Literary Daybook, June 4

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published June 4, 2002 8:00AM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 4, 1832, Father M. Mabeuf sells his last book for 100 francs to buy medicine.
-- "Les Misérables"
by Victor Hugo

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1924, E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" was published. It was a commercial and critical success, and it would confirm Forster's status as one of the 20th century's most important writers, but it was his last novel. Various reasons are given to explain why, at just 45 years of age, and with another 45 to go, Forster made what appears to be an intentional decision to give up novel writing. Forster's comments that he felt bored by the genre, or felt it to require "a certain amount of stability" that the modern world did not provide, are often interpreted as evidence of old-fogeyism, or of a man friendly to Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury but aware of his limitations. Just after finishing "A Passage to India," Forster told a friend that he planned to "never write another novel" because "my patience with ordinary people has given out"; to another, he admitted his "weariness of the only subject I can and may treat." Interpreting "ordinary people" and "only subject" to mean "straight," some conclude that Forster stopped writing novels because he couldn't voice his own homosexual reality. His only such book, the autobiographical "Maurice," was published posthumously.

Forster continued to write short stories, biography and essays, and in his last decades was highly respected as a man of letters, a stylist and a voice of reason and compassion -- in PEN and the Civil Liberties Union, and as a witness for the defense in the "Lady Chatterley's Lover" trial. He turned down a knighthood, though not an Order of Merit; thus, says one biographer, he stayed true to that class of Cambridge men who "only accepted honours which came after their name."

This would be in contrast to Sir Vidia Naipaul (B.A., Oxford), who found an opportunity in a 2001 interview to trash both Forster and "A Passage to India." The man was a "nasty homosexual" whose knowledge of India was limited to "the court, and a few middle-class Indians, and the garden boys he wished to seduce." The novel was "utter rubbish," especially those passages that made a "pretence of poetry" out of India's three religions. Thus, poor Mrs. Moore, and generations of readers, unnerved for nothing by the empty enigma of the ou-boum in the Marabar Caves:

"The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush and smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur 'Pathos, piety, courage-they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.' If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same -- 'ou-boum.'"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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