Sunday, June 7, 2020

This Day in Literary History (E. M. Forster, Writer With a Secret Life and Novel, Dies)

June 7, 1970—E.M. Forster, who at midlife quit the novel genre that had initially brought him acclaim, died at age 91 in Coventry, England. 

It would not be strictly correct to say that in the last half of his career, Forster had become afflicted with “writer’s block.” He did, after all, issue a couple of biographies, criticism (Aspects of the Novel), a short-story collection, plays and pageants, travel literature (Alexandria), a collection of acclaimed essays (Two Cheers for Democracy), and, with Eric Crozier, the libretto for the Benjamin Britten opera Billy Budd (1951). 

So Forster did not pull a complete disappearing act, as J.D. Salinger did for the last 45 years of his life in the U.S. But the same question that haunted Salinger fans plagued aficionados of the author of A Room with a View (1908), Howards End (1910), Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), and the last novel published in his lifetime, A Passage to India (1924): Did he continue to write novels, just not for the public, or did he lay aside his pen altogether in the genre? 

Within a year after his death, an answer of sorts emerged: Maurice, a novel that dealt frankly and unapologetically with homosexuality. Finishing the book in 1913, Forster did not believe, given the criminalization of such sexuality at the time, that he could safely publish it in his lifetime.

Publication of this volume, while answering the question whether any novels were left over, still did not resolve by itself if he composed any other book-length fiction after 1924. But none has been discovered since. Another question continued to appear: Why did he stop writing novels?

Several explanations have been offered in the half-century since the discovery of Maurice:

* He was no longer interested in the politically-light fiction that led the likes of Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence to regard him as the greatest living English novelist;

* He had exhausted the store of life material available to him;

*He maintained such a high standard of perfection that he felt he could not sufficiently reach excellence again (“I am quite sure I am not a great novelist,” he said in a 1959 interview);

*He had become so happy with a fulfilling gay relationship that he did not experience the anguish that often goads people into writing; 

*He suffered a broken heart once he left a house he had lived in for years with his elderly mother.

We may never account fully for Forster’s mid-career change of direction. But turning to the works he published after that point has its compensations. 

I am thinking in particular of Two Cheers for Democracy. I bought this collection by chance in a used-book sale, and ever since then have been pleased whenever I open a page at random. It reflects not only the breadth of his interests but also his clear-minded advocacy of values under attack in the 1930s and 1940s and again in our time: liberty, democracy and tolerance.

In a sense, the last half of Forster’s life and career might be seen as his attempt to live up to the exalted but uncertain terms of one of his most famous quotes, from Howards End:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."

(The image of Forster accompanying this post was painted by Dora Carrington in 1924 and 1925--the period, interestingly enough, when he was moving past the novel.)

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