

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster, by Wendy Moffat.

Edward Morgan Forster was one of the great English novelists of the 20th Century. He was always much respected in literary circles, but late in the century his work reached a wider audience--mainly through cinematic production of some of his major works: A Room with a View, A Passage to India, Howards End and Maurice. Forster led a long life: He died at 91 years of age in 1970. But perhaps the most notable thing about his career is that Forster’s last novel, A Passage to India, was written in 1924. What happened? As early as 1911 Forster had written in his diary about his “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat----the love of men for women & and vice versa.” Forster was a gay man living and writing in the early 20th century, and his extraordinary art and talent could not be used to write about the experience that was the most essential and defining in his life.

It would seem that bigotry had sunk his art and imprisoned his life, as it has done for so many other gay men living in a social climate of prejudice, repression and fear. But Forster did continue to write fiction occasionally, and to live a life. What he wrote from his experience he felt was unpublishable during his lifetime. His fugitive fiction writing was supplemented by journals, diaries, and private letters, which recorded intimate details of his life as a gay man. Moffat’s biography opens with a local scene, John Lehmann and Christopher Isherwood in Santa Monica opening a package sent to them shortly after Forster’s death. It contained the last edits in Forster’s hand of Maurice, the “gay” novel he had suppressed for nearly 60 years. Forster had dedicated it to “a happier year.” Lehmann and Isherwood decided that in 1970 that year had perhaps arrived.

I remember reading Maurice in the early 70s. It was groundbreaking, I suppose, in the sense that it was one of the few “gay” themed works by someone who was recognized as a major literary figure. Its release did not create, as far as I remember, much of a scandal or sensation. It is a good novel, but probably not Forster’s best work. Part of the problem, perhaps, was that Forster was insistent on imagining a kind of utopian world where a gay relationship could be sustained, and he insisted that the novel have a happy ending. It seemed at odds with the reality of gay life in 1970. Released soon after this were “gay” short stories that Forster had written and never published. These were more troubling to me, as I thought them an embarrassment to Forster. They were more like erotic fantasies than literary short stories, and in their thematic treatment seemed to betray a certain immaturity, one more exposed by its contrast with the sophistication of his style.

I came away from Moffat’s fine, brave, and meticulously researched biography believing that Forster’s lasting contribution to gay literature and gay history is not Maurice, nor the stories he wrote, not his posthumous publications, but rather the record he made of his life as a gay man. The pieces that Wendy Moffat has so skillfully gathered and presented here were evidence that Forster deliberately left. Moffat has realized here something that I think Forster was hoping might be done for him and his intimate circle in his literary afterlife. In a tribute to Forster on his 90th birthday, his friend William Plomer wrote, “Let us pretend that Morgan’s greatest novel is his life. It may have fictive elements, but it is stranger than fiction.” What Forster did when he could no longer write was to make his life the narrative, to leave the tracings and record that would allow what had been secret to be at last fully revealed and explored, and to document the challenges to intimacy and art that were faced by a whole generation of gay men at a particular time in history. I don’t know what modern gay men may think of this story, but here it is, and with Wendy Moffat’s help Forster has told it. It seems to me a generous bequest to literature, gay history, and future generations of gay men.

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