Meeting E. M. Forster

By Carole Glasser Langille

The following manuscript was given to me after the death of a relative. I am the executor of the estate. Because it is a firsthand account of E.M. Forster, I have granted publication rights. —Esther Beckworth

“Don’t you think it’s hypocritical to hang around with me?” Vincent said the last time we were together. “Hang — the word means wither, it means die. It’s a sham, pretending there’s still something between us.”

I stared into my beer. “Not this again,” I thought, his words like a hammer striking an old gong.

“You don’t take risks. You’ll always be more interested in protecting yourself.”

When I didn’t, at that moment, protect myself, he said, “Look, I’m going to London to study with a teacher there. You might want a little dalliance where we’re both anonymous. But that’s not what I want. I don’t wish you to follow me.” Then he got up, leaving money on the table for our beer. I picked up a coin that had been in his hand and, still warm, slipped it in my pocket.

I bristled at his accusation. But he was right. I followed him to London.

I didn’t know where he was staying and I hadn’t had luck finding him yet, but wouldn’t he have loved to be in this room where I was now, with these five men, though they were all over sixty, one nearly blind.

We’d come to spend time with the man who lived here, the great writer, E.M. Forster.

Clearly, I had been blessed with good fortune. Mr. Greenwood introduced me to Forster without mentioning that he’d met me in a bar a week before and that he’d offered me a job as his chauffeur, though I hadn’t yet gotten a British driver’s license and petrol was still rationed. He’d asked me to call him Leonard, this dignified man, nearly eighty, dressed in a natty suit.

“Young Gerald writes poetry,” Leonard said to Mr. Forster. “He’s from Boston.”

Mr. Forster shook my hand saying, “Good to meet you,” and then he did not speak another word for the next hour. I was more impressed by this than anything he could have uttered.

I’d admired the writer from the moment I’d read Howard’s End, years ago. It was all I could do not to stare as he drank tea. But I made myself look around at the low chairs upholstered in chintz, the hyacinth in the vase, portraits on the wall, worn Indian rugs in magenta and gold, the other men sitting in the room. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It was l947, and I was 25 years old. I’d come to England to be in a room with men like this. Well, I’d come to find Vincent, but the thought of telling Vincent about such a gathering filled me with pleasure.

The blind man, I learned, was a translator. He sat hunched and alert, as if ready to attend any new sound. Several conversations were going on at once, about biscuits, a book by Bentley, a current play I hadn’t seen, but the translator was talking to Morgan, (everyone called Forster Morgan) about Eliot’s work.

I remember the translator saying, “Tom is fond of you. He says he misses seeing you.”

Morgan said, “I think he wants to have seen me rather than to see me.”

I told myself, remember his words exactly. After a while I gathered my courage and, leaning toward Morgan, asked if he liked Eliot’s poetry.

“Yes,” he said, and then he laughed. “When I first read him I thought he was beyond me. But his poetry is good to read out loud.” He paused. His face was very kind, his skin smooth, not many wrinkles, ruddy; his eyes, pale blue. I was surprised that his tweed jacket was worn and a bit snug. He looked at the tea he had just been drinking, then he looked at me directly and said, “It’s his homage to pain that I find intolerable.”

“But there is pain in life,” Leonard volunteered.

“Why should it be sanctioned and glorified by school masters and priests when so much of it is caused by bullies or by disease?” Morgan asked.

A few moments later he said to me, “Tom and I spoke at a conference, here in London. Afterwards there was a reception and we both sat by the fire. A large group collected around Tom, pressing him with questions and I was pretty much deserted.” He laughed a full laugh that came from his belly. His whole face filled with mirth. “My lack of fame spared me,” he said.

I asked him if he enjoyed giving the reading, my voice ardent as a schoolgirl’s, I realized, and felt my cheeks flush.

“It was the usual conference,” Morgan said, “the smaller writers sidling up to the larger ones and the larger ones sliding away.” I had to laugh when he said, “We praised the usual back numbers, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.”

He shook hands with me when Leonard and I were leaving. “Come by again,” he said and then, as we turned to walk down the steps, I heard the click as he closed the door behind us.

