School stories

A repost of books read for the “school stories” theme.

Maurice, by E.M. Forster: Maurice draws a portrait of the eponymous protagonist, in the process of self-realization of his homosexuality while struggling with the taboos and social restrictions of his time. I’ve read Forster’s A Room With a View and Howards End a while ago, and somehow I felt the prose style in Maurice was rather different from what I remembered of Forster. (Or perhaps my memory’s just foggy?) Maurice is almost deceptively straightforward; the novel almost has the quality of a psychological case study, albeit with a more sympathetic touch.

In the beginning, Maurice is very much unaware of his desires, which express themselves confusedly in dreams and the usual cruelties among boys at public school. He only begins to “awaken” when he arrives at Cambridge and meets Clive, who is more self-aware but also conflicted about his sexuality in a way that Maurice, for all his obtuseness, is not. Clive tries to channel his attraction to Maurice into a sort of transcendent Platonic relationship, in what he interprets as the ancient Greek fashion, without allowing any physical consummation. Maurice easily follows Clive’s lead at first, but Clive abruptly decides after a trip to Greece that he no longer has any homosexual feelings and loves only women.

I found this part of the story to be the most bewildering and difficult to interpret. I was under the impression that most people who identify as gay or lesbian speak of their sexuality as something that they’re born with, something that they can’t just change or will away simply by wanting to. So is Clive simply going back into the closet? Or was his flirtation with “the Greek vice” merely an adolescent phase, the result of over-romanticizing classical times? How do you suddenly wake up one day and realize that your sexual identity has changed?

It’s interesting though how Clive and Maurice’s relationship starts in Cambridge and ends after they leave: the university as this highly artificial environment where Maurice comes to know himself but is unable to find fulfillment. It is only when he moves on from Cambridge and from Clive that he starts being an individual. At first he tries to ignore his desires, then tries to “cure” himself by consulting a doctor and even a hypnotist. But in the end, he does finally end up becoming sexually involved with Alec—Clive’s gameskeeper and a social inferior—and despite Maurice’s ambivalent reaction, one gets the sense that he has stopped trying to deny himself.

The ending felt a little abrupt—what happens to Maurice and Alec?—and there were quite a few unresolved issues left. Maurice and Alec are no ideal couple, and though their attraction seems much more tangible, they don’t seem to communicate any better than Maurice and Clive had. Forster wrote a terminal note, which made me wonder if the novel is unresolved because the larger social issue was unresolved at the time.

The Invention of Love, by Tom Stoppard: The play is set at the death of A.E. Housman, known for being a classical scholar as well as poet. As he crosses the Styx, ferried along by Charon, he sees moments from his life as a student at Oxford, where he met Moses Jackson, for whom he developed a lifelong unrequited love. Housman was also the contemporary of Oscar Wilde, whose shadow slips in and out of the play before making one appearance at the end to converse with Housman’s younger self.

I loved reading the play: Housman’s obvious passion for the classics delighted me, and I enjoyed the neurotic squabble of the academics who are his professors and colleagues. I really regret not being able to see an actual performance though, and I think I would have had a better appreciation for the play if I knew more about Housman himself (e.g. if I had read his famous cycle of poems, A Shropshire Lad). I got the sense that Stoppard quoted extensively, though I could only really note the quotes he attributed, and I think I would have a better understanding of the play’s structure and direction if I knew the references.

Stoppard’s language is delightful. There’s a particularly funny dialogue among Oxford academics, which incidentally makes for nice commentary on education and the purpose thereof:

Pattison: The modern university exists by consent of the world outside. We must send out men fitted for that world. What better example can we show them than classical antiquity? Nowhere was the ideal of morality, art and social order realized more harmoniously than in Greece in the age of the great philosophers.

Ruskin: Buggery apart.

Jowett: Buggery apart.

Pater: Actually, Italy in the late-fifteenth century…Nowhere was the ideal of art, morality and social order realized more harmoniously, morality and social order apart.

Ruskin: The Medieval Gothic! The Medieval Gothic cathedrals which were the great engines of art, morality and social order!

Pattison (at croquet): Check. Play the advantage.

Pater: I have been touched by the medieval but its moment has passed, and now I wouldn’t return the compliment with a barge-pole. As for arts-and-crafts, it is very well for the people; without it, Liberty’s would be at risk, in fact it would be closed, but the true Aesthetic spirit goes back to Florence, Venice, Rome—Japanese apart. One sees it plain in Michelangelo’s David—legs apart. The blue of my very necktie declares we are still living in that revolution whereby man regained possession of his nature and produced the Italian Tumescence.

There’s something particularly poignant about Housman’s love for Jackson. As in Maurice, Oxford becomes the place where Housman first discovers love but is unable to realize it; unlike Maurice, he returns to the academic world, keeping his passion suppressed by burying himself in classical scholarship. A lifetime spent loving one person without hope of ever being loved in return, and the way Housman preserves his love by remaining in the timeless cloister of academia appeal to my romantic sensibilities I suppose.