One of the tricky bits about memory is that the past all exists in the mind in an odd kind of eternal present. Everything that’s ever happened to me, and that I can still recall, however imperfectly, is accessible to me. Chronology be damned; I remember it all. Doesn’t matter what order it happened in: it’s the original model for RAM.
But I got to wondering how I came to be enamored of that idea of the English public school / university education, that community of boys and men in time to appreciate Schoolboys. It wasn’t, as I wrote at the time, Evelyn Waugh and Sebastian Flyte: reading Brideshead lay well over a decade in my future. Orwell, maybe, but his essay “Such, Such Were the Days” isn’t my definition of romantic. What was the source of my fascination?
I didn’t really puzzle out the answer to that question. I walked into it the way one walks into a door, without meaning to, and with a certain degree of pain and embarrassment.
I was in my own first year at university when E. M. Forster’s Maurice was published for the first time. It hadn’t been long since I made the terrifying discovery that homosexuals weren’t men who wanted to look like, act like, and be women; instead they were men who shared my aching tenderness for other men, a tenderness that in its turn generated heat and excitement. And now E. M. Forster was, so to speak, ready to tell all about his own discoveries ; Forster who was a novelist of the greatest stature among the professors who were piling Garcia Marquez on Doris Lessing on Flann O’Brien on Samuel Beckett in their enthusiasm for my edification that freshman year. I bought a copy of Maurice as soon as I could, turned on a light in my closet, and read it through as quickly as I could turn the pages.
It was this past spring, while I was pondering the Schoolboys mystique, that I came across a reference to another posthumous publication of Forster’s work, a short story collection called The Life to Come: and other stories. Appearing a year after the publication of Maurice, The Life to Come collects a dozen stories that, like the novel, remained unpublished during Forster’s lifetime. Many of them deal with love and desire between men, and Forster seems to have written them in a vein that mixed fantasy and therapy. I was eager to delve into them.
When I did, the effect was dizzying, like a sharp box on the ear. Instead of the misty Cantabridgian dream I remember from Maurice, the stories in this collection were agonies of fear and self-loathing, only occasionally leavened with a grotesque, lacerating humor. The title story, “The Life to Come,” tells of a missionary, Mr Pinmay, who had been enraptured by the pagan virility of Vithobai, chieftain of the tribe he is sent to convert to Christianity. After succumbing to the bed of scarlet flowers in the jungle, Pinmay succumbs to horror and agony and is driven to marriage and everlasting remorse. For the remainder of his life, he holds Vithobai, baptized anew as Barnabas into the religion of the “God of Love,” at a distance. He refuses to allow any further physical consummation, even a kiss; instead he binds the unfortunate Barnabas to a deceptive dream of a better “life to come.”
The poor savage in his devotion submits to this Christian torture and obeys Pinmay faithfully until old age and illness steals upon him. In extremis, the warrior king begs for the consolation of love and for union in the hereafter. Vithobai/Barnabas asks,
“Shall we know one another again?”
“Yes, with all spiritual knowledge.”
“And will there be love?”
“In the real and true sense, there will.”
“Real and true love! Ah, that would be joyful.” His voice gained strength, his eyes had an austere beauty as he embraced his friend, parted from him so long by the accidents of earth. Soon God would wipe away all tears. “The life to come,” he shouted. “Life, life, eternal life. Wait for me in it.” And he stabbed the missionary through the heart. […] He rejoiced as in boyhood, he was expected there now. Mounting on the corpse, he climbed higher, raised his arms over his head, sunlit, naked, victorious, leaving all disease and humiliation behind him, and he swooped like a falcon from the parapet in pursuit of the terrified shade.
In “Arthur Snatchfold,” Sir Richard Conway, visiting the country estate of friends, slips out into the summer-sweetened grounds of a summer’s morning in his pajamas, where he encounters a milkman, “a nice-looking fellow … and probably no nonsense about him.” But nonsense is exactly what Conway wants, even if he can’t quite admit it to himself until he once again encounters the milkman early in the morning. A mutual seduction takes place, giving pleasure to both men; Conway in his upper-class sense of fairness offers the young man a banknote—a trifle. “I’d be pleased if you would take it. I expect I’m better off than you and it might comes in useful. To take out your girl, say, or towards your next new suit.”
Well pleased with his adventure, Conway returns to the city, but weeks later he encounters his host at their club and learns to his horror that the young man had been observed by the local bobby “committing the indecency” with an unknown, pajama-clad guest, and that apart from the “medical evidence” there was the evidence of the money the man had been paid.
Conway sinks into a terror of shame and the anticipation of judgment until he learns that, in the dock, the young man was unable to name his companion of the morning. All he knew what that the old man—Conway—has been a guest at the estate. Unable to resist, Conway asks,
“What was his name?
“But we don’t know, I tell, you, we never caught him.”
“I mean the name of the one you did catch, the village boy.”
…For a moment [Conway] considered giving himself up and standing his trial, however what possible good would that do? He would ruin himself, and his daughters, he would delight his enemies, and would not save his saviour. … Taking a notebook from his pocket, he wrote down the name of his lover, yes, his lover who was going to prison to save him, in order that he might not forget it. Arthur Snatchfold. He had only heard the name once, and he would never hear it again.
Forster manages the odd comic bit amidst all this hallucinatory terror and betrayal. In “The Obelisk” a mildly disgruntled couple, Ernest and Hilda, set out during a seaside excursion to climb a hill in order to view an obelisk which stands at its peak. Hilda is tired of a bloodless marriage to her pedantic schoolmaster of her husband who “did not scruple to correct her,” even on “that night on their honeymoon when she had said something ungrammatical about the relative position of their limbs.” They are joined by two sailors; eventually the husband and wife become separated, each with one of the sailors. It is not too long before Hilda and her sailor straggle of into the bush beside the path. There, “She took the lead, ordered the mysterious stranger, the film-star, the sheik, what to do, she was, for one moment, a queen and he her slave.”
Once they have finished, there is no time to finish the ascent to the obelisk, and the sailor insists that he will handle the tale-telling that will be required to explain away their dalliance and failure to appear at the top. When the foursome reunites, Ernest is manifestly uncomfortable at his companion prattles on about the view from the “obblepiss.”
Ultimately, the sailors depart, leaving Hilda to peruse the offerings of picture postcards of the Obelisk as a souvenir of their afternoon. On the verge of making her selection she nearly faints when the woman at the kiosk reveals that the obelisk had fallen over the previous week during a heavy rainfall. At that moment, Ernest comes up from behind and approvingly selects a postcard that gives a proper view of the monument. Regaining the bus to take them away,
Hilda sank into a seat nearly fainting. Depth upon depth seemed to open. For if she couldn’t have seen the Obelisk he couldn’t have seen it either, if she had dawdled on the way up must have dawdled too, if she was lying he must be lying, if she and a sailor—she stopped her thoughts, for they were becoming meaningless. She peeped at her husband, who was on the other side of the coach, studying the postcard. He looked handsomer than usual, and happier, and his lips were parted in a natural smile.
It is one of the few moments of happiness in this collection of unhappy endings. And it made me wonder if I had, all these years, been indulging in a fantasia of my own when I thought back to Maurice. Perhaps it was time to revisit the Cambridge of my literary memories, and see whether there really was love and fulfillment to be found there. But that’s a story for another day.