Book Review: The Life to Come by E.M. Forster (with rant)


I first read this collection of short stories by E.M. Forster back in high school. It was what amounted to my third date with Forster. The first, which I have written about more than once, was seeing the fantastic Merchant-Ivory adaptation of A Room With a View on the big screen. Until then I had no idea who E.M. Forster was.

Not too long after that, my second date with Forster came about after Time magazine printed an article about how Merchant-Ivory was turning Forster’s gay-themed novel Maurice into a film. The possibility that there was going to be a gay Room with a View was more than I could handle. When I went to work that afternoon at the local public library I was surprised to see that we actually had a copy of Maurice on the shelf. Published just 15 or so years earlier I was certainly one of the few to check it out. I think if I hadn’t have worked at the library I would have been too afraid to check out this “gay” book despite the fact that there was nothing about its outward appearance that would have given it away.  I took it home that night and read the whole thing cover-to-cover, finishing sometime after 3:00 am. I had to get up for school in the morning, but it was worth it.

My third date with Forster was maybe a year or so after the second. I came across a newly reprinted edition of The Life to Come. With gay culture still too closeted and still too hard to come  by, I was thrilled that many of the stories in this collection had gay themes. At the time there were more than a few of the stories that I didn’t quite understand. Not because they had some gay theme that was too adult for my 17-year old brain, but because some of the stories are redolent of abstraction and symbolism that is so often the case with short fiction. You know, those oblique moments when you aren’t quite sure what just happened no matter how many times you go back and read it. Somewhat surprising to me is that all these years later and some of those same passages still confuse me. Although perhaps not as much as they did back then. And what it really amounts to, I think, is that I just don’t like uncertainty and prefer authors to make things really clear so I don’t have to obsess over whether or not I understand what is going on. (Not hard to imagine why most poetry is lost on me.)

Having said all of that, there are some real gems of stories in this collection. And  most of them explore in one way or another Forster’s fascination with breaking down, at least in fiction, class barriers and social mores that are damaging to the human heart. In so many cases I think that class stands in for sexuality in Forster’s fiction. In Maurice and in many of the stories in The Life to Come sexuality can actually stand on its own and be considered for what it is.

Requiescat  in pace: Tyler Clementi

It tears me apart that 23 years after I found solace in Forster’s posthumously published gay fiction, while so very much has changed, there is still a climate of sheer terror and helplessness for so many young gay kids. What a sin that Forster had to live a lie and wait to be dead to publish some of his work. And what an even greater sin that in September 2010 we see the tragic deaths in the US of 3 thirteen-year olds and an eighteen-year old who had been bullied for being (or just seeming) gay to the point where they took their own lives. In the case of 18-year old Tyler Clementi his college dorm roommate used a webcam to spy on him and post on the Internet a live stream of Tyler kissing another man in his own dorm room. As a result of being outed in this way Tyler threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

I think gay suicides, especially among the young, have always been undercounted and that this recent rash of suicides may be more indicative of increased awareness than an uptick in actual suicide rates. I do think, however, when you have large chunks of the population wearing their hate and intolerance of gays as a badge of honor, it is not difficult to understand why some of these kids are driven to such despair.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Life to Come by E.M. Forster (with rant)

  1. ArchitectDesign™ October 1, 2010 / 3:12 pm

    Ditto to your rant. I agree with you that gay related suicides have always been very under ranked but hopefully these newly publicized and hyped events (and Ellen's help) will maybe prevent some in the future. Progress is coming much too slowly.


  2. Kathleen October 1, 2010 / 4:55 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I hope people wake up and finally realize that we have to do something to stop people from thinking it is okay to bully people for being who they are. I'm sure all of these young people would have had much to offer had they not felt so much despair that they didn't want to live any longer. Schools need to crack down on anything that looks like bullying. It starts in elementary school and now we see it even haunts young people when they go to college, a time when they should feel free to be who they are.


  3. picky girl October 1, 2010 / 6:44 pm

    Rant any time. I teach college and have been so impressed by how open and accepting my students are that I tend to forget there are still these types out there.

    It sickens me. I watched Ellen's video and feel much the same way. When my brother came out, that was the reason I was so upset. I love him so much and never wanted him to go through that sort of thing.

    AD is right – change is coming much too slowly.