Back in my flat, when I opened the letter that had arrived a few days earlier and that I’d left on the kitchen table, I felt the weight of my situation, but of course the letter offered nothing unusual. May wondered how I was. In her flowery handwriting she asked me to tell her about London. I knew I should answer; she depended upon me. We were to be married when I returned.

She wrote about books she was reading. She read far more than me and remembered everything. I admired her tremendously.

But I was thinking about Vincent and how Vincent was the one I would like to tell about the great writer. Did Mr. Forster actually want me to visit, or was he just being polite. He’d mentioned, during the afternoon, that a young writer had visited him recently. “It was very curious and curiously tiring,” he’d said.

“But fame has its compensations, surely,” Leonard responded.

“At this time in my life people want to know me more than I want to know them,” Morgan had said in a low voice. He was talking to Leonard, but was his comment meant, indirectly, for me?

The next time we visited, a man close to my age was there, Mark Elvin. We joked about being the two young writers in the room. I was too unsophisticated to hide my admiration of Morgan and I think Mark was amused by this idolization. Perhaps he knew what Forster’s reaction would be when he said to him, “Spender says you are the best English novelist of this century.”

“What nonsense,” Morgan grumbled and turned to pour more tea. It was clear that the conversation was over.

Later when I was driving Leonard home he said, “The effect of knowing Forster is that he becomes a supplementary conscience.” I didn’t know Morgan well enough, then, to understand.

After we’d visited Morgan several times, I got up the courage to ask him to play a piece. Without protest, he went to the piano and played the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27 in E minor.

The first piece I’d heard Vincent perform was Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in one of the old churches in Boston. We were planning to drive back to my place afterward. I had gone outside to wait for him after the concert.

“I saw you standing here before I came out. You looked so damn sad,” he said. But I wasn’t sad. I was thrilled to be waiting for him. I did wonder why no one else he knew was there to hear him. “Don’t your parents want to take you out to celebrate?”

No, he said, they were away at their cottage. The rich boy who had everything but his parents’ attention.

I don’t understand music. My mind wanders at concerts. Music seems to rush over rather than through me. But it was heartbreaking listening to Vincent play that piece. It seemed so defiant. “Go,” it said, “and I’ll leave too. Watch me head off.” And then the orchestra rejoined with violins. In that piece, love was sad. Or rather it confessed its hidden sadness.

We went to a pub nearby after he had changed from his tuxedo. He was covered with sweat but didn’t want to wear a coat, though the evening was cold. We ordered something to eat.

“You were marvelous,” I said.

“Beethoven is marvellous.” And then, “Actually, I don’t know why you came tonight. You should be with May.”

Not this again, I groaned to myself.

“What is it you want?” he asked at last. At that moment I simply wanted to sit with him and eat our dinner. His beauty was like the sky at dusk. The blaze of colour was so beautiful yet what one felt most strikingly, looking at it, was loss.

“Beethoven is a great teacher,” Morgan said, snapping me into the present. “And Mahler. I wish I had discovered Mahler earlier. I see beauty going by and I have nothing to catch it in. But music helps.” We were drinking tea and I’d taken rock cake and jam from the sideboard. Morgan was used to my questions by now.

Even his silence made me bolder and I filled it. I told him about my friend Vincent, a pianist who was here studying in London. It embarrasses me to remember what I said next: “There are things I’d like to write but I’m afraid I might offend people.” I said this though I hadn’t saved a single thing I’d written, nor had I written much.

“Well, you can write down something that happened once it hardens into a form which was not the original. Or you can let it melt away.” He didn’t wait for me to respond. “This plum cake is dire,” he said and took another bite.

When I was with Vincent I hated that he paid for everything. Once I suggested we take the subway instead of hailing a taxi. “But I don’t need to take a subway!” he’d sneered. “Why should we both suffer because you’re poor?” It was easy to see him as a lout. But I was the one trying to track him down after he gave me the shove.

I wrote to Marcel, a mutual friend who wouldn’t feel he was betraying Vincent if he gave me his address. But Marcel didn’t know where Vincent was staying either.

“You missed Vincent’s going-away party,” Marcel wrote back. “He came with his new boyfriend and his ex-wife and her husband. The only ones missing were you and May.” New boyfriend? I didn’t realize he worked with such speed. Marcel wrote, “The truth is, I’m sure you’re glad you don’t have to put up with his insanity any longer.” Whose truth was this? Not mine.

