Go to Table of ContentsRemembering Mohammed:
E. M. Forster, Cavafy, and the Nexus of Memory

by Rob Doll

© 2002-2011

While he was in Alexandria working with the Red Cross during the First World War, E. M. Forster became friends with the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy; he also had his first love affair, with a young Egyptian named Mohammed el Adl.  Cavafy's poetry would prove poignantly apt after el Adl died in 1922 and Forster was trying to create a memorial to him in A Passage to India.

Constantine CavafyIn a review reprinted in Two Cheers for Democracy Forster describes an early visit to Cavafy:

"You could never understand my poetry, my dear Forster, never."   A poem is produced--"The God Abandons Anthony"--and I detect some coincidences between its Greek and public-school Greek. Cavafy is amazed.  "Oh, but this is good, my dear Forster, this is very good indeed," and he raises his hand, takes over, and leads me through.

This very poem, "The God Abandons Anthony," was included by Forster in the middle of both of his Alexandrian books, where it marks a division that occurs in each.  In his introduction to Pharos and Pharillon Forster tells us that "under Pharos I have grouped a few antique events; to modern events and to personal impressions I have given the name Pharillon, the obscure successor of Pharos. . . ."    A similar division occurs also in Alexandria: A History and a Guide, where the same poem separates the "history" from the "guide."  This bifurcation, marked in both cases by Cavafy's poem, corresponds to a division in the work and in the lives of both Cavafy and Forster, roughly between the intellectual and historical on one side and the personal and homosexual on the other.

Both Cavafy and Forster were writers attuned to the ancient history of Alexandria while living in the contemporary city, and their lives there included or had included homosexual love affairs.    "Very often I'm happy," Forster wrote to Siegfried Sassoon in 1918, "and for good reasons. Ancient Alexandria--to mention one--is proving a most amusing companion.  I'm constructing by archeological and other reading an immense ghost city."  Another reason for his happiness was Mohammed el Adl, whom Forster had met a year before this letter was written.   Cavafy evokes what Lawrence Durrell calls "the phantom city which underlay the quotidian one": his poetry conveys his poignant, bittersweet experience of homoerotic love.

"The God Abandons Anthony" does more than mark the division in Forster's two books.   To Alexandria, particularly, it lends its processional tone.  As Forster wrote to Forrest Reid in January, 1919, "I am busy over a book on Alexandria--a superior sort of guide book with a good deal of history to it.   It's a great resource and I'm very keen on getting it lucid and dignified--the spirit of a procession is to inform it, if so I can contrive."  Aside from any stylistic use of the poem, Forster undoubtedly found it personally relevant, providing a fitting and formal valediction, as he himself left Alexandria:Mohammed el Adl

Do not lament your fortune that at last subsides,
. . .
Above all, do not delude yourself, do not say
that it is a dream,
that your ear was mistaken.
. . .
Like a man for long prepared, like a brave man,
like the man who was worthy of such a city,
go to the window firmly,
. . .
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria whom you are losing.

Cavafy and Forster had mined the city's past, the one producing historical poetry, the other poetic history.  Although Forster was leaving Alexandria, the city and the events that took place there would haunt him in subsequent years, as memory became a central concern.  In the imagined worlds of his pre-war fiction Forster created a body of the mind.  After Alexandria, and after Mohammed el Adl, the major challenge to Forster was remembering.  On his return from India and from seeing el Adl for the last time in Egypt in the winter of 1922, Forster passed through Marseilles, where he purchased Marcel Proust's recently published Du Côté de Chez Swann.  The novel brought the relation of memory and literature into the center of his attention at the time of el Adl's death, which was confirmed in May.

At about the same time, in April 1922, Forster read a poem called "Ghosts" in the London Mercury, a journal in which he himself had recently been published.  In the long narrative and reflective poem, someone drowsing in his chair of an evening has a vision of a dead friend, perhaps someone who has died in the war:

  Magazine where Forster read Ackerley's poem   

God! But I burned
Him to embrace,
Feeling his breath
Hot on my face,
So that I yearned
Almost to death.

The vision rouses him to look through "Certain old letters . . . Seeking my dead," only to find the truth of what the deceased friend had once said, "Ah, but I know . . . You will forget."

Ah, but they live,
Beckon and cry
Over the years
After they die,
Bringing us tears

Forster sent an admiring letter to the young author, J. R. Ackerley (who would become a lifelong friend), about "This business of remembering a past incident."  He quotes in French from the "Overture" to Du Côté de Chez Swann.  Not knowing whether the poet reads French, and perhaps wanting to be sure the most important part would be understood, Forster renders it in English: "It's just the same . . . with our past; it's a chance whether we happen to hit upon the object that recalls it."  He has left out two sentences which make clear the part he translates: "It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.  The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling."  Forster continues in his letter: "I don't know whether you and Proust are right in your explanations. 'Out of death lead no ways' is probably more the fact.... The moment a memory is registered by the intellect is its last moment."  [The quoted line is from a poem by Thomas Beddoes, whom Forster apparently associated with a homosexual literary tradition.]  Forster would later put the matter to the test, writing to el Adl's widow in Egypt to ask for his ring, thinking that might be the material object that would revive the memory of Mohammed.  The ring and some other small memorabilia--a pencil of el Adl's and a ticket from his tram--were cherished by Forster, along with three photographs, but none seem not to have produced the Proustian effect.

