“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.”
—E. M. Forster, Terminal Note to “Maurice.”
Though this Edwardian grandfather of gay romance wasn’t published until 1971, sometime after its grandchildren were well into their adolescence, E. M. Forster’s Maurice remains a forerunner and not just an afterthought. The recent publication of a “sequel” to Forster’s novel of homosexual love, End of Story by John M. Bowers, professor of English literature at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (Sunstone Press, 2010, with a beautiful cover painting by Michael Bergt) affords us an opportunity to (re)discover just how much Maurice still remains ahead of its time.
The beauty of Forster’s writing is found in the subtlety of its mythical evocations. When Maurice, as a young boy, comes home from boarding school to discover his childhood playmate, the garden boy, George, has been dismissed, he yearns for his lost “green man.” Later, returned to school, he dreams of George and hears the words, “That is your friend,” which fills him with longing for beauty and tenderness and self-sacrifice. He “tried to persuade himself that the friend must be Christ. But Christ has a mangy beard. Was he a Greek god, such as illustrates the classical dictionary? More probable, but most probably he was just a man.”
When Maurice meets and falls in love with his college chum, Clive, amidst a closeted circle of homosexuals at Cambridge, one senses the author attempting to create a vocabulary of same-sex love. This causes a somewhat comical confusion for the American reader because the English manner seems so gay that it is hard to tell when Forster is intending to reveal the deepening affection between Clive and Maurice, such as when they go about arm-in-arm, or Clive rests his head upon Maurice’s thigh and Maurice strokes his hair. But their Cambridge don knows better and wonders matter-of-factly if the two are still on their honeymoon. When translating from the Greek, the Dean instructs them to “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks,” Clive is offended at this censorship, but his peculiarly English “Hellenism” is channeled into a Platonic idealism. Forster comments, “What Italian boy would have put up with it?”
The middle of the novel is an unrelieved suffering of unrequited yearning amidst middle-class English family life until Maurice encounters his now married friend Clive’s estate gamekeeper, Alec Scudder. Suffering in his sleep, Maurice moans, “There was something better in life than this rubbish, if only he could get to it—love—nobility—big spaces where passion clasped peace, spaces no science could reach, but they existed for ever, full of woods some of them, and arched with majestic sky and a friend…He really was asleep when he sprang up and flung wide the curtains with a cry of ‘Come!’”
The reader feels an almost physical release when the gamekeeper responds, although Alec’s and Maurice’s actual night of passion is Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks. Still the fact that Part Four opens with the two men nude in bed engaging in pillow talk was considered so frank for its day in 1913 that the author considered the book unpublishable, although more for the fact that the couple is both allowed to have sex and live a happy ever after. Forster writes, “Happiness is its keynote—which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish…If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime…The only penalty society exacts is an exile they gladly embrace.” Maurice disappears with Alec into the greenwood, leaving Clive to the moral hypocrisy of his dishonest marriage.
Bowers picks up the story in 1960, with an elderly Forster ruminating upon his yet to be published novel while gazing at a big, athletic-looking American staring across the river during a King’s College reunion at Cambridge, “Let us have one more gaudy night,” the fictional Forster says to
himself in the first of what turns out to be a delightful pastiche of literary quotes and allusions. Bowers uses Forster’s thoughts to introduce us to Maurice and to capture the critical reception of Forster’s Bloomsbury circle of friends to the unpublished manuscript. Bowers beautifully evokes a remembrance of the novel in the reader by capturing images and phrases from Maurice throughout his “sequel.” He uses these images and phrases like Homeric motifs as shorthand to identify his characters and to relate them back to their sources in Maurice.
Bowers has the fictional Forster base the characters of Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder upon the apparently fictional Martin St. John Howell and Alan Sutton, a gay couple Forster supposedly met among gay socialist Edward Carpenter’s homosexual circle when he visited Carpenter as his “savior” in 1913. Forster himself relates that the “spark” for the novel was “kindled” when Edward Carpenter’s lover, the working-class gay man, “George Merrill also touched my backside—gently and just above the buttocks…It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thoughts…and would prove that at that precise moment I had conceived.” Bowers playfully begins to create a fictional history of Maurice inside the fictional thoughts of a fictional Forster—a literary allusion to Virginia Woolf. Other authors Bowers pays homage to through imitation are Willa Cather, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence and Edmund White. Bowers has his fictional Forster say, “Wonderful stories don’t really need to happen, just need to be wonderfully told.”
