Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reviews: E.M. Forster biography and new short story collection The Obelisk

Brief Lives: E. M. Forster
By Richard Canning

Published by Hesperus Press

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Although just a little over a hundred pages in length, Richard Canning’s biography ably covers Forster’s life and work, and it traces too his influence on later writers, notably David Leavitt.

The big question for many will be: why didn’t Forster write any other novels after A Passage to India, which came out in 1924. (Maurice, though published posthumously in 1971, was actually written in 1914.) That question has not really been satisfactorily answered – at a best guess it seems that Forster simply became bored with people and with writing about them. As he said to Sassoon (quoted here on page 77), ‘I shall never write another novel after it [A Passage to India] – my patience with ordinary people has given out.’

Nonetheless, Forster had a full and apparently fulfilled life thereafter - it was hardly one long, maudlin silence. He worked for the BBC and did much to promote and encourage other writers: Cavafy, T.E. Lawrence and Ackerley being three among many. His collaboration with Britten and Crozier on Billy Budd was a great success and he still wrote books, but just not novels. (Britten was incidentally an astute critic; see his observation on Forster’s novels on page 39 here.)

One advantage of this book over P.N. Furbank’s classic biography, published in the late 70s, is that Canning is able to make use of Forster’s broadcasts for the BBC and his correspondence with Isherwood, material which has only recently (since 2008, in fact) become generally available.

Besides this, Brief Lives: E. M. Forster is an erudite and engagingly written study and it gives a real sense of the great writer’s life and achievements.

The Obelisk
By E.M. Forster
Foreword by Amit Chaudhuri
Published by Hesperus Press

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

This book is a collection of eight stories, all with a gay theme or aspect. On my understanding, they were originally published in 1972, so some two years after Forster’s death.

‘The Open Boat’ is the longest story and also the best.
It focuses on a relationship across ethnic boundaries between Lionel (‘Lion’) and Cocoanut, and is mainly set during one intense night. Forster captures perfectly the claustrophobic atmosphere of the crowded boat returning to India, the oppressive, casually racist culture (‘a touch of the tar brush’ is a phrase that recurs more than once, and is spoken by more than one character), and Lionel’s divided loyalties and distraught state of mind. There is no happy ending here.

A couple of other good stories are ‘Dr. Woolacott’, which recalls some of L.P. Hartley’s macabre and mysterious tales, and ‘Arthur Snatchfold’. In the latter effort, a knight of the realm has a dalliance with a young working-class man who, when caught and questioned by the police, doesn’t give him away – in fact, he lies to protect him. When gay love was outlawed, the stricture of the law was circumvented by the courage and loyalty of largely unknown men. Forster celebrates that here – and the eponymous hero in particular – but his story would surely have had a greater impact if it had been published when it was written. A point one could make about Maurice too. (And, yes, I realise I’ve lapsed into 'D.H. Lawrence' scolding mode here.)

The title story, ‘The Obelisk’, is pretty good too and had a neat twist at the end. Along the road to a local landmark, a middle-aged couple meet a pair of sailors… Forster is particularly good at getting inside the head of Hilda, the wife, here.

‘The Classical Annex’ is another story I liked; it is fantastic and erotic and has a supernatural element too. Behind it, there’s a sense of the queer in everyday life: there are certain things (like watching wrestling, for example) that straight and gay men might enjoy, but for different reasons. If you point out certain aspects of those said things to straight men, though, they are liable to be aghast.

Somehow, the remaining three stories didn’t really catch fire for me. Of these, ‘The Life to Come’ is probably the pick, but it kept on leaping forward five years a shot, so diluting any built-up tension. It had its moments, but in the round presented a sketchy impression. Perhaps it was a sketch for a novel that Forster was unable to write.

Overall, The Obelisk is a fine collection, with ‘The Open Boat’ and ‘Dr. Woolacott’ ranking among Forster’s best. And these are pretty much the best stories to be found anywhere.

P.P.O Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at

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