Literary Crush – Maurice by E M Forster

E M Forster

Publishable – but worth it?

‘Publishable – but worth it?’ are the words of E M Forster, inscribed on the cover of the typescript of his novel, Maurice.1

 

Completed in 1914, Maurice depicts the turmoil of middle-class Englishman, Maurice Hall, who falls in love with another man at a time (1912) when to do so risked everything. “I’m an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.”2

Maurice was one of the first gay books I read. And at seventeen, with no language to express my longing, to find the words that spoke of it meant everything to me. Maurice Hall’s turmoil was my turmoil, his fear of discovery my fear, his internal questioning my questioning, and, above all, his wish for ‘a friend’ my own heartfelt desire:-

“The second dream is more difficult to convey. Nothing happened. He scarcely saw a face, scarcely heard a voice say, ‘That is your friend’, and then it was over, having filled him with beauty and taught him tenderness. He could die for such a friend, he would allow such a friend to die for him; they would make any sacrifice for each other, and count the world nothing, neither death nor distance nor crossness could part them, because ‘this is my friend’.”3

Okay, so it’s a little intense, but that intensity reached out, especially to a teenager who thought no one else was gay. It made no difference to me that the characters were men, what mattered to me was that Forster was describing an emotional, and importantly, physical love between two people of the same sex. Love is genderless after all. The feelings we express transcend everything.

So the thought that Forster questioned the merit of publishing Maurice fills with me horror. It was eventually published in 1971, after Forster’s death, as he’d requested. But by 1960, Forster worried whether Maurice had become dated,4 its sentiments out of touch with the, arguably, progressive modern world.

I want so much to tell him, ‘Mr Forster, never doubt the continued resonance and importance of Maurice, never question whether it should have been published. Please understand how much it has meant to so many and that many more are still waiting for the ‘Happier Year’ you dedicated Maurice to.’

After all, what would happen if those who wrote LGBT literature began to question whether they should publish their work, whether there was a market, whether there was a need? What if there were no LGBT books? Would we just accept it, as we do with so many things we know in our hearts we should challenge?

Or, would we be brave and write what’s in our hearts, despite everything and everyone, claim our sexuality, underpin our identity, and gather at book festivals, shoulder to shoulder with those who share our passion to celebrate the diverse nature of our LGBT world?

You bet we would. I look forward to meeting you at the Bold Strokes Books UK book festival in June.5

Oh and Mr Forster, when I stand and look out at the audience who’ve travelled from all over I’ll be thinking of you, my heart full of pride at how ‘worth it’, it all is.

E M Forster (1 January 1879 – 7 June 1970)

  1. p10, Introduction, by P N Furbank, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  2. p139, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  3. p26, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  4. p221, Terminal note, Maurice, by E M Forster, 1972, 20, edition, Penguin Books
  5. https://boldstrokesauthorfestuk.wordpress.com

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

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Literary Crush – Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

A very peculiar thing happens to me when I discover an author I come to cherish – I feel a momentary sense of panic at the thought that I might never have discovered their work in the first place. I fleetingly imagine my life without their words and feel an odd sense of loss. This is how I feel about Elizabeth Bishop – panicked at the thought of my life without her.

Alarmingly, it was only by chance that I discovered her work when I came across the film Reaching for the Moon, a biopic of Bishop’s life in Brazil with her lover Maria Carlota Costallat de Macedo Soares (Lota). I remember hoping that the film would be well acted and well made. It was.

And then I heard ‘it’, her voice, revealed in the opening stanza of Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, spoken in the background of a scene in the film,

‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’1

It may have been the actresses’ voice that spoke the words but it wasn’t her voice that I heard – it was the voice of the poem – it was the voice of Elizabeth Bishop.

I could hear it immediately – warm, yet clipped, controlled, measured.  And that’s how I know when I like a writer, when I hear them, when I feel them, when their words affect me.

Shortly after the film, I feverishly hunted down second hand copies of her work online and was thrilled days later when the demure brown cardboard packages started to arrive.

I thumbed through line after line of her poetry, pausing reverently at the closing stanza of ‘One Art’, absorbed in the beauty of its understated expression of personal loss.

‘-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’1

‘One Art’ is everything I love about writing – clear and unfussy, yet clever, skilful, and moving.

Clear and unfussy writing, however, is not achieved without great effort. Bishop was a perfectionist and I imagine the edge of her hand stained with ink as she drafted and re-drafted each word.

I was particularly intrigued by one book, which arrived late on my doorstep, ‘Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker – the complete correspondence’. It had ‘San Diego County Library’ stamped on its flyleaf, and I wondered why the library had given it away or indeed whether it had been furtively slipped under a jumper, a thought that lent my purchase an illicit allure.

