Book review, Literary criticism

The Obelisk by E. M. Forster: a short story collection,

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English writer Edward ‘Morgan’ Forster 1879 – 1970

A lot has been written about Forster, and especially recently about his sexuality. He was a closeted homosexual, which was far from rare for an Edwardian Englishman of his education. His novels, A Passage to India, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View, among the best of them, were mostly about the love lives of strong wilful English women usually traveling away from home. His other famous works, Howards End is a more London domestic story and Maurice, his only homosexual love-story, was not published until after his death, as is the case with these stories in this collection.

Sex to Forster was something hidden, and due to the ambiguous and wide-ranging forms of human attachments, physical, emotional and psychological all amorphously gathered together in English under the banner of the single word ‘love’, Forster was able to write about the ‘love’ of young English middle-class women and be applauded for it while experiencing none of that ‘love’ himself, so great is the imagination of the novelistic mind; until, that is, at age 37 on an Egyptian beach when he lost his virginity to a wounded soldier. His last, and greatest novel, A Passage to India, came out seven years later, in 1924, at which time his novel writing stopped. Why? “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex has prevented the latter.”

Wendy Moffet, in her 2010 biography of Forster, E.M. Forster: A New Life asserts that sexual fulfilment (at last!) sapped him of his writer’s imagination and drive. This could possibly be true, given the above quote and that since his awakening on that beach near Alexandria he had several relationships with working class married men including a tram conductor and two policemen. He continued to live with his mother, however, until she died when he was 66.

This collection contains stories that are sexually charged and gently subversive. They are sometimes farcical, funny, satirical, and even, experimental. The comic, and clever, twist of the title story involves a young married couple and a pair of sailors they meet on a holiday to a famous landmark, and sets the tone of the collection. The second story, The Life to Come, is a colonial fable of religious hypocrisy and the plot turns on the many definitions and misleading consequences of the English word ‘love’ and how it is used in the Christian Bible.

Dr Wollacott, a story he told T.E. Lawrence was the ‘best thing he had done’, has been described by some as ‘weird’. It is an experimental tale of an invalid who is infirmed, more so by his amorous thoughts than any bodily ailments and dies because of them; or did the handsome young farm-hand who climbed in through the window (a particularly frequent fantasy in Forster’s work) from the park while looking for mushrooms, novelistically exist?

Arthur Snatchfold, is similar, but written more realistically, about an educated, married, and aristocratic man, Conway, who, while staying at a less-than scintillating country-house with his equally-lacking hosts, sees a milk-boy in the garden, seeks him out early next morning and has sex with him in a wood. Some money languidly changed hands.

“I didn’t do it for that.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“Naow … keep your money.”

“I’d be pleased if you would take it … please yourself.”

“Can you honestly afford it?”

“Honestly.”

“Well … people don’t always behave as nice as you, you know.”

Later, in town he hears that the later stages of their tryst were seen by the local bobby who waylaid the departing boy, arrested him, but the other unidentified man, got away. Conway knows it was himself, and is appalled and amazed that the boy chose not to give him away. “It all had seemed so trivial”, on both sides. He writes down the boy’s name, Arthur Snatchfold, in order never to forget it.

The rest of the stories are less successful; they read like first drafts that the writer lost interest in. Except, the final story, The Other Boat: it involves a ship-board romance that leads to tragedy. Its interest lies in its post-colonial flavour: the attraction of ‘the other’ and the social and emotional consequences of the day.

This volume is part of a handsomely produced series of volumes from Hesperus Press, Modern Voices, of the lesser works of an eclectic list of famous writers: Anthony Burgess, Colette, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, John-Paul Sartre, Bernard Shaw, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, among others.

The South African novelist, Damon Galgut, has fictionalised the adult life of Forster, his private passions and relationships as well as his writing of The Passage to India, in his 2014 novel, Artic Summer; my blog about it you can read here.

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