Peter Robb

  • Selected Letters of E.M. Forster: Vol. I: 1879-1920, Vol. II: 1921-1970 edited by Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank
    Collins, 344 pp, £15.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 00 216718 2

Printing even a writer’s letters is at times an equivocal business. There’s always the question of what, exactly, of value they may tell us, of what there is that makes their publication more than merely intrusive. Forster lived a long time, and there’s some sorry reading in the second of these volumes. To Joe Ackerley in 1947 from the USA: ‘the view from the window is the Californian desert, mistaken by me for the Nevadan ... we seem to have reached Nevada after all ... my Parker 51 ink is checked in my grip for Chicago.’ By the time Forster is 84 and writing that ‘I seem to be losing everything today and knocking most things over – the milk has just gone onto the poems of George Herbert,’ we may feel we’ve been rummaging through an old man’s drawers for too long. Collections of letters, like academic biographies, are prisoners of chronology, and while Forster died at 91 in 1970 the remarkable writer had cut out in the mid-Twenties. The later years were punctuated by respectable minor writings and many acts of public rectitude and private kindness witnessed in these pages: but worthiness is not in itself a great sustainer of interest.

Advancing age and desolation enhance the shock of two brief letters written barely more than a week apart in 1958 and among the last printed here: two merely social notes, on the face of it, that together produce and seem the product of a kind of Proustian reversal, a stunning peripeteia that recalls the reader to a sense of what this man’s life is about. The first is to P.N. Furbank:

If there seems time, I want to tell you of a strong experience or rather re-experience that I have just had. I am destroying or rearranging letters, and came across those from Mohammed el Adl – I may not even have mentioned his name to you, he was a tram-conductor whom I met in Alex 1917-1919, and again saw in 1922, soon before his death. I assumed the letters would be nothing much, but gave a glance before destroying them and was amazed – all the things I most adore glimmering in them. He had gone underground in the interval ... They have given me the oddest feeling and one which I am very fortunate to have. (Something like 100 letters.)

That ‘gone underground’ could hardly be more telling of Forster’s later life. Mohammed el Adl emerges from the correspondence as the most important figure, after Lily Forster his mother, in the writer’s life, and the letters concerning him, from both the periods mentioned, have an intensity of feeling and insight, and describe a grandeur and delicacy of action on both parts, that is unmatched by anything else in these volumes. It’s there, in essence, in the beautiful phrase ‘all the things I most adore glimmering in them’.

Nine days later, Forster, stimulated this time by a reading of Marguerite Yourcenar’s excellent Présentation Critique de Constantin Cavafy, writes to George Savidis, a Greek friend and editor of Cavafy: ‘and she does bring out, though without stating it, his triumph – a triumph that has nothing to do with success. Sick of getting through my final years by British jokiness, I have had a timely reminder of another method ... How very proud I am, George, that I ever got to know him; it is certainly one of my “triumphs”.’ Here there is no correspondence of comparable interest to go back to: there is one anxious letter to Cavafy from the wartime days in Alexandria, and a number of letters from London, where in the early Twenties Forster worked strenuously and successfully to make Cavafy’s poetry known and get it published in English. The relationship here is quite different, of course, literary rather than intimate, and the relevant document is Forster’s essay on Cavafy in Pharos and Pharillon.

The significance of these two brief late letters, which come sandwiched between a chatty domestic bulletin and a letter to Sir John Wolfenden about a BBC radio talk, is compounded by their common recall of Forster’s time in Alexandria, where he spent the First World War in a quasi-military capacity working for the Red Cross. Each records the surprising re-emergence of something long suppressed or forgotten – the reliving of intense emotions and ‘a timely reminder of another method’ of ordering such experience. It is the otherness here to the notions and habits of the diminished English culture in which Forster has been immersed again for so long that makes their rediscovery such a palpable shock to him in his 80th year, a shock the reader of the letters feels too.

The process of Mohammed’s ‘going underground’ is not clear from the letters, which despite the editors’ useful notes often need bolstering by other information. One gaping hole in this collection is the absence of what is cited in P.N. Furbank’s biography of Forster as a long posthumous letter to Mohammed. There are no letters to the living Mohammed here, presumably because they were lost, so we might have been allowed that one: is it a different thing from the ‘Memoir of Mohammed’ into which, a footnote tells us, Mohammed’s letters to Forster were transcribed? The lack is great; and the text could have been printed as an appendix. These things have the effect of at once inflating Mohammed into an unreal symbolic figure in Forster’s life (the First Fully Physical Love) and shunting him brusquely off-stage as a mere colourful walk-on in the drama of sensibility (the Alexandrian Tram Conductor). Accepting this absence distorts one’s idea of Forster the writer.

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