Has any major novelist had a career as lopsided as E. M. Forster’s? Between 1905 and 1910, the year that his masterful study of manners “Howards End” became a best-seller, Forster—who was known to friends as Morgan—produced four highly successful novels and was acclaimed as one of the brightest young literary lights in Britain. He seemed completely in command of his milieu, middle- and upper-middle-class England at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he gently picked apart its sympathies with wit and penetrating insight. Yet by the following year, when he was all of thirty-two years old, he confessed to his diary frustration with his work and a growing sense of impotence. He had grown weary of “the only subject I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa,” and found that he couldn’t write his way out of his unease. He started but abandoned a novel, “Arctic Summer,” about a suitor who commits suicide over a scandalous love affair, and wrote another, “Maurice,” whose frank treatment of a homosexual relationship impelled him to withhold publication until after his death, in 1970.
It was not until fourteen years later, in 1924, that Forster published another novel, one he’d worked on in fits and starts and revised again and again in the course of the difficult decade. In “A Passage to India,” whose title is borrowed from Whitman, a British schoolmistress’s unsettling encounter with an Indian doctor sparks a criminal case that lays bare the gap between the English imagination and colonial realities. It was Forster’s final novel, his greatest study of the ambiguities of intimacy—and, given its difficult birth, a minor miracle.
Forster’s biographers have long been interested in his long period of novelistic silence and its unexpected climax. He suffered from a sense of isolation, living with his mother until her death in 1945, when Forster was sixty-six, and he sought relief through travel and through friendships that often involved unrequited romantic feelings. He first went to India early in the nineteen-tens, journeying there to see one of his love objects, a suave but fickle lawyer named Syed Ross Masood, whom he’d once tutored in Latin during Masood’s English school days. (“A Passage to India” was dedicated to Masood, even though he’d disappointed Forster, not for the first time, by failing to point out that he’d bungled technical details about India’s legal system.)
It wasn’t until Forster travelled to Alexandria, where he spent time interviewing the wounded during the First World War, that he lost his virginity and entered into his first long-term relationship with another man, a trolley conductor named Mohammed el-Adl. It was the affectionate and intense relationship that the novelist had yearned for, and despite their differences in background the two men remained in close contact even after Forster left Egypt and el-Adl settled down with a wife and a child. When el-Adl died of tuberculosis in 1922, Forster’s grief was severe, though its source was known only to a few. Passing him on the street in March of that year, Virginia Woolf described him as “depressed to the verge of inanition. To come back to Weybridge, to come back to an ugly house a mile from the station, an old fussy exacting mother … without a novel, & with no power to write one—this is dismal, I expect, at the age of 43. The middle age of buggers is not to be contemplated without horror.”
This period in Forster’s life—which will be familiar to anyone who has read his biography—now forms the basis of a novel by the South African writer Damon Galgut, who has borrowed the title of Forster’s aborted work, “Arctic Summer,” for his own fictional account of the author’s struggle to write “A Passage to India.” It was a dismally trying time, although Forster is far from the beaten-down hack Woolf depicts. (Years ago, the critic John Sutherland wryly observed that, despite her judgment, it was she and not Morgan who chose suicide.) Galgut’s Morgan is a sensitive and funny Englishman abroad, who is willing to let his own beliefs be tested and amended. Forster liked to speak of himself as an anachronism, the sole survivor of—to use one of his favorite words—a “civilization” that was already disappearing by the time he immortalized it in the first decade of the twentieth century. In his fictional treatment, Galgut shows the toll that view took on Forster’s output—and how, paradoxically, it was in fleeing his life as a novelist in England that Forster came to grips with both his desires and the realities of colonial rule, and solved the riddle that had stumped him in his work on “A Passage to India.”
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