Hourglass or Penny-Farthing?

Christopher Tayler

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Forster started writing his novel about India soon after getting home from his first trip there in 1913. During the 11 years he took to finish it, he wrote – but didn’t publish – a same-sex love story, Maurice; worked for the Red Cross in Egypt, where he had his first serious love affair; visited India again as secretary to the maharajah of Dewas; published two books on Alexandria and promoted Cavafy’s poetry; and issued many complaints about his work in progress. ‘Shall never complete another novel,’ he wrote in his diary at the end of 1914. In Dewas, his chapters ‘seemed to wilt and go dead’, he later recalled, ‘and I could do nothing with them.’ ‘I am bored,’ he wrote in a letter in 1922,

not only by my creative impotence, but by the tiresomeness and conventionalities of fiction-form: e.g. the convention that one must view the action through the mind of one of the characters; and say of the others ‘perhaps they thought’, or at all events adopt their viewpoint for a moment only. If you can pretend you can get inside one character, why not pretend it about all the characters? … The studied ignorance of novelists grows wearisome.

Still, he continued to grind out his ‘damned novel’, making ‘careful and uninspired additions’. His feeling as he finished A Passage to India in 1924 was: ‘This is a failure.’

Forster’s subsequent activities, and non-activities, indicated that some of this was more than routine grumbling. As well as not writing any more novels, he stepped up his interventions on the side of life against aesthetics, championing openness to experience – sexual experience included – over the age’s preference for absorption in technique. T.S. Eliot came in for a politely lethal rebuke after being pissy about Forster’s description of D.H. Lawrence as ‘the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation’. (‘Mr Eliot … asks me exactly what I mean by “greatest”, “imaginative” and “novelist” and I cannot say. Worse still, I cannot say what “exactly” means – only that there are occasions when I would rather feel like a fly than a spider, and that the death of D.H. Lawrence is one of these.’) In Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster was similarly uncowed by the shadow of Henry James, taking swipes at James’s disciple Percy Lubbock and implying that it was silly to get hung up on doctrines of ‘economy and architecture’. You could arrange a story in the shape of an hourglass, as Forster said James had done in The Ambassadors, and triumph on your own terms, ‘but at what sacrifice!’ Following ‘the narrow path of aesthetic duty’, he wrote, ‘shuts the doors on life and leaves the novelist doing exercises, generally in the drawing-room’.

These ideas were in line with Forster’s practice in his novels, but they did and didn’t work themselves out in the story of his life, which can be made to look fussily patterned around a struggle between emotional fulfilment and, in James’s words, ‘the madness of art’. Depending on which biography you read, it’s a life shaped either like an hourglass or a penny-farthing, with the publication of A Passage to India connecting the two parts. Forster was 45 when his last novel appeared, and though there were workaday factors behind his throwing in the towel – among them his private income and his feeling that the war had put an end to the world he knew – it’s clear that the life he’d come to see as the antithesis of art’s ‘conventionalities’ was predominately gay life. Publishability was one problem; another was that Forster’s fiction seemed to need the evasions he’d come to resent. (In order to show that the homosexual was a perfectly ordinary chap he ended up making Maurice rather stolid.) Admired and sought out by younger gay writers, he felt unable to claim such a role for himself in public and settled for spending the next 46 years as a patron saint of liberal muddle.

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