Reviews: E.M. Forster biography and new short story collection The Obelisk
Brief Lives: E. M. Forster
By Richard Canning
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.
By E.M. Forster
Foreword by Amit Chaudhuri
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 email@example.com.
Labels: Biography, Review
Review: Bruno Gmünder
Young Men on the Rise by Falcon
Cazzo’s Men Factory by Frank Burkhard
So Sexy It Hurts by Patrick Mettraux
The Boys of Bel Ami by Howard Roffman
Raging Stallion: To the Last Man by Kent Taylor & Geof Teague
Time Less by David Vance
Published by Bruno Gmünder
Reviewed by Gregory Woods
The German publishing house Bruno Gmünder has been producing high-quality books of the male nude for almost two decades. Some are photographic essays by well-known photographers (Benno Thoma, Jeff Palmer, Tom Bianchi); others are the side products of, and advertisements for, porn companies (Falcon, Raging Stallion, Cazzo, Kristen Bjorn); and some are both (Howard Roffman’s Bel Ami boys). Production values are high: most of the volumes seem intended to be consumed, or owned, or displayed on the coffee table, as if they were art books. If accepted as such, it may be that their photographs are to be appreciated for such qualities as their technique, composition, lighting; and even the bodies they display should be enjoyed purely for their formal plasticity—rather than for the sexiness that is confirmed by that dubious aesthetic measuring-rod, the viewer’s erection. (If ever bought by or for straight women, the books are not marketed as such.)
Even if the measuring-rod cannot discern the difference, some people call this kind of product ‘eroticism’, to distinguish it from ‘pornography’. But the publishers seem happy to think it as porn. Pornography is a matter of physical facts and predicted outcomes. It proves itself: here are the bodies, here is the spunk. Either you are turned on by the bodies and what they do, or you are not. The moment you step outside the magic circle of pornographic complicity—when desire is replaced, or at least distracted, by boredom, or disapproval, or revulsion, or the urge to laugh—it will fail in its task, which was to inveigle you into its sphere of enchantment and compel you to take pleasure in or from yourself. It does not matter if this moment of stepping-outside happens after the climactic moment of your pleasure—indeed, this is to be expected. Pornography is not, as it were, built to last.
When you cease to comply with the ‘piece’ (as works of art tend to be called these days, as if none of them was ever complete in itself) you are likely to start noticing the wrong things: the wallpaper and duvet covers, the cheerful dog wagging its tail beside the bed, the photographer in the mirror, whatever. I remember a Scandinavian porn mag I picked up, in the early 1980s, at a stall outside Rome’s main railway station. Almost at once, I noticed that the four boys in it were wearing watches, and that the times on these told a different story from the narrative order of the photographs. For reasons I no longer remember, I spent some time trying to reconstruct the ‘actual’ sequence of the participants’ couplings and climaxes. I suppose I was seeking authenticity. I had bought the magazine for truth, not fiction; or for as near to the truth as a sequence of photographs can ever provide. Those watches raised a nagging question of narrative structure: what had been wrong with the actual sequence of events, that required re-ordering; and how had the re-ordering improved the narrative effect? Perhaps there had been too much contingency in the original events, when what was needed was a build-up of suspenseful predictability. Perhaps the boys themselves—like me, their eventual consumer—had been distracted or delayed in their pleasures. Perhaps they had come too soon or too late, had laughed or gagged, been bored or revolted…
Magazines have now been superseded by websites, so it comes as something of a surprise to find that the market for these glossy books continues to flourish. The difference from the internet is, of course, that when you are online you are always promised more; and the promise of more always bears within it the possibility of better. The surfer of internet porn is inevitably unsatisfied, despite the surfeit of beguilements available to him. (Perhaps that is the fate of the masturbator in any case.) He is for ever moving on, on the off-chance that the next click is going to activate the perfect pleasure. On the other hand, the book of pleasures has the virtue of being finite. It demands the frugality of making do. Somewhere between its covers you must find your satisfaction. It is as if Charles Dickens were to say—as well he might—you can find all of the world out there, but you will find enough of it in here, here in the book.
Raging Stallion’s To the Last Man is shot on farmsteads in the American West. This is the world of the cowpoke (whoever he may be). All of the models are white, most bearded, some verging on middle age. Stetsons are obligatory. While it may be that each picture of an individual man implies a character and a narrative (Jake has got bored with hammering in all those fence posts and has unbuttoned himself to cool off...) the viewer is discouraged from asking potentially disruptive, rational questions. Has the health-and-safety man okayed this close juxtaposition of knob-end and tank-tracks?
Don’t these men ever feel self-conscious in the face of the rational scrutiny of the horses? Above all, why are they hanging around these ranches with their knobs out? Clearly, because they want me, in particular, to see how well endowed they are. Each of them looks as if he thinks he deserves a medal, whereas what I actually want to give him is a dollop of sun cream.
Cazzo’s men tend to haunt derelict buildings, soiled and oily among fragments of old machinery, sensibly booted but otherwise more or less naked. They cultivate the styles of sadomasochism without forking out for its prohibitive paraphernalia. Tattoos and piercings add to the look, even while somewhat undermining it by seeming suspiciously fashionable. Likewise, one or two of their beards look so carefully topiarised as to seem distractingly narcissistic. Men Factory is both an environment and a process, both a space in which men act out their exaggerated versions of manliness and the mass production of images of these performances, for mass consumption by men in less obviously virile occupations. As heavy industry is outsourced to the so-called Far East, the men who used to work in it can now get jobs in that most emblematic of the service industries, porn. Oh, brave new world!
