- Forster & Poland
Asked to contribute to a Festschrift for T. S. Eliot's seventieth birthday, E. M. Forster declined on the grounds that he was "not sufficiently in sympathy with his outlook." One would be justified in thinking this true of yoking Forster and Poland, a country known to be aggressively homophobic and composed of ardent believers. Readers may understandably be curious, then, in this collection of eight essays by Polish scholars dedicated to exploring a writer who was homosexual and famously at odds with the very notion of "belief." More surprising still is that two of the essays deal with the writer's sexual interests.
The papers emerge from a conference held in Warsaw to mark the fortieth anniversary of Forster's death, one convened, in part, to discover what Polish "aspects" the writer might possess. The editor's genially phrased postscript admits defeat on that point: true, Forster spent some months in Pomerania (then German, now Polish) in 1905 as English tutor to the children of the Countess von Arnim (née Mary Annette Beauchamp); true, he visited Poland in 1932 and was, once back in England, eagerly pursued by a Mrs. Helena Myslakowska, a widow who saw in him a potential second husband. Apart from his visit to the country, he was largely indifferent to its literature and culture, a favor Poland has up to now mainly returned, a handful of translations [End Page 522] apart. (One of the most valuable contributions of this collection is a complete list of these, with translators, publishing houses, and dates.)
The collection attempts to bridge a gap, viewing Forster's oeuvre from several up-to-date critical angles—gender studies, race and nation, mapping and metacriticism—as well as more traditional ones, including translation studies. Aside from a careful analysis of stagings of Billy Budd, the emphasis falls overwhelmingly on Forster as a writer of fiction, leaving large parts of his achievement and activity for further analysis and commentary.
Two essays serve to highlight somewhat neglected "aspects"—perhaps an inevitably overused word in Forster studies thanks to Aspects of the Novel—of the writer. Piotr Urbanski's essay on productions of Billy Budd in 1968 and 1988 interestingly opens up the collection to consider the nature of operatic collaboration and the transmission of "Forster" outside the confines of print, and serves to emphasize the diversity of his interests and work after he publicly abandoned the writing of fiction. Heiko Zimmerman's paper, relaxed and almost conversational in tone, argues for the writer's relevance in the contemporary university classroom, arguing that a study of the novels provides an occasion to discuss various preoccupations of the moment. This presentist approach, common enough these days, determinedly leaves aesthetic issues aside, with the writing valued for what it says (or does not say) about "us" and our concerns.
Although some of its finer points are inevitably reserved for native speakers of Polish, Krzysztof Kramarz's essay on two translations of A Room with a View deftly shows how Forster's subtle, nuanced prose and comic sense raise special problems for translators. He demonstrates that Halina Najder's version of 2003 is considerably more successful and accurate than an earlier translation (1992) by Agnieszka Majchrzak. The editor's own essay—"E. M. Forster's Geography of Homosexual Desire"—traverses mostly familiar terrain in emphasizing the centrality of Mediterranean culture as an influence on Forster's outlook and fiction. The theme here is that Forster's personal contacts with Italy and Greece (as well as his academic knowledge of their past) assisted in the discovery of his sexual identify, one reconfirmed during his period in Alexandria by his love affair with Mohammed El Adl. Not especially adventurous or new, the essay—for Poles, perhaps—boldly goes into a subject to which they are typically thought to be hostile.
Tomasz Dobrogoszcz's essay on Homi Bhabha's response to A Passage to India, critically more ambitious, lacks clarity of aim. Summarizing [End Page 523] the arguments of Bhabha and other postcolonial theorists...