Monday, June 21, 2010

Wendy Moffat's Forster... and others

My first Forster, I can't now say. I think it safe to assume that I encountered the author, early on, in one of Isherwood's memoirs, before I'd read a word of Forster's writing. E. M. Forster came up, even if his novels didn't much then, for me. Reading around with the boys from the Thirties: Isherwood, Auden, Orwell, etc., and then back to visit Bloomsbury, briefly, reading anywhere in English literature for the first three quarters of the last century, in fact, there he was: the great maiden aunt of English letters. Why I didn't read Forster until I did, I don't know. I knew I liked him well enough, strange as that may sound, for not having read him, but more as just a dear old party than as a writer who mattered. He appears in so many English literary memoirs, in so many diaries & letters, from Woolf and Lawrence forward, I felt I knew something of him even before I'd read The Longest Journey, which I'm pretty sure was my first Forster novel. I suspect I didn't feel the need to read him until I did because he just seemed so old fashioned, certainly as he appeared on other people's pages: a rather harmless, comic figure, a spent force, an old man who had stopped writing novels by the time I was most interested in reading about, someone who'd dated quickly. His novels were obviously important, once, but not so much as to move him up the list, past writers who still mattered more, I thought. He wasn't a modern, was he? Certainly, politically, he was at best a liberal, and I hadn't much patience for that sort of thing as a youngster. Radicals mattered, political and sexual and aesthetic revolutionaries were what I felt most keenly in need of, when I first ran through the moderns. Not that I understood a word of modernism, really, but I felt it, so to say. So when I did come to read that first Forster, there might not have been much there to make me feel I'd missed something vital. His books were just comedies of manners, middle class stories, awfully funny, and quite beautiful, in an Edwardian way, but they were all a bit subtle for me. I wasn't much for subtlety at fourteen or fifteen. It's difficult to remember, all these years later, just when I did finally take Forster for a turn, but when I did, I think in the summer of my sixteenth year or thereabouts -- sounds about right -- I know I was only a recent convert to subtlety. I'd fallen hard into Henry James by then. I then read Forster straight through. I did that sort of thing a lot as a teenager, and read Forster book by book until I'd done him. I do remember my disappointment, which was genuine, and my cocky pride, which was just as real if not more so, finding there was no more of Forster to read. Reading was a race then, and I felt myself handicapped by my background and bad education, constantly catching up, so speed was important. Literacy was something to be gained, marked by the obvious mileposts, one didn't linger for fear of being left behind. I remember too, that last Forster novel, the last published anyway, published posthumously, and to great gay fanfare, and my disappointment that that book turned out to just be Maurice. Everyone seemed to agree that while it mattered, it wasn't very good. I agreed with everyone. Unlike the other books, even the grand film adaptation of that one, in 1987, didn't inspire me to have another go. Actually, I've only just reread that novel for the first time, for book club, and I must say, I'm a little disappointed in my younger self for having been so dismissive of that novel, among other things, and of being so sure I'd done full justice -- at sixteen! -- to reading E. M. Forster.

The great thing about a novelist like Forster is that one can't.

I've been reading Forster on and off all the years since and don't think I'll ever not. When I put down Maurice this time, at forty-seven, I picked up A Passage to India again that same night, reluctant to let Forster go. All his books are on the case by my desk, the bookcase containing only my favorite rereading. (Interesting to note how few of my youthful enthusiasms, how few of the really important books I felt I had to have read -- and please note that phrase -- before I could claim to be a serious person, have made it into that case.)

In addition to not being done reading Forster, I can't say that I've read everything worth reading about him. If I ever thought I had, turns out, I was wrong about that too. Live and learn. Reading Wendy Moffat's new biography, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster, I've been mindful that hers is neither the first I've read, nor likely to be the last life I'll read. Consulting my own bookshelves, this looks to be my fourth, not counting Lionel Trilling's critical study of the fiction. In fact, Moffat's isn't even the first book about Forster that I've read this month, that being Frank Kermode's 2007 Clark Lectures, Concerning E. M. Forster. Clearly, I've still got a lot to learn.

Kermode's book has one of the most interesting things I've ever read on Forster's writing, in the lecture/essay from which I took today's daily quote, "Beethoven, Wagner, Vinteuil". The critic's exploration of Forster's ear, as it were, and only incidentally, Forster's appreciation of his contemporary, Marcel Proust, from whence that last composer comes remember, and the actual influence of music on Forster's methods and style, was new to me, even if this was not the first time I'd encountered the idea, and this essay was just the kind of criticism I find most helpful: ingenious, elegantly simple, and obviously right, though I'd certainly never thought much about the subject before reading this. I can only envy the kind of reading and writing Kermode is able to do in an essay like this. Commenting on a brief quote from Forster's introduction to his collected stories, Kermode summarizes with just this little sentence of his own, " Among those words lurk the rhythms." That's perfect.