Not that I needed any alluring, as I plunged further, chest deep into Bishop’s world, exploring more of her poetry, her short stories, and her prose recollections.

The deftness of her descriptions of people and places drew me in. At the turn of a page, I was privy to the intimacies of her friendships with artists, poets, and editors, or I would travel with her imagination to distant places I had never been, fixated on the extraordinary detail of the everyday world she carefully depicted.

In the short story, The Village, I found myself standing in a country lane in Nova Scotia, and for a moment, I am transfixed by a cow doing what a cow does naturally…

‘Nelly, oblivious, makes cow flops. Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack.
It is fascinating. I cannot take my eyes off her. Then I step around them: fine dark-green and lacy and watery at the edges.’2

It seems to me, heady with reading, that no detail is too small or unimportant for Bishop and moreover, no emotion is too big or too real for words. The right words, mind, expressed with the utmost care.

As I reluctantly put her work aside, I turn back, glance at the reassuring stack of her books, just to check that she is still there.

Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bishop

  1. One Art, p.40-41, Geography III, by Elizabeth Bishop, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2008.
  2. In the Village, p. 263, Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Prose, The Hogarth Press, London, 1984.

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Literary Crush – Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

Annie on My Mind

Let’s begin, where I began, in the UK in the 1980’s, as a geeky teenager, standing awkwardly at the reception desk of my local library. I had secretively ordered a copy of the lesbian romance novel, Annie on My Mind, through inter-library loan. To this day I cannot decide whether it was indigestion or disgust betrayed on the librarian’s face, as she reluctantly handed the book over to me.

For this was, of course, the 1980’s – where brave campaigning for gay rights took place in a climate of fear. The terrible outbreak of AIDS cast a stigmatising, uncertain shadow, and there was something decidedly sinister about the passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools. If this wasn’t enough, if you were gay you were considered to be ill (it was not until 1993 that the Government removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders in England and Wales). This notion was underlined in the few visible gay films and literature, where, more often than not, the tormented gay characters met an unfortunate end.

It is to the immense credit of the teenage magazine Mizz, therefore, that amidst all this hostility, it published a thoughtful, positive article titled ‘Homosexuality’, which recommended Annie on My Mind to its teenage readers. I cannot remember how many times I must have read that article; suffice to say there was more ink on my thumbs than on the page. I was simply enthralled that someone had written about ‘me’ and even more amazed that there was a novel with characters like me I could ‘meet’.

So, I’m back from the library, having, in retrospect, engaged in my first act of LGBT defiance, although it felt nothing like defiant as I read Annie on My Mind, anxiously, under the cover of my duvet. Because that’s how I felt, like I should be ashamed, as if my curious, questioning thoughts, and imaginings about my sexuality must remain hidden, unspoken, suppressed.

But there, under torch light, with each turned page, my feelings were revealed, spoken, my desires expressed in the words and emotions of two teenagers Liza Winthrop and Annie Kenyon.

Set in 1980’s New York, Liza and Annie are the heroines of Annie on My Mind, falling in love, bravely facing ignorance and prejudice, and imagining a future together. I breathlessly followed every word, every scene recollected through Liza’s eyes.

What made Annie on My Mind so special was that author Nancy Garden refused to let her two heroines struggle alone. They received the support of friends and family, and moreover the affirmation of positive role models in the form of two lesbian teachers, Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer. Despite enduring false claims and dismissal, the teachers remained unbroken and defiant. The message to readers was clear and summed up poignantly in the rallying words, “Don’t let ignorance win,” said Ms. Stevenson. “Let love.” 1

Nancy Garden was determined that young gay people should have access to a narrative of teenage gay love with a positive message, and a happy ending.  In a 2007 interview with Kathleen Horning, of the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre, University of Wisconsin, Nancy stated that the motivation to write Annie on My Mind came from, “my desire to tell the truth about gay people – that we’re not sick or evil; that we can and do fall in love and lead happy, healthy, productive lives.” 2

It is Nancy Garden’s rich and heartfelt characters, and her message of love, that I treasure and remember now, and always.

You dedicated Annie on My Mind “For all of us”, but this “Thank you” is for you, Nancy Garden, from the bottom of my heart.

Nancy Garden (May 15, 1938 – June 23, 2014)

http://www.nancygarden.com

  1. p232, Annie on My Mind, 2007 Edition, FSG
  2. p247, A Conversation with Nancy Garden, interview with Kathleen Horning, Annie on My Mind, 2007 Edition, FSG

 

© 2016 All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.