Sunday, October 10, 2010
E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
To John Lehmann and Christopher Isherwood E.M. Forster was the “master” whom they called by his intimate name, Morgan. He was the only writer of the previous generation they admired without reservation. On the face of it he seemed like an odd literary mentor. Born in 1879, Forster was more than twenty years their senior. He made his name before the Fist World War, publishing a collection of short stories and four well-received novels : Where Angels Fear To Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, and Howards End. Compared to the great experimenters Joyce or Woolf, Forster's early novels seemed sedate. But to John and Christopher, these subtle satires of buttoned-up English life were revelatory and unpredictable. They admired Morgan's light touch, his razor balance of humor and wryness, insight and idealism. “Instead of trying to screw all his scenes to the highest possible pitch, he tones them down until they sound like mothers'- meeting gossip... There's actually less emphasis laid on the big scenes than on the unimportant ones.”
The novels looked at life from a complicated position – finding a dark vein of social comedy in the tragic blindness of British self-satisfaction. In spite of their sensitivity, they had a sinewy wit.
After the first four novels, there was silence. Morgan struggled for more than a decade to produce his last novel. A Passage to India came out in 1924. It had all the hallmarks of his earlier novels, but Morgan's insight was burnished into tragic wisdom. His complex and enlightened characters faced a world that seemed destined to break their wills and their hearts. But after A Passage to India, a curious silence. One of the most prominent novelists of his time appeared to simply cease writing fiction at the relatively young age of forty-five. Though he had almost fifty more years to live, there would be no more novels from Morgan.
Lehmann and Isherwood knew – or suspected- that by the time he published Howards End in 1910, Morgan had grown tired of the masquerade of propriety – the unspoiled countryside settings, the oh-so English people in their white linen suits, the clever repartee- that generated his plots. As early as June 1911, he confided in his diary his 'weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women & vice versa.”
But Forster forged on as a journalist, a reviewer, and an advocate for writers freedom. Despite being “so shy it makes one feel embarrassed,” he became a pungent social critic. He argued that Western democracies misunderstood the third world. And he believed that democracy can be sustained only through tolerance and openness, especially when these qualities seem to threaten national security. For more than fifty years Forster entered political fights from the position of the underdog. Almost every week one could read a pithy and pointed letter to the editor in his inimitable voice. He protested against fascism, against censorship, against communism, against “Jew-Consciousness,” against the British occupation of Egypt and India, against racism and jingoism and anything that smelled of John Bull. Morgan's public voice wasn't stentorian. He raised it, tremulously, often alone, against the edifice of conformity.
As self-proclaimed gay men, Isherwood and Lehmann adopted same the American neologism as the men who resisted police harassment at the Stonewall Inn in Sheridan Square, the men who embraced gay liberation, who eschewed the medical term homosexual, which had marked them for decades as a “species”. But the fact that they had lived through the sea change in attitudes and argot gave them fierce insight into the mystery of Morgan's strange broken-backed career.
Only weeks before Morgan died, Christopher made a pilgrimage to see him at King's College. On that spring morning in 1969, as always, Morgan looked impeccably ordinary, like “the man who comes to clean the clocks.” It was a canny disguise. In the 1920s, his college friend Lytton Strachey had nicknamed him the “Taupe”, a French word for “mole.” Though he was one of the great living men of letters, in a loose-fitting tweed suit and a cloth cap he slipped unnoticed into the crowd or sat quietly at the edge of the conversational circle. This mousy self-presentation was no accident. Forster came of age sexually in the shadow of the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde, and he had learned his lessons well. Naturally quite shy, he consciously inverted Wilde's boldly effeminate persona. Where Wilde – and Stratchy after him – cut flamboyant and dandified figures, Forster disappeared into the woodwork. Wilde's bon mots became famous epigrams, but Forster instead chose to draw people inward, to reveal themselves to him as he remained enigmatic.
To speak with Forster was to be seduced by an inverse charisma, a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self. Morgan's steadfast scrutiny tested his friends' nerves. Siegfried Sassoon found it “always makes me into a chatterbox.” The attention made Christopher feel “false and tricky and embarrassed.” He always had to suppress the urge to act the clown, to “amuse” Morgan to dispel the moral weight of his stillness and empathy.
All his life Morgan's friends struggled to put their finger on the ineffable quality that made him such an exceptional man, His pale blue eyes were terribly near-sighted, but everyone close to him noticed that they missed nothing. He had a “startlingly shrewd look of appraisal...behind the steel-framed spectacles... It was a curious feeling to be welcomed and judged at the same time.” To Christopher, Morgan's eyes made him look like “a baby who remembers his previous incarnation and is more amused than dismayed to find himself reborn in new surroundings.” In life and in writing, Morgan preferred to plumb the depths and to leave himself open to surprise. Even the most ordinary conversation could “tip a sentence into an unexpected direction and deliver a jolt.”
Forster conducted his life as if everyone lived in a novel, with the rich inner life of characters' motives and feelings operating as the rules of the world. Every occasion was carefully observed, and even the most clear-cut matters subjected to interpretation. His excessive insight made him seem hopeless about practicalities. One friend called him a “dreamer” and counseled that he should “face facts.” Morgan responded precisely: “It's impossible to face facts. They're like the walls of a room, all around you. If you face one wall, you must have your back to the other three.” His hyperprecision sometimes savored of the absurd: once when asked if it was raining, Forster slowly walked to the window and replied, “I will try to decide.”
The previous July, just after he arrived at King's College for his residency, Mark Lancaster found himself alone in an octagonal room where a tiny black-and-white television had been installed on a tea cart before the fireplace as a begrudging acknowledgment of the wider world. Next door was the Fellows' Senior Combination room, on whose claret-colored walls the portraits of great Kingsmen – all friends of Morgan, all dead, - gazed down: Rupert Brooke, a Roger Fry self-portrait, Duncan Grant's painting of Maynard Keynes. In contrast, the little room was barely big enough for two armchairs and the vitrines stuffed with ancient pottery that flanked the Gothic window. It was a nondescript time in the mid-morning, and the BBC was broadcasting coverage of the first moon landing. Decades later, Lancaster still remembered the scene clearly. Morgan “shuffled in, ask me what it was, settled down to watch” on the armchair beside him. He leaned forward conspiratorially towards Mark. “I'm not sure they should be doing that,” he said quietly...
The terms of E.M. Forster's will determined access to his unpublished writings, the “great unrecorded history” of his love for men that he had so carefully preserved. There were no restrictions placed on what readers could see, but Morgan forbade any sort of mechanical reproduction of manuscript material. From the beautiful glass box of the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin to a friend's sitting room in Hampstead, from the cool majesty of the Huntington Library in Southern California to the modern hush of the Beinecke Library at Yale, and especially in the serene little room in King's that looks out across the lawn to the great Gothic chapel, you must touch the letters and notebooks, the photographs, the ticket stub from Mohammad's trolley car, and the baby Morgan's wispy lock of hair. And you must take the time. Penetrating and puzzling out the difficult, dense penmanship, copying out the relevant scraps by hand, phrase by phrase, engenders a trance, a feeling of automatic writing, a fleeting fantasy of complete connection to Morgan's remarkable mind and heart. So great and honest a writer and so humane a man, whose “defense at any last Judgment would be 'I was trying to connect up and use all the fragments I was born with.'”