By the time he noted in his diary in May, 1922, that he had been working on his Indian novel, "influenced by Proust," he assumed el Adl had died; this was confirmed when he received a letter May 17 from el Adl's brother.  A couple of months later, on August 5, 1922, when Forster began a memoir in the form of a letter to el Adl, memory became crucial: "I write for my own comfort and to recall the past, but also because I am professionally a writer and want to pay you this last honour....  Other people may see this book, by accident or because I show it them, but that will not alter its nature; it is for you and me."  He apparently set out to remember and record the entire relationship in this notebook, which is preserved at King's College, Cambridge, but he soon sensed the impossibility of the task: "I try to keep this real, but my own words get in the way... ."  He appears to have Ackerley's poem in mind when he continues, "It is an effort for you are not even a ghost now and I am only evoking my own memories."  Finding it hard to continue, he put the memoir aside; when he resumed a year later, he realized it "will never get finished in the form in which it is begun.  I have written a story because of you and dedicated a book to you and you are more real than in these direct invocations."  [The story was "The Life to Come"; the book, Pharos and Pharillon.]  Finally he had to admit, "I knew it would happen, and I shall never describe every moment of our intercourse, as I hoped."

Forster discovered for himself what he had learned already from Cavafy and Proust, that a "factual" account of "real" events was not the best way to recover the past; indeed, that it cannot do so: "[T]he work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time. . . ."  Before Alexandria, Forster faced the problem of encompassing in language what had never been grasped in the flesh; after having known Mohammed el Adl, Forster's problem again was how to evoke the body through the mind, but this time he had to grasp in language what he had held in the flesh.

Cavafy's obsession in his erotic poetry with the literary reconstruction of past passions contributed to the nexus of memory that characterized the period during which Forster was finishing A Passage to India.  Three poems, all written before or during Forster's years in Alexandria, emphasize both the poignancy of remembered love and the possibility of recovering it through literary art. Ackerley's "Ghosts" may have recalled the first of these poems, "Come Back" (1912):

Come back often and take hold of me,
sensation that I love come back and take hold of me--
when the body's memory revives
and an old longing again passes through the blood,
when lips and skin remember
and hands feel as though they touch again.
Come back often, take hold of me in the night
when lips and skin remember . . .

(Trans. Keeley/Sherrard)

In another poem Cavafy addresses specifically the traces in poetry of eros remembered:

"When They Come Alive"

Try to keep them, poet,
these erotic visions of yours,
however few of them there are that can be stilled.
Put them, half-hidden, in your lines.
Try to hold them, poet,
when they come alive in your mind
at night or in the noonday brightness.

(1916)(Trans. Keeley/Sherrard)

In "Understanding" Cavafy attributes his art to his sexuality: "In the loose living of my early years the impulses of my poetry were shaped, the boundaries of my art were plotted"(Trans. Keeley/Sherrard).

As Marguerite Yourcenar observed in the 1950s:

Each poem by Cavafy is a memorial poem; historical or personal, each poem is at the same time a gnomic poem; such didacticism, unexpected in a modern poet, constitutes perhaps the boldest aspect of his work.  We are so accustomed to regard wisdom as the residue of extinguished passions that it is hard for us to recognize it as the toughest and most condensed form of ardor, the gold dust born of fire and not the ashes.

Cavafy's erotic poetry and its concern with memory or memorialization became more important to Forster after he had left Alexandria, and after Mohammed el Adl had died.  At that point he discovered what Cavafy, a connoisseur of memory, had long known: "To me an immediate impression is not reason enough for [a poetic] work.  An impression must age, must fade itself, with time, so that I may not have to fade it out myself."  By the time Forster was back at work on A Passage to India in 1922 and 1923, he was finding it difficult to write a factual memoir of Mohammed el Adl.  "Poetry," he wrote in his diary in March, 1923, "is a truer escape than mourning over one's dead, as Housman knows, and easier in the end though not easier at first." Another poet Forster connected to a homosexual tradition, A. E. Housman, had published his Last Poems in 1922.  Forster's private notebook letter addressed to Mohammed el Adl begins with a stanza from Housman's book as epigraph: Title page of A. E. Housman's LAST POEMS

Good-night, my lad, for nought's eternal;
No league of ours, for sure.
To-morrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

Like Cavafy's poetry, A Passage to India is a memorial; it is also gnomic, an echoing chamber of meaning and implication--made literal even in the echoing Marabar Caves.  In Passage, on the day of the Bridge Party, Aziz feels out of sorts and stays at home.  As sadness comes over him, he takes out a photograph.

[H]e desired to remember his wife and could not. . . .   She had eluded him thus, ever since they had carried her to her tomb.  He had known that she would pass from his hands and eyes, but had thought she could live in his mind, not realizing that the very fact we have loved the dead increases their unreality, and that the more passionately we invoke them the further they recede.


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