Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Woolf on Forster

A relatively recent re-reading of Howard's End, followed by Damon Galgut's fictional imagining of E. M. Forster's life, Arctic Summer, has left me with Forster on the brain lately. So I was pleased to encounter this brief sketch of Forster in Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, from Woolf's diary for 1919:
Morgan is easily drowned. . . . He is an unworldly, transparent character, whimsical and detached, caring very little I should think what people say, & with a clear idea of what he wishes. I dont think he wishes to shine in intellectual society; certainly not in fashionable. He is fantastic & very sensitive; an attractive character to me, though from his very qualities it takes as long to know him as it used to take to put one's gallipot over a humming bird moth. More truly, he resembles a vaguely rambling butterfly; since there is no intensity or rapidity about him. To dominate the talk would be odious to him.
As Lee puts it, "His tentativeness made her tentative," though that wouldn't keep them from developing a genuine, if at times strained, appreciation for each other's work.

The tentativeness Woolf describes dominates the portrait of Forster that emerges from Damon Galgut's novel, and it's easy to understand, given Forster's situation as a closeted gay man bound to a difficult mother. The novel is much more about the life, and the man, than the work, though Galgut does a far from poor job at the difficult work of uniting them, and the fiction's focus on the difficulties, and necessity, of connection becomes all the more poignant when seen in a context where so much can't be said, or acknowledged. That enforced silence reaches its painful climax when Forster's Egyptian lover dies, and Forster can do little but record the event in his diary.

That moment, and its pain, came to mind when, flipping through Forster's biography of his aunt, Marianne Thornton, I hit upon this passage:
Anyone who has waited in vain for a beloved person will understand what she felt. A wound has been inflicted which no subsequent reunion quite heals. The insecurity against which we all struggle has taken charge of us for a moment--for the moment that is eternity. The moment passes, and perhaps the beloved face is seen after all and the form embraced, but the watcher has become aware of the grave.
Only connect, because while all connections will be severed someday, their strength is the bulwark that keeps that knowledge in check, keeps our unknown yet inescapable fate from overwhelming our very existence.

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