I haunted pubs in London I thought Vincent might frequent, but either he did his drinking at home, or he kept different hours than I. There was one pub in Earls Court I visited weekends. One evening a man in a suit came in. His sandy hair fell over his high forehead. Blonde strands glistened with filaments of platinum even in the dark. I liked his square jaw. “A businessman,” I thought, “or a parliamentarian, a conservative.” As thin and tall as he was, there was something solid about him.

He wasn’t a politician, as it turns out, but a young physician. “Wesley”, he said, after he sat down and smiled and I’d asked his name. I’d just finished my first gin when he said, “Let’s leave, shall we?” He wasn’t planning to even skid through preliminaries, simply eliminate them. He got up. I got up. I didn’t want him to walk out the door without me.

“Wait,” he said and looked slowly around the dark, smoky pub. “Okay,” he said, as he touched my shoulder, “I just wanted to see if there was anyone more handsome than you. But there isn’t,” he laughed. As we walked toward the door I reached into my pocket to touch my lucky coin, one of the quarters Vincent had left on the table when he’d paid for our beer.

The next time I was at Morgan’s, when I was about to leave, he told me he had something for me and left the room. When he returned he handed me an envelope. “They’re by a poet I met in Alexandria.” When I opened the envelope at home, I found a sheaf of poems printed on thin vellum. That’s how I first read the great “Ithaka,” by Cavafy.

“As you set out for Ithaka…

don’t hurry the journey…

Better it last for years,…

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The poet had been dead for a quarter of a century, and yet he was whispering in my ear. I copied the poem on scrap, then I went out for a walk through the London streets, cold as the night was, and memorized it. Anyone seeing me would have thought I was intoxicated.

The sky with its patches of grey and mauve clouds was ragged as the Thames River, ragged as the feelings churning inside me. It wasn’t until I got home several hours later, and warmed myself with tea, that I read The Twenty-Fifth Year of His Life, a poem of such despairing desire and love I felt both chilled and fevered as I read it. It was the first poem I’d seen about one man longing for another. His flesh, all of it, suffers unremittingly from desire, the feel of that other body is on his, he wants to be joined with it again. I was astonished.

Cavafy made the ancient world contemporary and the contemporary, ancient. I’d never read anything like it. So, Morgan must know about me. But how? I’d never contacted Morgan before, but after reading the poems I rang him up and asked if I might visit sometime in the next week.

“Cavafy’s astonishing,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. We agreed upon a day I would visit.

Perhaps it was knowing that I would see Morgan the following week that buoyed my spirit. I wrote to Vincent, copying out On the Twenty-fifth Year, and included it. I thought I’d send it to his address in Boston. Surely someone would forward it. But as the light faded, I lost heart. Eventually I put the poem in my desk and ripped up the letter. Vincent would have ripped it up too, I was certain. I put on my jacket, wrapped my scarf around my neck and went out.

One afternoon at Morgan’s, his friend Bob came by with his wife, Mae, and Morgan introduced us. “Mae is the name of your fiancé too, isn’t it?” Morgan asked. Later I learned that Bob had named his son Robert Morgan after Forster.

“When Bob came into my life, things changed for me,” Morgan said later. “I became part of his family. Once that happened I was happy. I would like to remind others that their turn will come. It is the only message worth giving.” I nodded.

“Matrimony offers the great prizes. I can scarcely imagine such happiness as Bob and Mae have had.” Was this how bachelors viewed marriage? I wondered. He said, “You too will soon be married.”

Yes, but I wasn’t married yet. When I left I headed for a pub. There were still buildings being repaired, and rubble in empty lots from the German bombing, and though I rarely noticed my surroundings, whenever I did, I was always surprised.

I ended up in a pub in Covent Garden. No one interested me and I thought I’d leave, when a man sat down beside me. He was at least ten years older than I and had a beard. I don’t like beards. But I ended up going back to his place. He was very funny, actually. He had a scar on his cheek, a white glistening line that made him look rugged and I wondered how he’d gotten that scar. In fact, he wasn’t rugged at all. He was gentle, his touch very kind. I left before it was light and didn’t wake him. I didn’t flatter myself that he’d care.

