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  SIDDHARTHA DEB  A Great Unrecorded History:  A New Life of E.M. Forster  by Wendy Moffat Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 386 pp., $30 Concerning E.M. Forster  by Frank Kermode Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, 170 pp., $24 In 1953, when the first issue of the Paris Review  appeared, the magazine’s editors ran a long in-terview with the English writer E.M. Forster.Prefaced with a description of the “Edwardiantaste” of the furnishing in Forster’s room, theinterview showcased what would become a sig-nature element of the Paris Review  —from theelaborate description of the writer’s surround-ings to the inclusion of a manuscript page froma work in progress. Yet Forster was an odd choice for the Review  .The magazine was, in many ways, anexpression of the exuberant, postwar sensibil-ities of a group of young American expatriates,who, along with their commitment to writing,were fascinated by the vigorous masculinityexpressed in sports like boxing. Forster, whowas over seventy years old at the time, couldnot have been further from their approach towriting and masculinity. Not only did herepresent an empire some years past its expirydate, but he never seemed to have participatedin the vigor of that empire even when it didexist. A pacifist, he had not fought in the FirstWorld War, and his work, although dealing withgender, class, and empire, never pushed himinto the foreground of the larger struggles theyrepresented. Even as an artist, Forster’s stature in Englishletters was an odd one: while widely respectedfor the novels he had written in the earlydecades of the century, he was seen as beingcompletely cut off from the literary innovationsof his time—including the modernist experi-mentation with form, consciousness, andlanguage that was pioneered by his contempo-raries James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In fact, by the time of his interview, Forster was nolonger producing much fiction, and the firstquestion his interviewers had for him was whyhe had not finished the novel  Arctic Summer  —a book he had been working on since 1909 andthat he would, in spite of living for nearly twomore decades, never complete.This long silence, especially from someonewho had produced five novels by the time hewas thirty, may be the most interesting aspect ofForster’s career. It demands a response fromthose looking back at him, an interpretation ofthe before and after of Forster’s writing life. Oneway to approach this has been to suggest thatthe silence was merely a matter of appearance,and that Forster didn’t stop writing fiction butmerely stopped publishing it, in great part because his later work dealt with homosexu-ality at a time when English laws were particu-larly repressive. This is the view taken in a new biography byWendy Moffat, who places the writer largely inthe context of his homosexuality, beginning heraccount with Christopher Isherwood receivingthe manuscript of  Maurice , the novel of gay lovethat Forster had not dared to publish in hislifetime. “Almost a century ago,” Moffat writes,“Forster dedicated  Maurice to ‘a happier year.’Perhaps that time is now.” Moffat’s meticulouslyresearched biography uncovers much that isnew and interesting about the way Forster wentabout his secretive life as a gay man. Yet itinevitably carries out a very contemporary sortof overcompensation in assuming that becausewe have finally liberated Forster from thecloset, we can explain his career—and hissilence—entirely through his sexuality.There is another way of looking at Forster,which is to begin by acknowledging that hewrote little fiction of note after his initial 108 DISSENT SUMMER 2010 Prisoner of Privilege BOOKS  , .  creative outburst. This may indeed have hadsomething to do with his fear of Englishhomophobia, but it seems to have been shapedfar more by the limitations of his approach tothe novel. His initial success as well as hiscontinuing reputation as a writer beyondideology—what Zadie Smith in a recent essaycalls his “middle manager” position:“defending his liberal humanism againstfundamentalists of the right and left”—depended on asserting the importance of theindividual over political beliefs or social strife.Forster saw the novel as a form particularlysuited to expressing this struggle between theindividual and the society around him orher.But Forster also lived in a tumultuous time—full of clashes over class, gender, race, andsexuality—that made it apparent that indi-viduals could not always be excised from theirsocial circumstances. It was a contradictionthat would silence his creative voice. Many of Forster’s limitations came from themiddle-class upbringing he never quite shookoff. He was born in 1879 to a well-off family. Helost his father at the age of one and grew updominated by his mother, Alice. Forster livedwith his mother until her death in 1945, carefulto the very end to conceal from her the rela-tionships he had with working-class men, andmaintaining, for this purpose, a pied-à-terre inBloomsbury. But if Alice precipitated a doublelife for Forster, so in some ways did Cambridge.Forster studied there as an undergraduate, andhe formed a lifelong association with theuniversity’s privileged men whose lives wereoften sexually daring in private but utterlyrespectable in public. Forster’s first piece of fiction emerged out ofsuch tensions. Soon after college, he traveled toItaly with his mother, an excursion that wasmade frustrating for him by the gap betweenAlice’s fussy routine of “guidebook, smellingsalts, and a parasol,” and his own uneasy,unconsummated attraction to Italian men. Itwas out of this experience