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The Afterlives of E.M. Forster

5 101 13

William di Canzio’s Alec arrived in the mail looking like an English novel set in Italy, circa 1960: a black-and-white illustration of a handsome young man’s face framed by a gray square, his gaze on something just out of sight, his lips parted as if he is about to say something, or has just said something. The Alec of the title is Alec Scudder, a young man famous to us—if we know him at all—as the final love interest in Maurice, E.M. Forster’s posthumous novel of gay life, begun in 1913, published in 1971, 47 years after his last previous novel. Di Canzio promises us Alec’s side of this story.

Alec Scudder is a young assistant gamekeeper in the employ of Clive Durham, the first love of the titular Maurice Hall. Clive has given up on the chaste love he and Maurice had promised each other as a compromise between their feelings and what they felt “respectability” demanded of them; instead, he has married the woman his family expected him to marry. By the time Alec appears in Maurice’s life, three-quarters of the way through the novel, Maurice has come to visit Clive’s country home, desolate over Clive’s seemingly abrupt marriage and subsequent transformation into a heterosexual local politician running for office. Clive was the first person to give a name and a language to the feelings Maurice had all his life before this, and Maurice now knows no other world that could sustain him. Maurice is undergoing treatment, hoping to be hypnotized out of loving Clive and out of his attractions to men in general; he even endures the household speculation that he is courting a woman. This is when his eyes meet Alec’s, passing him on his way into the estate, and he falls in love. Or rather, they both fall in love—it is love at first sight. Maurice and Alec quickly begin what seems like a doomed love affair.

Maurice charts these difficulties with a level of detail not found in most fiction of the period. It is also a novel about social class in a way most fiction about gay men still does not manage: Clive is upper class, Maurice is middle class, and Alec, working class, and Forster portrays the roles each is pressed into because of this, and their resistance or submission to the demands of those roles. A common theme in the novel is the replaceability of men in these dominant culture roles. The novel ends with Maurice fiercely declaring his love of Alec to Clive, who can barely understand what he’s saying, and then walking away, leaving Clive talking to himself alone in the dark on his grand estate. In Alec, di Canzio begins by illuminating Alec’s side of these circumstances from the novel and then continues out past the border of the lawn where Maurice left Clive.

The challenges di Canzio faces are various: Most Forster fans have not read the original novel, largely because of the hostile discourse that appeared as soon as it was published; and those fans who have read it may feel possessive over Alec, in part as a response to that hostile discourse. A reinvention of Maurice is a literary experiment, then, that might invite much protest from the audience most likely to enjoy it, and may require some explaining to the audience that might enjoy it but not otherwise read it at all. It is also daunting to borrow some of Forster’s characters, who bring the expectation of the music and technique that surrounded them in their native environments—a Forsterian music and a technique no debut author should promise lightly to anyone.

I had all of this in mind as I picked the book up, and then I read it in a single day, as I had not with any other book in the last year. Alec is a debut with a bold premise, if also a subtle one, surrounded by some of the most conflicted critical terrain in Western literature. And it seems to me that among Alec’s missions is to reopen that discussion, with the question of just what Forster was doing when he wrote and published Maurice, and why.

E.M. Forster’s long silence as a novelist is notable because his first five books of fiction had appeared in a rapid procession, establishing him quickly as one of the most promising British fiction writers of the twentieth century: Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room With a View, and Howards End appeared between 1905 and 1910, and in 1911 he published his first book of short stories, The Celestial Omnibus. Thirteen years passed before the publication of his fifth novel—A Passage to Indiadelayed partly due to World War I. And then he seemed to abandon writing fiction altogether, up until his death in 1970, when news came of this final, unpublished novel, as well as a collection of stories, both about gay men.

The author who would become so famous for writing the words “Only connect” had, unknown to his reading public, written in his diary in 1911 of his “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa.” He had already fallen in love with the friend he would base Clive on—a friend who would read the novel he started two years later, about the struggle to live as a gay man in Edwardian England, a struggle known intimately to Forster, who revealed 60 years later, in the posthumously published novel’s “Terminal Note,” that he, like his characters, was a homosexual.

Cynthia Ozick’s surprisingly scalding and chaotic 1971 review of Maurice in Commentary, “FORSTER AS HOMOSEXUAL,” in which she calls Forster’s posthumous revelation of his sexuality an “audacious slap in the face,” includes a decent one-paragraph summation of what we might call the first public Forster, the one the public thought they knew when they mourned him:

He endured the mildest of bachelor lives, with, seen from the outside, no cataclysms. He was happiest (as adolescents say today, he “found himself”) as a Cambridge undergraduate, he touched tenuously on Bloomsbury, he saw Egypt and India (traveling always, whether he intended it or not, as an agent of Empire), and when his mother died returned to Cambridge to live out his days among the undergraduates of King’s. He wrote what is called a “civilized” prose, sometimes too slyly decorous, occasionally fastidiously poetic, often enough as direct as a whip. His essays, mainly the later ones, are especially direct: truth-telling, balanced,........

© New Republic

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