Elsewhere in Kermode's short book, I found myself getting a little impatient with the venerable critic. (As of these lectures, Professor Kermode is well on in his eighties -- long may he thrive.) First, there is a tetchy insistence, the fault worried by the critic like a bad tooth, that Forster failed, as a novelist, to express the appropriate intellectual interest in what were then called, "the lower classes." As a result, not only do his most important characters from backgrounds other than his own --Leonard Bast in Howards End, Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India -- fail, but the novels do as well, because of this. For Kermode, this failure represents a more significant failure of Forster the novelist to achieve the kind of greatness he might, or ought to have done. Not to say that Kermode is wrong, but his emphasis suggests someone other than his subject might better have written Forster's novels, and that kind of supposition always strikes me as being pointless. (One of the things Wendy Moffat's biography so delightfully, and rather mischievously does, is give their due to the working class people, lovers and friends, in the company of whom Forster was to spend so much of his life after he ceased writing novels. Hard, I think, of Kermode to fault the man, for who the novelist wasn't yet when he wrote his best books.) Kermode also faults Forster once too often for his failure to acknowledge "The Master," Henry James, as such, and while, again, I have a personal sympathy with this point, I don't know that Kermode actually makes much of it. Henry wasn't really Henry, was he, in 1905, when Forster's first novel was published? Or even in 1927, when Forster himself gave the Clark Lectures that then formed the basis for his book, Aspects of the Novel, the book which seems to really exercise Kermode most. Who, in Forster's generation of novelists, even among the younger writers, talked of James much then? And even when they did, didn't they keep well out of Henry James' shadow, at least in public utterance? It was, I'd say, critics, rather than practitioners, who have always since cited James with Kermode's familiarity. Again, why so much about who Forster failed to be?

A good deal of the critical response to Wendy Moffat's new book, at least in this country, has been focused on a book that Moffat chose not to write, rather than on the very good book that she did. While I wish she might have been spared some of the bluff and condescending notices I've read, I can only hope that she's found some of this inevitable, mannish primness as amusing as I do. It's true, Moffat chose not to write the traditional, critical biography, a book more like the excellent one written by P. N. Furbank thirty years ago, but then, did she really have to? Isn't that book right here at my elbow, along with Lionel Trilling's, and the brief, illustrated life by novelist Francis King? Doesn't Richard Canning have a new book coming soon, a brief life presumably meant to replace the older one I have right here? Much has been made of Moffat not taking up the novels one by one, offering the usual summary of each, elaborating the context in which the books first came to be, and then reviewing the accepted critical opinion, as it stands, before gently knocking it around a little. That, after all, is the way this sort of thing is done, my girl, remember that. Huff puff. The emphasis of Moffat's research, and the focus of her book, generally takes as given the critical reputation of the novelist, and this would seem to have offended some of those reviewers, many of them academics like the lady herself, who can't quite believe that the function of literary biography might sometimes be something other than the more usual, respectable sort of professional narrative and reappraisal of the critical literature. If Moffat doesn't linger for so much as a paragraph over Where Angels Fear to Tread, it is suggested, then the woman can't be serious. Instead, in a most unseemly fashion, utilizing materials that while not themselves entirely new or unknown to previous scholars, have never been made so much of before, Professor Moffatt sets about to restore the sentimental education of a great writer. Is that such an untoward thing to have done? Surely there have been other novelists, here D.H. Lawrence comes most quickly to mind, but Joyce too, whose sexual histories have come to be seen as intrinsically important to an understanding of their life and work? And then there are writers, Henry James for instance, or Whitman, for whom the absence of such a history has been much lamented, sincerely or not, as leaving something of a biographical void. So, is it just Forster about whom we'd really rather not know these things?