that “The Story of aPanic” emerged, written rather rapidly for awriter whose future method of compositionwould be extremely laborious.The story is narrated by an unnamed manwho is part of a group of English vacationers inan Italian town and who detests a pale,languid boy named Eustace. The Englishtourists go on a picnic, exchange a series ofcomments about the commercial value of thetrees and the death of pagan deities like Pan,when everyone except Eustace is struck by asudden, inexplicable panic. They run awayfrom the picnic spot, and when they haverecovered sufficiently to look for Eustace, theyfind him metamorphosed into a splendidlysensual creature who refuses to be confinedindoors and who develops a sudden bond withan Italian fisherboy. The narrator concludesthat Eustace is suffering from a nervous breakdown, and only Eustace’s friend realizesthe truth: the boy has been visited by Pan. The story represents Forster’s revenge on the banality at the heart of English life as well as akeen appreciation for the erotic, uncanny forcesthat could be unleashed by a foreign landscape.It looks ahead, in this sense, to his greatestnovel,  A Passage to India (1924). But the sexualinterpretation of the story by his Cambridgefriends, including the economist John MaynardKeynes, horrified Forster, and he was careful toscale back all elements of the homoerotic andthe uncanny from his early novels, Where AngelsFear to Tread  (1905), The Longest Journey (1907),and  A Room with a View  (1908). These novels adhere closely to realism andstick to resolutely heterosexual plots, focusingon educating their central characters torecognize emotion as a necessary supplement topropriety. While there is much that isimpressive about these early novels, especiallytheir depiction of a claustrophobic societyobsessed with social norms, there is also some-thing programmatic in how they push theirprotagonists toward understanding. Theycontain a gentle vision of society, of charactersadjusted and reconciled rather than metamor-phosed, like Eustace, and this vision was toachieve its fullest expression in the novel Howards End  (1910).A brief stint of teaching at the WorkingMen’s College in London had put Forster incontact with men who were often impoverished but intellectually ambitious, and his new novelattempted to make room for this underclass.Although still avoiding the “very poor”—whowere to be approached, as the narrator of Howards End  comments, only by “the statisticianor the poet”—the novel inserts into its predomi-nantly wealthy cast the figure of the poor clerk BOOKS SUMMER 2010  DISSENT 109  , .  Leonard Bast. In spite of this innovation, theconcerns in Howards End  remain the familiarForsterian ones of the conflict between headand heart, between propriety and emotion, between self-interest and altruism, and whichare given life in the novel through the clash between the millionaire businessman HenryWilcox and the progressive Schlegel sisters,Margaret and Helen. It could almost be theEngland depicted by Jane Austen, were it notfor the occasional appearance of motor cars andwords like “socialism.” Forster centers these conflicts around thehouse that gives the novel its title and thatserves as a symbol for England, posing thequestion of who will inherit it. Henry’s wife,Ruth, who owns the house, expresses a wish onher deathbed that it go to Margaret, to whomshe has taken a liking. The request not onlyviolates the rules governing property but alsoignores the fact that the Schlegels and theWilcoxes, although belonging to the same class,have little in common. The novel begins byemphasizing this, showing us how a sudden,impulsive engagement between Helen and Paul,the younger Wilcox son, is broken off whenPaul dispenses with his momentary passion andchooses the more hard-headed reality of acolonial career in Nigeria. Given such a past,and in keeping with their own businessinstincts, the Wilcoxes naturally ignore Ruth’slast wish. In spite of this divide, however, the novel begins a correction course halfway through thenarrative by bringing together the widowedHenry and Margaret as a couple. It is themisfortune of Leonard, who has struck up anuneasy acquaintance with the sisters, to serve asa foil for the reconciliation of the Wilcoxes andthe Schlegels. Henry, feeling expansive as he becomes attracted to Margaret, confides to thesisters that Leonard’s insurance company isabout to crash. The sisters pass on the infor-mation and Henry’s advice that the clerk findemployment elsewhere as soon as possible.Leonard changes jobs, gets fired from his newfirm, and discovers, even as he is facing desti-tution, that his old company has renegotiatedits financial situation and is doing very well.Henry—whose advice, while well-intended,may not have revealed his knowledge of secretconsultations being carried out by thecompany—feels no responsibility for Leonard’ssituation. “It is part of the battle of life,” heresponds when charged with indifference byHelen. It would be perfectly feasible to read this asan indictment of the English upper class—afterall, Henry is “the man who had carved moneyout of Greece and Africa, and bought forestsfrom the natives for a few bottles of gin”—wereit not for the fact that Forster is less interestedin exploring Leonard’s downfall than in bringing the Wilcoxes and Schlegels together.What is most at stake, the novel suggests, is theability of individuals to communicate with eachother: Only connect! That was the whole of hersermon. Only connect the prose and thepassion, and both will be exalted, and humanlove will be seen at its height. Live in frag-ments no longer. This passage, long celebrated for summing upForster’s liberal vision, is