The first night I’d spent with Vincent, he’d said, “You’re not allowed to break my heart.” His words were prophetic.

The longer I stayed in London, the more it felt like time was running out. What was I doing here, what did I think I would find? When I decided to head home, it was not only because I’d learned Vincent had gone back to Boston. At least I convinced myself that wasn’t the only reason.

Once I decided to leave, I was determined to board a boat in a fortnight. I was anxious to see Morgan again before I left. When I let him know my plans, he arranged for me to come by.

He was so kind to me in that drafty room. He told me how glad he was to have met me. It was then he lent me a manuscript he’d written but was not planning to publish. When he put the manuscript in my hands he said, “I do believe books can show a world greater than our own. They can help us resist fear and hatred.” Then he laughed. “Look,” he said, “I have been so conceited about myself as a novelist that I had better add I am quite sure I am not a great novelist.” He asked me to tell him if I thought the story was dated.

I believe it was a test of our friendship that he gave me one of the few copies he had. I promised I’d return it.

I remember he got up when I was leaving and walked me to the tram. I was wearing a t-shirt that belonged to Vincent and was too small for me. I’d taken it out of his hamper after showering at his place. Clean, I smelled his sweat on me, which made me feel cleaner. I don’t see how anyone could think my being with Vincent was anything but natural and good.

Before we parted Morgan said, “My New Year’s resolution is to enjoy myself more and more in every way.” He said this sadly, as if relating bad news.

I read the manuscript on the ship travelling home and what hit me most strongly, what shocked me really, was the depth of my own loneliness that the words evoked, and the sharp sting of desire I’d felt so intensely and had tried to bury. I was plunged into the chaos of feelings I had for Vincent, feelings that threatened to imprison me. I kept turning the pages and thinking, Ah, here we go again, here we go. How had Forster managed to evoke so much? When I finished, I realized he was doing more than testing me. I thought, Perhaps, by giving me this unpublished book, he is telling me that I can marry and still enjoy the passion I am drawn to. Or is he telling me to be true to myself, and not to marry?

The manuscript, entitled Maurice, depicted a love affair between two men. A few weeks later, when I returned the manuscript to Morgan, I included a letter telling him how much it had meant to me. He wrote back immediately: “I thought, after I’d written Howard’s End, that my real heroism would be to stop writing. But I didn’t.”

Months later, when Mark Elvin was visiting Boston, we met for dinner and spent most of the meal talking about Morgan. Mark told me that Morgan’s fame had not changed his self doubt. After his initial success, these are the words Morgan used describe himself: famous, wealthy, miserable, ugly.

“Once Morgan gets to know you, he is remarkably open,” Mark said. He’d spoken to Mark about an early love affair he’d had in his thirties. Living with his mother, his social life had been furtive. But in Alexandria he met a young man Mohammed, who took tickets on a train. He was handsome and not inhibited. Morgan wrote to his friends about love that was flourishing at last in middle age. He was determined that his life should contain at least one success.

And then he told Mark, “I concealed from myself and others that Mohammed was frequently cold toward me and his occasional warmth may well have been due to politeness, gratitude or pity.”

After reading Maurice, I felt less alone, even as it forced me to own up to my loneliness. Perhaps that was why Morgan gave it to me. Knowing him has been one of the great gifts of my life. Mark Elvin told me that Morgan said to him, at one of their last dinners together, “I do not take the hour of my death too seriously. It may scare, it may hurt, it probably ends the individual but in comparison to the hours when a man is alive, the hour of death is almost negligible.”

The pages printed above were written by my father, Gerald, and given to me as the Executor of his estate upon his death in 2001. My mother May predeceased him by eight years. The last lines of my father’s notes were: “Morgan said to me once that there is no enemy but cruelty. I have asked myself if I was cruel to people in my life. Of course, I have been. Most grievously, I lied to my wife about what was most essential. But I have tried to see my way clear. And make amends.”

separatorCarole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poems and a collection of short stories, When I Always Wanted Something. Her most recent book, Church of the Exqusite Panic: The Ophelia Poems, was nominated for The Atlantic Poetry Prize. She teaches Creative Writing at Dalhousie University.