I Killed EM Forster: Author Confesses

This article was written by author Noel Purdon (noel.purdon@flinders.edu.au)and recalls an experience he had with EM Forster towards the end of his life through asking Forster to read his first novel. The article, along with others by the same author, appears at wordarchive.com. Noel Purdon also has a homepage, http://sites.netscape.net/purd0/homepage


YES, AT LAST it can be, it must be told. My conscience has haunted me for many years, and the revelations about Salieri and Mozart have struck at my very heart. Inspired by a reverie which I fell into during the film of A Passage to India, I have decided to make as clean a breast about it as is possible for someone who dribbles on his shirts at lunch.

As the echoes of whatever Judy Davis was doing to herself in the Marabar Caves reverberated around the cinema aisles, I dissolved back to the balmy Cambridge evening where it all began. Start the ripples, editor, and think of Merchant Ivory.

We were chasing each other, and at this stage Nick was in front. Nick, who was at Pembroke and even more infantile and gifted at talking in strange tongues than I, were playing water-bombs .I was negotiating a particularly tricky corner between King’s and Cat’s when there was a terrible crash and rather a lot of water. A small old thing in baggy trousers and dowdy tweed coat picked itself up. Its cloth cap had fallen off, and a tuft of white hair stuck up like a cocky’s comb on its bald head. I helped it adjust its spectacles. It was clearly shaken, and could only wheeze and gasp like Mole. ‘Gosh, I’m awfully sorry,’ I breathed, and sped to catch up with Nick, who hid his plastic bag of Cam water as we crossed Trumpington Street.

‘You know who you just ecraysed at King’s?’ he enquired.

‘Erasmus?’ I suggested.

‘Close. That’s E. M. Forster.’

‘That doesn’t look like E. M. Forster. E. M. Forster’s tall, and has a moustache.’

‘That’s E. M. Forster, you mongol,’ said Nick‘ and you nearly drowned him on certifiably dry land.’ I ran back.

‘Are you really E. M. Forster?’

He looked as if I might be about to knock him over again.

‘Ah,ah, yes,’ he hastened to agree.

I introduced myself.

‘I lived in Florence,’ I explained pertinently. ‘I read A Room with a View. In my room there. I had a view too.’

A wild look had come into his eye; I could tell that he was impressed.

‘I’m Australian,’ I added. He seemed to find this believable as well, and he was still smiling strangely as he toddled off.

These were heady days. The next week I accicentally knocked Prince Charles off his bicycle on Garrett Hostel bridge; I fled with Germaine Greer across Midsummer Common to avoid the procters because she wasn't wearing her gown. In revenge, Germaine felt me up during my paper on The Taming of the Shrew, so that my odd yawps and writhing would discredit me in the English Faculty’s eyes, and prepare the way for Germaine’s own triumphant exegesis. I even coached Clive James in saying ‘G’day’.

But I was restless, unfulfilled. As the young Joyce had managed to twitch a bit of Ibsen’s mantle blue on his nascent head, and Lowry had made do with Nordahl Greig, I required a Great Artist.

My plan was simple. Eschewing the temptations of punts, Grantchester honey and LSD parties, I retired to my rooms and emerged three months later with a novel. It was a searing narrative of adolescent passion and funny goings-on at night in a Jesuit college in Mantova just after the war. Structured as it was on a grid of references to the number seven (seven sacraments, seven days of the week, seven deadly sins), and climaxing with an architectural odyssey involving Giulio Romano, it made The Name of the Rose look like a work of careless naturalism. The first part was ingenious, the second beautiful, and the third abominably clever -though I suppose one day I’ll be accused of plagiarising that idea as well.

Some months later, after luring Iris Murdoch to my rooms on the pretext of Trinity Hall’s best port and discovering that she was more politely interested in the grog than my stunning prose, I wrote to Forster, reminding him of our close encounter, and describing my opus in choice Italian as a novella. His reply was prompt; it came, not from King’s, but (ominously enough in view of the fact that it was flattened during the war) from Coventry.

Salisbury Ave.,

Coventry CV3 5DA

5 Feb 1970

Dear Mr. Purdon.

Thank you for your letter. Unluckily my sight is very bad. Is your novella typed? If it is, I will ask one of my friends here if they could read it to me.

Yours sincerely,

E. M. Forster.

Of course it was typed, the silly old bugger. What did he think I was? A beginner? And off it went. Winter became spring, with the daffodils and suicides that the English are so good at. We sat around in our studies being languid and plotting to betray Britain. (If you’ve ever seen Another Country you’ll know how this is done). We read Das Kapital loudly with the windows open, and proclaimed our love of Anthony Blount’s taste in Renaissance nudes without a single response from the Soviet Embassy.

Then, on the 20th of April, came the crucial reply:

Dear Mr. Purdon,

My friend, and I have read your novella with much interest but not I am afraid with much pleasure. That was to be expected since I am very humanist in my outlook and it was impossible to be enthusiastic either about Aurelio or his surroundings.

All of it is well written but I did particularly admire the description of the dead priest and the fly. It was masterful and terrifying and went straight to the point. What however is the point of the whole? It was difficult to tell since I am not knowledgeable about the seven sins and have no insight into Catholicism.
The opening section was particularly puzzling since I could not decide what you were aiming at. There is no doubt that the writing is of a high order. I am glad to have had the opportunity of reading it. I hope the effort will find a more appropriate reader and that the work will gain success. It may be going into problems which my friends and I do not share or understand.
The expedition to the Palazzo del Te’ was also impressive but I could not see it as a general symbol. I will return your manuscript when the Easter rush is over.

Yours sincerely,

E.M. Forster

The last signature trails away. What a typical Forsterian touch, all the stuff about the friends! One imagines the poor old man, his mind already blown by chapter three, insisting on their being by him at all times. ‘Only connect,’ he must have murmured to them. The rest was silence. Forster shuffled off the mortal on the 7th of June. Salieri-like, I lurked behind the pillars in King’s College Chapel. Only my intimates knew, and I fobbed them off with life subscriptions to The New Left Review and promises of jobs in Australia. Heartless? Perhaps. But think what I spared him: the embarrassment over Maurice, the snide homophobic critics of The Life to Come. No, God chose him to work through me, and me through him, even though he had that dreadful laugh and that terrible wisp of punk hair. I have the posthumous quotes all prepared for the back of my dust-jacket, and very nice indeed they will look in Helvetica Bold. I think I shall avoid ‘particularly puzzling’ in favour of ‘writing of a high order’ or the judiciously culled ‘work will gain success’. No. The gem is surely: ‘Description of the dead priest and fly...masterful and terrifying and went straight to the point’ There. I can rest with that. And at last my conscience is eased, because I like to think that whatever I did to him, he died smiling.

Aspects of the Reader