Glimmerings

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.

One’s sense that Mohammed is being shoved aside as a fully human participant in Forster’s life is reinforced by the further small editorial fact of his being the only name here not accorded one of the meticulous biographical footnotes that crowd the collection, an omission which is the more striking for the painstaking documentation of the most peripheral figures and which may show some insensibility to the racist and imperialist abuses poor Mohammed suffered during his short life. Such things endure: he is written out of the history as he was excluded from the life. Practically, this means, for instance, that we don’t know how old he was at the time of meeting Forster, which makes it harder to imagine the nature of their relations. Neither do we know quite when he died. Perhaps this information doesn’t exist: a fact in itself not without import. And there must be pertinent things in that Memoir.

Alexandria did not impress itself on Forster as India had done, nor was he in a responsive mood when he arrived there. In his first Egyptian letter he writes to Syed Ross Masood in 1915: ‘it is flat, unromantic, unmysterious, and godless – the soil is mud, the inhabitants are of mud moving, and exasperating in the extreme.’ And in the same letter, ‘all that I cared for in civilisation has gone forever, and I am trying to live without either hopes or fears.’ The description recalls the negations of the opening of A Passage to India, whose language indeed echoes this precisely (‘the very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving’) and more than coincidentally: what comes out in these letters is that there is a lot of Alexandria in Forster’s final India – a place of ruined civilisations, incompatible beliefs, an inchoate present.

The dislike of Alexandria was not a passing mood: nearly a year later he is writing to Malcolm Darling:

my idealisation, we won’t say regrettable but ahemmable, of India, mounts and mounts and mounts. Egypt feeds it by contrast. I hate the place, or rather its inhabitants ... Now and then I have a hideous fear. Will this sojourn in the spurious East put me against the true East – Dewas, Aurangabad, Jodhpur?

And a year later still, he writes to Masood: ‘I am weary beyond expression of Alexandria, its trams and its streets. One is as far from the East here as in London.’ The feeling against the drab reality of Alexandria is almost in-variably a contrast to the memory of India and the Indians, the authentic, the beautiful, from the first six-month visit in 1912-13.

That visit, however, had been a case, well illustrated through the letters, of the traveller’s finding exactly what he had come to find, stirred by his romantic affection for Masood since 1906, further stimulated by news from his friend Malcolm Darling in the Indian Civil Service, and well prepared by extensive reading. Forster went to India in an utterly receptive state of mind and his travels, recorded in a delightful series of long letters to his mother, served mainly to flesh out his ideas with particulars. War work for the Red Cross in Alexandria was altogether different. ‘I imagine it is here that civilisation will expire,’ he writes to Virginia Woolf in 1916. Forster was little inclined to hold forth in generalities, but for him as for D.H. Lawrence (whose banned Rainbow he is defending in his last English letter before Alexandria) the destruction and dislocation of the war entailed a radical rethinking of personal values, of how to live. Beneath the official squabbles and the accidie of wartime Alexandria something was stirring.

Fortunately, during those years Forster had a confidante in Florence Barger, the principal recipient of his Alexandrian letters. Those to his mother are now few, and the four to Masood are in the nature of a sad leave taking after ten years of what must have been a deep and unrequited love on Forster’s part. The penultimate letter to Masood contains the unexpected interpolation: ‘Are you becoming respectable? Oh do not. It is the unforgiveable sin.’

Respectability – middle-class hypocrisies in general and sexual repression in particular – and how to avoid it were much on Forster’s mind at this time. Eighteen days later, in October 1916, he writes to Florence Barger of a beach encounter with a soldier:

yesterday, for the first time in my life I parted with respectability. I have felt the step would be taken for many months. I have tried to take it before. It has left me curiously sad.

He goes on:

The life of hopes fears fancies ideals memories – all the unsubstantial fry of the spirit – I am weary of feeding on it, even if, as seems likely, I am too old to change to other food. It’s not good enough because it isn’t all. Perhaps – but I’m not hopeful – it may be better for the next generation, even for the men and women in it who are like me. My life has not been unhappy, but it has been too dam lop sided for words and physically dam lonely.

The slightly exalted tone recurs through the correspondence with Florence Barger – one can see why, as he wrote looking back in 1929, ‘she has made something sacred and permanent for herself out of this.’ Six months later, though, Forster has met Mohammed el Adl and as their relations last and develop so does Forster’s confidence and the directness and particularity of his reports to Florence:

Did I tell you how the first time I went to the ‘Home of Misery’ he suddenly opened the little trunk that contains the whole of his belongings and flung them out saying ‘not much but all clean – now I have shown you all there is to show’? Well now and then he flings out his mind before me in the same way, and when he does I have a queer impersonal sense of triumph. It seems to me that to be trusted, and to be trusted across the barriers of income race and class, is the greatest reward a man can receive, and that even if the agreement is not attained, even if he goes to Cairo and forgets me, I shall not have failed.

