by David D. Esselstrom
Originally published in Perigraph (University of Southern Florida) & Facet (Arizona).
A chill November wind whipping through my thin jacket, I darted across the back lawn and shouldered my way into the makeshift study built in the storage shed. E.M. Forster crouched in the one comfortable chair (the walnut armchair with turquoise seat and back) and stared at my collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction stacked on the floor. The sleeves of his beige cotton sweater were pushed back to his elbows, which rested on his knees. His hair, though thin, retained a hint of the striking reddish-brown of his youth. Bent as he was, a few wisps dangled in front of his forehead. He looked like his photographs—which is how I knew who he was.
Although I should have been surprised at finding him there—he being long dead and all—I was not. I’d been somewhat impressed by A Passage to India when I’d read it several years earlier. However, it was not until Aspects of the Novel that I began to hear that soft but urgent, gentle voice actually talking to me. The voice became so clear, distinct, and, finally, intimate that, deep into Two Cheers for Democracy, I felt Forster talking to me even when I wasn’t reading him. He had become a part of my interior review board, joining such writers as Hemingway, Kerouac, Kazantzakis, Didion, and Mr. Pack (my eighth grade English teacher) and Burroughs (Edgar Rice). Although I had always thought it unlikely that a member of this group would seek a more substantial existence than that of being a mere voice in my head, I did not discount the possibility.
Although not surprised by Forster, I was embarrassed by the study itself. A heavy duty extension cord stretched from the house to the shed for electricity. The foil side of insulation, precariously tacked between bear studs, buckled and folded in compliance with the demands of gravity. My bookcases pushed against the thee walls. A Persian rug, dangling from a rafter, separated the “study” from the clutter of ten-speeds, lawnmower, hibachi, and assorted rusting tools. The room was not the oak-lined, teak-desked, leather-furnished library in which I would delight to entertain Forster, or anyone else from the board.
“Do you always keep such slack hours?” he asked. Moving in from the door, I told him that my writing schedule varied according to my other duties and responsibilities. “One’s duties and responsibilities should vary according to one’s writing schedule,” Forster chided. He then glanced back to the magazines on the floor. “Is this what you are trying to do?” He kicked at the stack.
Seeing I had no response, Forster ballooned his cheeks and expelled a burst of air in evident irritation and then bent down to retrieve one of the fallen magazines. “Oh, I suppose to be fair I should admit that there are one or two stories that do signify, but for the most part this stuff…” He fanned the pages in my direction. “…is escape. And fantasy is not.”
His disdain confused me. How could the author of “The Celestial Omnibus” and other fantastic stories disparage current fantasy? I’d always thought Forster as much in favor of fantasy as Burroughs. Of course, I do admit to some qualitative differences between “The Machine Stops” and John Carter of Mars. Restacking the pile of magazines, I moved them to the edge of the room while asking what fantasy was not.
“Escape,” he answered. I said that escape is exactly what fantasy is supposed to be. “Oh, my goodness no,” he exclaimed, settling back into the chair. “Let me explain by drawing an analogy to the process of metaphor. In making a metaphor one simply joins two terms that have no business being together. By joining them one manages to say something that neither term could express singly, something that is much more that the sum of ‘a’ plus ‘b.’ Fantasy joins form, in this case literary form, to something basically formless—the vague yearnings and nameless fears that are housed here.” He tapped his chest. “By joining these two things that really have no business being together one manages, if fortunate, to say something that is beyond both form and fear, something worth more than entertainment or information. Fantasy is not escape from everyday life but rather a revealing record of an intimate relationship with it.” He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. “That does make sense, doesn’t it?” I nodded my head. “I’m so glad,” he said, “for both of us.”
He leaned back and grabbed my Signet copy of Pride and Prejudice with one hand and my best pipe with the other. He tilted the pipe in my direction questioningly. I motioned for him to by my guest. The aroma of pipe tobacco somewhat camouflages the moldy smell of the storage shed. As he filled the pipe, a blast of air ripped past me from the partially open door at my back. The breeze skimmed a few shreds of tobacco out of the bowl of the pipe. As Forster retrieved the wayward tobacco, I noticed goose bumps on his forearms. Closing the door, I apologized for the uncomfortable accommodations of my study.