To tell the truth, I have always had a soft spot (if that is the right expression) for the Bel Ami product. It is one of the miracles of our times. The company is now a huge, Fordist concern, mass-producing images of (to use a rather repellent American expression) ‘twinks’: boys in their late teens and early twenties, often blonds, generally depilated, invariably pretty-faced and large-cocked. I always wanted to write to Margaret Thatcher to congratulate her on what she called ‘winning the Cold War’, since Bel Ami was one of the first cultural outcomes of the parting of the Iron Curtain. The early videos showed rather idyllic versions of central Europe: inefficiently farmed, pastoral landscapes, untouched by tractor or harvester, entirely peopled by well-built twinks dressed in promisingly fragile scraps of denim.
Howard Roffman has photographed the Bel Ami boys a number of times. On this occasion, they are on holiday in some kind of closed resort in South Africa, but without the slightest sign of Africa itself: they could be in California or Florida or Australia or on the Mediterranean coast. There are beds and sofas indoors, and a swimming pool outside. Some shots seem to have been taken at some distance from the building complex, but these are all on a beach that could be in any location where sand and sea and sun coincide. That, I suppose, is the point: nothing should be culturally specific. White boys on holiday: the world is theirs.
Speaking of which—the book is somewhat marred by Roffman’s complacent introductory remarks: ‘It takes forever to fly from San Francisco to Cape Town, South Africa. When you get there, you have to drive past miles of corrugate shanty towns cordoned off with barbed wire before you get even close to the lush seaside resort city. It’s a trip I wouldn’t take without an awfully good reason.’ Poor love! But the strain of being driven past all that barbed wire must have made his assignment all the sweeter—spending eight days photographing fifteen young, white porn stars while they were shooting a new film with ‘legendary’ director George Duroy. As well as liking their own bodies—pretty much an essential qualification for the porn model—the Bel Ami boys do genuinely seem to like each other’s; and each other’s company, besides. Indeed, some of my favourite images are those in which boys sit side by side, proudly discussing their erections as if they had sculpted them themselves.
By contrast, Falcon is not a company primarily renowned for its twinks, and the youths in Young Men of Falcon strike me as looking rather creepy, strangely disturbing, as if one’s fantasy life had been invaded by an aimless troupe of ghosts. I can’t quite put my finger on the source of this feeling—perhaps something of complacency in the way they meet the camera’s enquiry. A paper leaflet promoting this volume calls it a classic (never a particularly convincing way of marketing something brand new) and says it is ‘bought to stimulate arousal’. The photographs are succinctly described: ‘explicit, posed, young men, hairless’. Explicit because there are plenty of full-frontals, many of them with erections. Posed, I suppose, because the models are intentionally showing themselves off, in every case but one staring straight into the camera lens; no snatched shots of incidental nudity. Young men, of course, because they are older than boys but can still qualify, for a few years, as twinks. Hairless, in this case, means only one thing: they are facially clean-shaven. None has a bald or shaven head (that would be moving into more ‘mature’ territory) and none has been, so far as I can tell, even partially depilated in the manner of the Bel Ami boys: indeed, some of these guys have pretty furry chests, bellies and limbs. Not twinks in the purest form, then.
David Vance’s photographs, in a book rather presumptuously called Time Less, seem to be striving for a classicism that is not so much timeless as dated. They remind me, at times, of Christian Coigny, whose work was fashionable in the 1980s, and, at others, of Herbert List’s far more famous work from the 1930s. In a brief introduction, David Leddick invokes all the usual suspects—the Greeks, the Romans, Donatello, Michelangelo—but I got little more than an impression of a humourless, muscular classicism that tries to attribute to mere flesh a sculptural immortality that cancels out its humanity and, therefore, its sexiness. Maybe that is the point.
Patrick Mettraux’s book So Sexy It Hurts is much more relaxed. Although his models are always unsmiling, the clothes, situations and poses he puts them in seem dedicated to the proposition that sexy can also be funny—and imaginative. None of them is straightforwardly naked. They are (un)dressed in street styles, but there is no particular effort put into persuading us that they are actually from the streets, and all of the shots are taken in the studio. Some wear jeans, some tracksuit bottoms, some football shorts, some jockstraps. Many are covered in a sheen of sweat, one in soil, one in oil, one in green and red paint, and one is liberally slathering himself all over from a giant can of Nivea. All are fetishised in a variety of ways—but never with the predictable paraphernalia of standard rubber- or leather-gear. (It may be that Arthur Tress is the originator of some of this work.) They play at being boys without trying to look boyish. Several are playing with inflatable toys—but not sex toys. Several are masked—but not with SM masks. One is riding a large toy giraffe, another a china tiger. One has a fluffy monkey stuffed down the front of his Y-fronts. One unshaven thug sucks his thumb in an overtly aggressive manner; and yet the two guys holding pistols look as gentle as they come. There isn’t a penis in view—unless you count the image of one printed on the front of one guy’s underpants—and yet the whole collection is gloriously, pervily sexy.
For all that some of these picture books are nice objects in themselves—suitable as gifts on certain kinds of occasion—economic reality seems to dictate that the internet will inevitably prevail. What that means, on present evidence, is that there will be a growing proliferation of self-made images, all showing the same basic icon: the Narcissus of postmodernism, gazing into his own eyes as if into those of the world, with his dick in one hand and in the other the dull fish-eye of his camera-phone, both of them pointing into the mirror. When I remember that my own adolescence was illuminated by erotic imagery I found not in picture books but in the written word—European and American novels, for the most part—I can’t help thinking that my masturbatory life was admirably educational. The perfect training, I suppose, for a literary academic. I hope I do not sound too much of a party-pooper when I suggest that, in the flamboyant festival of images the internet is providing today, something may have been lost.Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is http://www.gregorywoods.co.uk/