Amid the effusiveness the novelist’s eye grows ever sharper, and at the best moments of the letters to Florence Barger the elements are perfectly balanced:

with an indescribable mixture of detachment and tenderness [he] turned my head away and said ‘I want to ask you a question. Do you never consider that your wish has led you to know a T – C –? And do you not think that a pity for you and a disgrace? While answering my questions you are not to look at me.’

A few days later, Forster’s ‘wish’ is realised: ‘I am so happy, not for the actual pleasure but because the last barrier has fallen ... I wish I were writing the latter half of Maurice now. I now know so much more.’

The circumstances of Forster’s getting to know Mohammed, his getting him into and out of a deal of trouble over an unpaid tram ticket, are amusingly recounted. Forster got him a minor bureaucratic job near the Suez Canal: their reunion was postponed by Mohammed’s illness, and a new sombreness enters a report of five months later: ‘in these days if a friend takes even a little train journey he disappears forever. A. writes “I feel as you do. We shall never meet again.” The shadow of tragedy seems very close now but thank heaven it will be tragedy and not squalor and perhaps it too may pass.’ Four months later reunion was achieved, and Forster indeed went twice to stay with Mohammed at his family home in the Nile village of Mansourah, before and after Mohammed’s marriage (of which Forster approved).

They are situate in a lane near the station: nearly nearly a slum – ducks & chicks paddle, and O my dear the sanitation! only means of washing is to strip in the passage under the stairs and pour little tins of water over each other which slither away to a far yet not far enough latrine ... Once we had a tray of roast mutton potatoes, tomatoes and onions as big as the top of a drum, and amazing good tea in the morning. They were brought in by a semi-slave from outside, who squatted in the passage while we ate and gave vent to her views on the world.’

By the time Forster left Alexandria at the beginning of 1919, Mohammed’s, tuberculosis seemed abated: they met again when Forster returned to India in 1921 to spend six months as Private Secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas – a brief reunion on the outward voyage and a longer visit on the return at the beginning of 1922, by which time Mohammed was dying. The letters to Florence Barger recount, without losing their comic particularity (‘Ferida is a humble relative, Amin her even humbler little boy, a hideous child with a face like a teapot and dressed in a pink nightgown and a purple cap and no more’), how Forster got Mohammed and his family to a place on the Nile, set him up financially as well as possible, and left him, as both knew, for ever.

He sat by me in the Ry carriage and said ‘My love to you there is nothing else to say’ which is exactly the truth ... everything is bearable, it is the betrayal from within that wears away one’s soul and I have been spared that. Happiness in the ordinary sense is not what one needs in life, though one is right to aim at it. The satisfaction is to come through and to see those whom one loves come through.

Mohammed seems to have died some time in 1922.

To return, as Forster now did, to the novel: the intimacy and circumstantial difficulties of this relation itself, the close involvement it meant for Forster in the ‘Kiplingesque’ travails of a native of British-occupied Egypt (in an ‘interesting and tragic’ period of near-revolt), the physical closeness to the life of the Egyptian poor living under the British, are not really matched by anything in Forster’s Indian experiences, either on his first romantic journey of 1912-13 or in his 1921 sojourn at the Court of Dewas, but they do come out, filtered through India, in the laden, disabused tone of the resumed novel and in its acuteness about imperialism.

Forster had already begun a novel on India before the war, and it must have stayed there somewhere in his mind through the Alexandrian years. It is not clear whether he resumed it immediately after his return to England; he did, though, take the original fragments to Dewas, hoping to work on it there but finding himself stuck in a gap between his past India and the present. Back in England after the final parting from Mohammed, he is within a couple of months writing to Lowes Dickinson of work on a novel: ‘sometimes I am pleased at it, at others so bored I could spit on the paper instead of inking it. I am bored not only by my own creative impotence, but by the tiresomeness and conventionalities of fiction-form.’ A month later he tells his friend Ludolf of Alexandria that he is working ‘without enthusiasm’ on ‘my old Indian novel’: ‘there is a fundamental defect in the novel – the characters are not sufficiently interesting for the atmosphere.’ A month later he is writing to Malcolm Darling: ‘how I wish I knew what India is after! ... when I get away and am vexed no longer by her incomparable fatuity, my notion is that all the judgments I came to on the spot are wrong.’ It is in the context of this kind of difficulty – the unwieldiness for his purpose of the novel form, the complexities and ambiguities of judgment in India – that the value to Forster of Cavafy’s ‘other method’ can be seen (though even more indirectly than the Mohammed element) in the completion of the novel. Cavafy was very much on Forster’s mind at this time: letters to Cavafy and his translator from the same period show Forster rushing from publisher to editor on the poet’s behalf, and in May 1922 Pharos and Pharillon had appeared.

Cavafy lies in or behind a great deal of the finished Passage to India – in its negations, its choice of non-significant moments of existence, in the ironical play of its unexpected points of view and the shifting of the narrative perspectives from the tiniest momentary particular to the largest movements of civilisation. It was probably only the (maybe not quite conscious) assimilation of something of Cavafy’s art into his own that enabled Forster to get over his difficulties, finish A Passage to India, ‘and mark the fact with Mohammed’s pencil’, as he recorded in his diary. The final achievement of the novel’s writing has something of the ‘slow crystallisation’ that Marguerite Yourcenar describes in Cavafy’s poetry. The ‘Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing at a slight angle to the universe’ of the essay-portrait has always been felt to have as much in him of Forster as of Cavafy. Years later, in a letter to Isherwood, he quotes an interesting warning of Cavafy’s to the English: lest, losing their wealth, they should become like the Greeks, ‘restless, shifty, liars’.