Which would seem to me to be what's really ruffled some of these old cocks. Words like "gossip," and "tittle-tattle," as silly as that sounds, have been dusted off to describe the details in Moffatt's biography. Forster's own diary, as quoted extensively throughout Moffatt's book, hardly constitutes an unreliable source, so why this prim, and frankly proprietary , dismissal of her scholarship and purpose? It seems to me that there has been a kind of critical consensus, at least so far as Forster's biography was concerned, that the explanation of his long silence as a novelist after A Passage to India, in 1924, was best accomplished, not as Forster himself explained it, at least privately, but by means of all sorts of elaborate critical constructions that depended less on what Forster said, and didn't say, than on what the critics themselves chose to dignify with a theory. As it turns out, Forster's explanation is startlingly blunt. If I may paraphrase, he was tired of writing exclusively about heterosexuals, and as he couldn't at the time publish a novel about anyone else, he wasn't much interested in writing novels anymore. Moffatt's book, while not perhaps the first to be written with the knowledge of this decision, may well be the first to take Forster at his word, and more than that, to earnestly explore not only the consequences of what that meant for the novelist, but why the man might have meant what he said. Confronted by a great novelist who ceased writing novels, and the supposedly mystifying, and surprisingly busy "silence" that came after, Moffatt seems to have decided to give full weight to everything Forster did say for the remaining 46 years of her subject's life. What's more, instead of an elaborate search for clues in the fiction he'd finished with writing by the time he was middle-aged, to explain the second, and much happier half of Forster's life, Moffatt takes the rest of Forster's life as he lived it; writing, broadcasting, friends, responsibilities, lovers and partners, and tells that story as if E. M. Forster not only had a right to it, but ultimately made a wise decision. Imagine that.

It's this idea, that Morgan Forster's life might have mattered more to him than E. M. Forster's reputation, and that his biographer might take such an idea seriously, that seems to have given not a few critics the collywobbles. What makes matters oh so much worse for some of these old birds, is that Moffat would seem to approve of much of the new life she describes, or at the very least doesn't feel the urge to sniff at it disapprovingly. She doesn't hesitate to describe either her subject's limitations or his failures, but I think she is at her best when he's happiest, and that of course is not the way of things in critical biography. Moreover, she has the audacity to suggest that Morgan Forster, while far from being a saint, was actually a better man, in the end, for not continuing as a novelist. Finally, Moffat has the unusual, even unprecedented nerve to take seriously the relationships that came to matter most to Forster himself. That the men Forster loved were all less well-off, less accomplished and less articulate than he, and that more than one wasn't white, uniquely in my reading about Forster, for Moffatt, doesn't make them somehow unworthy of love. In addition, she doesn't see the life Forster made with these men, and yes, in the most significant of these relationships, with the man's wife, as in anyway demeaning or inferior to, say, Forster's platonic love for a straight classmate, or his sometimes prickly friendships with writers and worthies of his own class. Moffatt actually seems to enjoy the company of some of the men with whom Forster shared his intimate life. Imagine that. (Furbank, for instance, couldn't help himself, anymore than Francis King could, and invariably describes Forster's first great lover, Mohammed-el-Adl, as just "a bus conductor," and Forster's most loyal and beloved partner, Bob Buckingham, as a cop, as if Morgan Forster had only a mildly interesting uniform fetish rather than real and lasting relationships with both men. Is it fair to say, do you think, that E. M. Forster was hardly the last Englishman to never entirely escape his class?)

Paradoxically, I have read more than one gay critic who dismissed the second half of Forster's life as unnecessarily timid and Forster, the great gay novelist, as lacking in character. In their reading of his life, Forster, born in 1879, ought to have done something other than he did by putting Maurice in a drawer, in 1914, and dedicating it to " a Happier Year". His "silence" thereafter, by some lights, is unacceptable, cowardly even. Presumably, having met Edward Carpenter and having been inspired by his example, and felt up by his boyfriend, as indeed Forster was, Forster should then have taken up the old man's sandals and walked the walk thereafter, consequences and nature be damned. Moffatt is no more invested in Forster's failure to act the prophet than she is in the donnish nonsense of seeing Forster as the holy virgin of the Twentieth Century English novel, sadly abandoned to Sodom.

That I think is what makes Moffatt's book so interesting, and yes, important; her refusal to make something more, or less, of E. M. Forster than Morgan Forster made of himself; a novelist of genuine importance, and a limited number of books, and a man of very real interest, and considerable soul. It's a controversial reading of Forster's life, because it isn't so much a reading of his work, as of what he said about himself.

Imagine that.

One last note, on the respective American and English titles and dustjackets of Moffatt's book: while the American edition has the fuller and, I think, better title -- the English one simply called "A New Life of E. M. Forster" -- neither has a very good photograph of Forster. The English edition, tellingly I think, shows him very much the gentleman in a hat and draped on deck chair of some kind, and the American edition uses the same dowdy photograph by George Platt Lynes as did Francis King's book, from 1978, E. M. Forster and His World. Neither is the least flattering. Now Morgan Forster was never a very prepossessing looking figure, or a handsome man, but he did have a nice smile, I think. So have a look above. I'd think, if he could, Forster would be smiling now.

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