Thus, this “sequel” continues the story of the “real” Maurice and Alec told through the adventures of the fictional Martin and Alan, intertwined with the modern love story of an American gay couple, Morgan and Eddy, as all four men find their “greenwood” in the New Mexico desert. Unfortunately, this is where Bowers’ novel is overshadowed by the master Forster. Central to Forster’s theme in Maurice is the concept of the reconciliation of class conflict through the love of men, one of Edward Carpenter’s greatest ideas—a gay socialism. Though Clive is ultimately unable to break out of his upper-class reserve to give his love fully to the middle-class Maurice, Maurice and the working-class Alec are able, after an almost fatal class conflict, to converge in a physical union of love. While there is potential class conflict between Morgan and Eddy due to their differing ethnic and cultural identities, Bowers makes them both gym-toned “guppies” whose love is spawned after a night at Studio 54 in 70’s New York. Even their internal conflicts are fashionable—Morgan goes to AA and Eddy, though HIV positive, by some miracle of genetics, remains physically unfazed by the “gay plague” decade after decade. Their source characters, Maurice and Alec, are men who come from truly different worlds, worlds whose convergence is perilous and yet liberating to both men; for example, the sensual, but rough-hewn Alec enters Maurice’s bedroom with a gun. By contrast, Morgan and Eddy remain pretty kouroi.
Bowers has Forster remember his friend and contemporary, Lytton Strachey’s verdict that the sex in Maurice, “was unnatural not because it was diseased, but because there was so little of it. These healthy young men surely had erections.” But Bowers has Forster claiming that his restraint in writing about the sex between Maurice and Alec was not just a restraint of necessity but of good taste. Bowers gives us considerably more in his love scenes, and in good taste.
But I wonder if End of Story is foiled by its very conceit. To follow Maurice and Alec to the end of their story through the characters of first Martin and Alan and then Morgan and Eddy, means that Bowers must allow both couples to age. Forster wrote that his happily ever after allowed Maurice and Alec to “still roam the greenwood,” forever youthful and in love. Though Bowers realistically ages Martin and Alan, Morgan and Eddy are so persistently youthful that Bowers actually invokes The Picture of Dorian Gray to describe them. Their persistent youthfulness is shadowed by the two men’s consistently negative attitudes towards aging. One wonders if this also creates a pacing problem in the last two chapters where the reader is apt to want to race ahead to find out what happens, but the author keeps us plodding along tying up myriad sub-plots. Sometimes the writing is overwhelmed by its own lushness, trading the excitement of the reader’s anticipation of the end of the story for the tranquil beauty of the narrative journey. But most often, in this novel, you don’t want the story to end.
“A man’s very highest moment is, I have no doubt at all, when he kneels in the dust, and beasts his breast, and tells all the sins of his life”—Oscar Wilde, De Profundis.
Jonathan Kemp teaches writing, comparative literature and queer theory at the University of London, Birkbeck College. His first novel, London Triptych(Myriad Editions, 2010) presents a portrait of gay London across three eras, the decadent but repressed fin de siècle London of the 1890s, the closeted post-war London of the 1950s and the post-modern London of the 1990s, through the loves of three men.