Yet if the two Alexandrians are both present in A Passage to India, the erotic significance of Mohammed’s person and Cavafy’s art have been kept out, even, as it were, in their secondary manifestations, which must have a lot to do with the boredom and grind Forster complains of in writing it. The comic delight (which is a form of erotic life) present in Forster’s earlier novels and in the letters about Mohammed has been transmuted into something more sombre and heavy. Forster never quite managed to connect his Eros and his art, for reasons that remain puzzling and that lie far deeper than the mere lack of experience by which the inadequacies of Maurice are explained. The short stories published since his death confirm the problem. Mohammed’s death, which reverberates over the years in stray mentions, may have been more decisive than anyone has yet recognised. The exception, in a partial sense, lies in the Alexandrian letters themselves, touching, funny, mildly sensuous, highly honest and profoundly sad, the more compelling for the range of emotions they cover, and the heart in all senses of the present collection. It is the quality of both the Forster and the Mohammed revealed here that makes one want all the documents.

The question of what happened to Forster after A Passage to India – of what he himself already felt to be happening to him from the completion of Howards End in 1910 – matters only because it troubled Forster. His anxieties about not writing, drying up, recur through the letters. Any attempt at explanation would have to take at least as much account of his circumstances as of his psychology. One of the reasons so much of the second volume of the letters is depressing to read is one’s sense of the second-rateness and constriction of Forster’s English milieu from the Twenties on. He was living in a diminished and oppressive world: ‘how much of my time I spend with second rate people,’ he exlaims in 1943. The effect is quite claustrophobic once he is ensconced in King’s, corresponding with students and American academics. The more so in that Forster emerges in his letters as a curiously susceptible writer, for all his distinctiveness of tone, subtly taking on what must be the voices of his correspondents in a way that is a little mocking, a little ingratiating, mostly just mimetic. This quality is there from the first in the enchanting letters of the precocious child Morgan to his mother, his first and in many ways his best audience, in writing to whom he developed the quiet domestic precision of his mature style, his ear for speech and his impish sharp subversive eye for the details of people’s behaviour. For density and acuteness of social notation and the muted comic exuberance of the telling, the many long letters to Lily Forster are the most delightful in this selection. Something of the same trusting playfulness spills over into the letters to the most intimate friends of his Cambridge days, and a touch of it continues even to the end in the letters to William Plomer. But mostly it dissolves in the Twenties.

When the threshold of real intimacy is not reached, Forster hardly comes alive as a correspondent: the ‘literary’ side of the letters is feeble, and the mimicry notably a defence. There is also a curious deadness about the letters to his friend Robert Buckingham. One senses something dreadful happening, but the very superficiality of the later letters makes it hard to identify: is Forster drifting away from a world on which he has no purchase, or is he being suffocated? The ‘public Forster’ of the years around the Second World War appears very weak here, making stands on marginal issues, not really understanding, as if exploited by a class and a power he had once repudiated, used as a reassuring little house-hold deity, a relic or token who challenged nothing. One longs here for a return of the hectoring intolerant voice of Lawrence, with whom a younger Forster had so much in common and who made no such compromise with that world. Lawrence figures rather lightly in these pages, but he had been a touchstone for Forster: in 1915 Lawrence’s aggressiveness had elicited a splendid fighting response from Forster, who called him ‘a deaf impercipient fanatic who has nosed over his own little sexual round until he believes that there is no other path for others to take’, and strengthened a mutually enriching friendship.

That was the remarkable thing about Forster, given the resolutely minor, even footling tenor of his ways – how he rose to challenges such as Lawrence. His career up to the Twenties is exhilarating for Forster’s responsiveness to what he encountered: his response to Cambridge in a time of greatness, his response to the otherness of Italy, and even more to the beauty and strangeness of India, his perception of and fidelity to such different kinds of genius as Lawrence’s and Cavafy’s, his Indian friendships – above all, what he made of his relation with Mohammed, the mordant apolitical critique of his own class and its imperialism that flowed out of these experiences. After the war, the second half of his life was a quiet retreat or subsidence. The gradual fading of the marvellous comedy, in the course of the letters, also reminds one that his own distinctive genius was comic more than anything, and that after the war he no longer had a social or personal ground for comedy. There was little left to laugh about.

This, of course, is to circle around the problem: but the interplay of private and public affairs is such that Forster’s curious case will never be definitively ‘explained’, and certainly not by recourse to psychologism. Curious, but hardly unique: there is another instance in English of a slender, distinctive art born out of a still moment in the middle of a social cataclysm. The parallel is with Marvell, whose transition of the Civil War is not unlike Forster’s passage through Armageddon.