  4. Amanda October 2, 2010 / 7:54 am

    Why must people be so hateful?! It saddens me that so many people are so ignorant and hateful and have no respect for the feelings of others.

    Hope — even in the fifth grade — has had trouble with homophobic kids. Hope has been raised by a dozen “aunties” who are all lesbian (courtesy of my going to a women's university) and she sees nothing wrong with people loving each other. She asks why kids don't like “gays” or why someone was teased for liking someone of the same sex. She sees this love as perfectly normal and cannot fathom why anyone would think differently.

    I can only pray that there will be change, and soon.


  5. R Elliott October 2, 2010 / 12:28 pm

    School sucks and it's really hard to know how to make kids feel better about being gay. I'm a teacher who's out at school and the last thing that gay kids want is for me to start some sort of club or society. Instead, they seem to gravitate toward certain activities and look for friendly faces. They need to be tough and they often need to not come out until they've left. And I write this from one of the most liberal countries in the world, The Netherlands.
    It seems shocking that almost 25 years after I came out, things haven't moved on that much in schools. Instead, we seem to glorify criminals and bad boys who rap out their homophobia, like you say, as a badge of honour.


  6. makedoandread October 2, 2010 / 12:45 pm

    I don't think of myself as a vengeful person, but I really hope the two who filmed him are charged with hate crimes. I can't stop thinking of that poor boy and his family.

    Thank you for the link to Ellen's video, I hadn't seen that yet. I hope more people will.


  7. Frances October 3, 2010 / 10:16 am

    Sad beyond description. Unfortunately this is something I see all the time at school too even among children as young as second and third grade. Working in a mostly African American community, it is especially sad to see the scale of the stigma of being gay that still exists among adults and children alike.


  8. Darlene October 4, 2010 / 8:09 am

    The loss of these beautiful kids through such hatred, ignorance and cruelty is tragic and shameful.

    There needs to be a whole lot more conversation going on around dinnertables about acceptance and equality for all.


  9. Thomas at My Porch October 4, 2010 / 10:39 am

    Stefan: It is odd how somethings like gay marriage have leapt forward in recent years and others like kids being bullied for being gay has shockingly not changed at all.

    Kathleen: I know I underachieved in High School in terms of extra curricular activities because I didn't want to be in public situations where my family might see me picked on.

    Pickey Girl: For me college was definitely a great time. Despite a roommate moving out because I was gay I was amazed at how open I could be–and that was in 1987. It took me a while to get used to the fact that there were straight guys who actually didn't mind me being gay.

    Amanda: Kids have a huge capacity for acceptance and tolerance. But they do tend to mimic what they hear at home.

    R Elliott: Sometimes I look at gay youth and think “Act less gay, things will be much easier…”. Which is terrible but true. Then again I am not sure it would really help, the bullies are really good at finding weak spots.

    Make Do and Read: I can't help but think that that two who put it on the web were more stupid than malicious. I am not sure how I feel about them.

    Frances: It is also amazing that with the entrenched homophobia there are so many more openly supportive straights. It just takes a lot to cancel out the bullies.

    Darlene: I wonder how many parents of gay kids would get over their shame and their own homophobia and their fear that their kid might be gay if they thought about these most tragic outcomes. How many parents would prefer their child dead? Probably not many so they should get over their issues and support their kids.


  10. Margaret Evans Porter October 4, 2010 / 5:28 pm

    Yes and yes and yes.
    This recent tragedy–like you I can imagine so many more similar suicides that don't surface in the media–resurrected all the anguish I felt when Matthew Shepard was murdered.

    How can one possible convince teenagers that “It gets better” and death is no answer, when for some, depending on their geography, upbringing, environment, etc. the future appears to be a long vista of being misunderstood and maligned?

    So many I know have re-posted Ellen's remarks. I pray that it helps.


  11. Care October 5, 2010 / 4:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this.


  12. Jodie October 7, 2010 / 11:58 am

    I think the It Gets Better channel is one of the best practical enterprises to help stop suicide that I've ever seen. It goes above the truth that your family will be hurt to really deal with how suicide might affect the person who is considering it. And the fact that they put it on youtube shows a real understanding of how teens find things. This is a lovely post that I guess we all wish could have just stopped at the story about your reading of EM Forster, but the world, you know…

    On a bookish note did you know there's a new bio of Forster out in paperback soon? Very exciting.


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