21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 17

Old and gay

J. I. M. Stewart

The Life to Come and Other Stories E. M. Forster edited by Oliver Stallybrass (Arnold £2.50) This volume opens with five early stories of only minor interest. In ' Ansell ' a young man arrives at a cousin's country house with a box full of books and notes which will enable him to write a fellowship dissertation on the GreeLk optative. But the box falls into a river; its contents are carried away and lost; as a result the budding scholar is lured by Ansell (formerly the garden boy, now almost the gamekeeper) into shooting, pony-riding, bathing, and similar rural pursuits. This story is as innocent as Bevis. In Albergo Empedocle ' we are with the English in Italy. A girl called Mildred is engaged to a young man called Harold, and when Harold thinks "how marvellously cold would be the pale blue pools along the rocks" Mildred endeavours to "recall him to higher pleasures by reading out of her Baedeker." Upon such familiar matter the familiar preternatural breaks in. Harold (who is quite unimaginative) discovers in a dream that he has been here before — a citizen of Acragas, in fact, in classical time. Mildred, who is dead silly, at first goes along with this, but later agrees with everybody else that Harold is mad. And Harold (with characteristic Forsterian over-kill) is committed to an asylum. This, too, is an innocent tale, although Mr Oliver Stallybrass (who is playing himself in very promisingly as editor of the Abinger Forster in some twenty volumes) helpfully tells us that the "two fallen columns" between which Harold drops to sleep "are clearly the legs of a gigantic male figure, one of a series of Atlantes," which may be inspected at Girgenti today.

Skipping an ineffective ghost story and two inconsiderable anecdotes, we thus arrive at the much heralded 'sexy ' or ' indecent' part of the collection. (These are Forster's terms.) There are eight 'tales: four facetious and four serious. With one exception, they date from after A Passage to India, and are thus by a very mature writer. Indeed, if 'The Torque' was close to 1958 it represents a more than Yeatsian determination to be old and gay. Marcian, a young provincial Roman of the early Christian era, is raped — during a kind of rugger scrum and more or less in mistake for his tiresomely pious sister Perpetua — by a Goth called Euric. The experience does him good. He has a marvellous dream in which he retaliates upon his ravisher in kind; and when Perpetua and the local basilica are happily destroyed by a thunderbolt he takes energetic and joyous charge of the family affairs, arranges a comfortable and amusing old age for his parents, and in due time takes the virginities of his adoring younger sisters. He never sees Euric again, but gives the name to his favourite mare, whose stable he shares on dark nights. This is quite a funny extravaganza, and so is 'What Does It Matter?' — a Ruritanian fable teaching that we ought not to make heavy weather of out-of-the-way sexual behaviour.

Less agreeable is 'The Obelisk,' in which a bored lower-middle class couple on holiday meet two sailors by whom they are respectively and simultaneously seduced, each unbeknown to the other. The husband and wife are given a competent wash of authentic Forster comedy, but the sailors are pasteboard — which may be why the blurb likens this rather squalid story to " one of those comic picturepostcards that so delighted George Orwell." Finally, here, there is 'The Classical Annex,' in which an early Forster theme — the irruption of ancient myth or magic into a stuffy modern world — is given a 'sexy' twist. Just as in 'Other Kingdom' Miss Beaumont is metamorphosed into a beech-tree, so the son of the curator of the municipal museum at Bigglesworth is turned to stone while mysteriously in the embrace of a worthless late-Roman statue of an athlete. In after years the resulting group is known as The Wrestling Lesson.

'The Classical Annex' is a perfunctory and uninteresting affair, and it was written long after Forster had, it seems, begun to suspect that his 'indecent writings' clogged him artistically, were written not to express himself but to excite himself, were thus positively dangerous to his career as a novelist, and had therefore better be shoved in the fire. But he does not, so far as the present editorial record goes, appear to have expressed such doubts about the ' serious ' homosexual stories. If he had faith in these latter he was, I think, right. None of the four is any more of an unqualified success than Maurice is. But all are moving and impressive attempts at an enlarged artistic integrity; at standing up, in fact, to be counted.

Unlike Maurice, all four end in tragedy. In 'Arthur Snatchfold ' a cold bisexual hedonistic seduces and thrusts money upon a young milkman; his "clever manoeuvres for a little fun" result in the lad's being sent to jail while he himself— thanks to the lad's loyalty — goes undetected; he is very far from being left without a sense of guilt. In each of the other three stories delight has a more violent end. The Life to Come' tells of a young missionary who succumbs to mistaken notions of the injunction 'Come to Christ' on the part of a handsome native chief; upon this a long nightmare of hypocrisy succeeds; the story ends with murder and suicide in the moment of something like a renewed embrace. 'The Other Boat' has an almost identical conclusion; its setting is a double cabin on a P & 0 liner; the two men are a Turton or Burton-like Englishman and a Eurasian youth rendered rather in the idiom of Dr Aziz in A Passage to India. 'Dr Woolacott ' is the strangest of these stories — confused, incoherent, uncertainly dream-like, and with too much of the old magical trimmings. But Forster described it as having been written, along with 'The Life to Come,' "more from my heart than anything else that I have been able to turn out," and T. E. Lawrence was to describe it as the most powerful thing he had ever read. Very powerful it certainly is.

All these stories exhibit, as does Maurice, Forster's having the greatest difficulty in realising the figure of the spontaneous young lover who emerges out of the greenwood. It is significant that, with the exception of the milkman (who is only lightly sketched) these lovers come from a racially remote or socially nebulous world. Mr Stallybrass quotes from a memorandum of 1935: "I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him." But, in Forster's fiction at least, this young man remains a shade.