Jack Rose, “or Rosy Jack as the gents like to call me, on account of that soft pink bud nestling between me rosy arse cheeks” is a “Maryanne, see, and gentlemen pays me handsomely to do things I should likely enough do for free” whose story plays out in 1890s London—“This cold blue city, where danger is so near to pleasure.” He becomes a denizen of a male whorehouse presided over by Alfred Taylor and frequented by Oscar Wilde. Jack finds himself falling in love with Wilde, “He has this way about him that brings out a good feeling…It was a good feeling, the way he petted me and worked at getting me feeling special and all ready to be touched. It sounds queer saying it like that but that’s how it was, how it is with him.”Taylor warns Jack, “Mr. Wilde is a fickle man. You might think that you’re special but you’re not. You mean no more to him than any of the other boys he rents. You’re a whore.” But when Wilde tells Jack, “It is best for now if I am not seen cavorting around London with dangerous, beautiful creatures like you,” Jack’s jealous rage results in a Judas-like betrayal that echoes Wilde’s famous line, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”
Colin Read is a retired graphic artist living a life of “self-imposed exile” as a closeted, middle-aged gay man in the suburbanLondon of the 50s when he encounters Gregory, an art model in his drawing class. Soon Colin has invited him to pose privately, but Colin is so closeted that that’s all that he does do is pose, even though he freely shares with Colin stories of his gypsy life and his philosophy, “Whoring isn’t a job, it’s a world view. It’s an art form…Prostitution is the apotheosis of capitalism. But with the added advantage that, finding I rather like it, it keeps me free.” Colin renames Gregory: “He told me some of his friends call him Gore, and, since this is the name of a novelist whose books I enjoy, I feel happier calling him that.” Slowly, painfully, Colin begins to open up to the possibility of his own sexuality even after the first gay bar he steps into is raided by the police. Even after he is beaten up in a public toilet. Finally, he works up the nerve to suck Gore off. But tragically, “It’s never enough, is it? You always have to grab for more, taking what isn’t yours and in the process losing what is. I wanted a kiss. I wanted him to kiss me. Bloody fool.”
The third story is a love letter written from prison by “David” who tells us, “That isn’t my name. It’s my brother’s name. I don’t know why my own name seemed so inadequate at that moment, or what I was trying to hide. Or who I was trying to become.” David runs away to London as a young man, “I wanted to live in a city big enough to lose myself in, big enough to keep boredom at bay. I wanted to live in the spaces between buildings, to disappear. You can’t really do that, though, because each disappearance is also an appearance,” an allusion to the book’s theme of death and rebirth. He becomes a rent boy indulging in a pharmacopeia of drugs and in every imaginable sex scene. During a porn shoot he meets Jake and begins to fall in love: “When you grabbed my face and kissed the mouth off me, I lost myself in that dissolving of reality that makes you believe that life after all might be worth something, if only it could last.” The two become “fuck buddies” as Jake calls it, “with that ironic tone of yours that I only now realise contained a distance I myself was trying to bridge.” David reflects, “Somehow I knew that, whatever it was that existed between us, it could not be preserved, or could only be preserved if we were to collide with a tree or a truck and be crushed into an instant that could keep this love locked up tight forever, never to go stale.” Jake betrays David to the police.
Kemp masterfully ties together his three stories through the intertwining threads of love and betrayal and the outlaw life of gay sex. Characters undergo a change of name that points to the motif of baptism and rebirth. When Jack auditions as a whore for Taylor, he must suck off Taylor’s “stand that gave off a stink like a latrine…By the time my mouth had reached it, bile had risen and a watery mouthful spilled out onto his cock. I rubbed it in and he sighed. I spat some more and rubbed some more and washed the bugger down in my own spittle before letting it anywhere near my mouth. My ingenuity paid off, for he groaned all the while and I slipped the whole thing into my mouth now that it smelled slightly sweeter, or at least of myself, and the cheesy muck had for the most part been washed clean way.” Similarly, David recounts a client who wants his body scrubbed clean with steel wool. Gore leaves Colin during an icy London rain and Colin is stricken with a fever that racks him to his bones. “The rain had socked down to my bones and floored me. By the third day I felt well enough to go downstairs and make myself a cup of tea.” Resurrected, Colin discovers himself in a line that may have been borrowed from Maurice: “I must paint, paint, paint.”
Kemp dedicates the book to the artist George Cayford and the book’s cover is perfectly illustrated by one of his drawings. Kemp includes an insightful afterword entitled “A Government of Whores,” where he discusses love and sex as major themes of the novel. In contrast to Forster’s evocation of the greenwood as the place of gay sexual freedom, Kemp says that each of his three characters experiences London as liberation, because London is where each finds love and himself by losing it. He writes, “Love is another constant, as is sex. Indeed, the two are the most tightly bound themes of the book.” He writes, “I was attempting to write about gay sex in new ways more in line with writers such as Georges Bataille or Kathy Acker, or Neil Bartlett and Samuel R. Delany, where sex can become an opportunity to explore subjectivity and sometimes language.” Myriad will publish his second book, Twentysix, in November and his second novel, Hannah Rose, in 2012.