not so much freeindirect discourse—although it ostensibly givesus Margaret’s thoughts as she attempts to makethe prosaic Henry appreciate passion—as theauthorial voice breaking out in a secular prayer. For Lionel Trilling, who wrote the first full-length study of Forster, this theme of “Onlyconnect” exemplified Forster’s greatness: he haddared to make Henry an individual as opposedto succumbing to the unimaginative progres-sivism that would have rendered Henry avillain. D.H. Lawrence, for instance, gloomilycomplained in a letter to Forster that he had“glorif[ied] those business people in HowardsEnd  . Business is no good,” but Trilling saw thisas evidence of Lawrence’s failure as an artistand of his tendency to let politics get the upperhand. Yet the humanization of Henry and theconnection forged between him and Margaretcomes at a steep price. It requires the stifling ofindependent-minded women, the degradationand death of lower-class men, and, faintly butdiscernibly in the background, the pillaging ofcolonial subjects. So, Helen, who sleeps withLeonard, bears his child, and exiles herself toGermany, returns at the end of the novel withthe fire gone out of her, willing to accept that BOOKS 110 DISSENT  SUMMER 2010  , .  her ideas about helping the poor were wrong allalong. As for Leonard, he receives a beatingfrom Charles, the older Wilcox son, and dies ofa heart attack. Even if Howards End  is to beinherited, eventually, by Leonard and Helen’sillegitimate son, this resolution seems graftedon, doing little to change the impression thatthe society portrayed by Forster is a particularlyharsh one, centered almost entirely on wealthand power. Moffat’s biography  does not fully convey howembedded Forster was in upper-class mores, butit is a shortcoming pointed out by the Englishcritic Frank Kermode in a recent work.Kermode’s book is essentially a collection oflectures given at Trinity College—part of thesame series of lectures that Forster delivered in1927 and that became his critical work,  Aspectsof the Novel  —and its heterogeneous nature cansometimes make it difficult to pick out clearlines of argument from the lectures.Nevertheless, Kermode announces at the beginning that his intention is to see thatForster is “reduced in size, placed in a widercontext, and occasionally scolded for not beingaltogether the kind of author I should havepreferred him to be,” and much of the scoldingis directed at the way the writer failed to engagewith the underclass. “[O]ne’s attitude to Howards End  depends …on one’s response to Bast,” Kermode writes,arguing that not only did Forster fail artisticallyin creating Leonard, but that he did not evenrecognize his failure. Forster, according toKermode, was unable to comprehend howrapidly the English working class was changingin the first decade of the twentieth century,educating itself to the extent that it would soonproduce its own intellectuals—from EdwinMuir, the translator of Kafka, to the writer V.S.Pritchett. But Forster could not see this, and hisportrayal of Leonard reveals, for Kermode,typical upper-class condescension: “Bast is whatsuch people might have expected—uneasyamong the rentiers, a vulgar pianist, his head‘filled with husks of books, culture—we wanthim to wash out his brain,’ as Margaret Schlegelsays.” Kermode believes that it was impossible formen of Forster’s social stratum to take questionsof poverty seriously, unless they were driven todo so by a commitment to left politics. ButForster had no politics, preferring to focus onthe individual. Nor, Kermode says, did he havea particularly wide-ranging aesthetic sensibility.With his emphasis always being on the depic-tion of the individual, he deplored excessive at-tention to either aesthetics or politics in thenovel, being critical of Henry James for beingtoo obsessed with formal pattern and of work-ing-class writers for being too politically mindedto differentiate between “Ted at the table, Ed inthe mine, and Bert at the works.” This middle-managerial literary taste wouldextend even into the postwar years, whenBritish publishing was full of works in trans-lation and a rather wide range of fiction inEnglish. “[H]e seems not to have read anything by Graham Greene or Henry Green, by V.S.Naipaul or V.S. Pritchett, by Anthony Powell orMuriel Spark,” Kermode writes, “[H]e knew hisProust but not his Camus. I don’t think he somuch as mentions Thomas Mann, or RobertMusil, any more than Kafka.” These limitations would take increasing hold ofForster in the very years after the publication of Howards End  . Forster spent much of the 1920svisiting outposts of the British empire, goingtwice to India and spending three years workingfor the Red Cross in Egypt. Throughout, hestruggled with his writing, first putting aside  Arctic Summer  , and then  A Passage to India , whichhe had begun after his first trip to India. Kermode writes that Forster was by thistime complaining furiously of being “bored bythe tiresomeness and conventionalities offiction-form,” but he was quite unclear abouthow he would work past these conventional-ities. Then, after a visit to Edward Carpenter, asocialist who lived openly with his working-class lover, George Merrill, Forster began  Maurice , a novel about the love between twomen from different classes. There was a strongelement of fantasy driving the work, sinceForster, let alone living openly with a man asdid Carpenter, had yet to have sex withanyone. But even Forster’s tepid references to“sharing” bodies were enough to upset hisCambridge friends, and their criticism of thehomosexual theme brought the book to a halt, BOOKS SUMMER 2010  DISSENT 111  , .
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