As Forster spread an old army blanket over his knees, I joked about a little discomfort being good for the artist. “God knows what you intend to inflict on your readers. Misery loves company, and all that,” muttered Forster as he retrieved the book and pipe.
Sitting down at my desk, I flicked on the space heater and set it between the two of us. I mentioned that my home-crafted insulation job was ineffective, but the thought of my books as a second layer of insulation I found somehow comforting. Forster chuckled and said, “Yes, oh yes, they are that, aren’t they?”
His voice only half hit whatever word he was emphasizing so that each sentence came out a bit askew. Even a simple phrase like “oh yes” came out sounding as if it meant something else, meant something more—or less. I would have thought him purposely abstruse had not pauses—brief suspensions in which he too contemplated in wonder whatever the hell he’d just said—punctuated his conversation.
The next day I cut short my office hour at the college to get to my study. The day was clear, but in Oregon clear days often mean colder temperatures. When I opened the shed door, Forster was in the turquoise chair, puffing on an overstuffed pipe, and covered except for arms and head by the army blanket (U.S. side out). He greeted me with an ominous clearing of his throat. “Comfort is a precondition of accomplishment,” he told me sternly as I pointed the space heater in his direction.
I thought he was truly angry at me until he leaned forward and whispered, “Freud misses the point so.” He pulled the blanket closer about his shoulders and continued, “It’s comfort that is at the center of things. Comfort…not that other thing. The anticipation of getting it or the fear of losing it is what drives us.” He pulled deeply on the pipe. It was out. “That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?” he asked. Although I wanted to answer yes, I could sense the question was rhetorical. “Would that it were true,” he said wistfully and slumped into his chair. “I probably would have written much more if it weren’t for the other thing.”
After the room had warmed to a point that I could leave off rubbing my hands over the heater, I finally asked Forster why he was joining me in my study. “Where else should I be?” he rasped and then quickly returned to his reading. A bit annoyed, I almost told him that I thought it appropriate he be in the ground. But I could not be flippant with him. My gaze wondered to my collection of Henry James. I then told Forster that although I had no idea where he should be, I did imagine that since he was materializing in my study, I could then not be too far amiss in surmising that he was there to be of some aid or assistance to me.
Waiting for him to answer, I slid the manuscript I was working on, “Odysseus Jones and the Matter Transporter,” into a drawer.
“I can’t say my presence here is intended to be of aid or assistance,” began Forster, “since it might have the very opposite effect. But you do need to be talked to. And I suppose I am a good one to do the talking because, for some reason, people find me authoritative but not threatening. Personally, I think the perception in error. Granted my pricks seldom draw blood, but a bubble may be burst as easily with a needle as with a saber.”
His use of the term “talked to” bothered me. I did indeed need someone to talk to, and with. But I certainly did not need to be “talked to” the way an errant child needs the folly of his conduct explained to him, the way a cocky apprentice needs the seriousness and complexity of his enterprise and the stiffness and clumsiness of his fledgling efforts pointed out to him.
I pulled from the desk drawer a serious effort—ponderous Joycean prose, dense, heavy, thick with profundities, rich with allusion—which I thought more fitting to be working on than the Odysseus Jones thing. Holding the manuscript firmly, I met his gaze and told him, rather forcefully, I think, that although my efforts were not as serious, as weighty, as significant as his, I sincerely felt that my efforts were honest. My back straightened as I proclaimed that any honest effort to put one word after another was commendable.
He nodded his head, bit his lower lip, and gnawed the corners of his moustache. “I suppose,” he said, “that that is true, to a degree. Honest effort is always commendable, but it is not always good.” He continued over my protests. “That wonderful line Chekhov gives Trigorin in The Seagull comes to mind. Something about everyone writing what he wants to and what he can. Ah, what a nice sentiment—liberating, comforting, forgiving. But I can’t help feeling that Checkhov, as always, is being just a little ironic. I mean, my god, if we all wanted to write only what we could, I doubt there’d be any great literature at all. We all want to write better than we can, and the miracle is that, sometimes, we do.”
A light snowfall—as white and oppressive as a fresh sheet of paper staring up from the typewriter—blanketed the lawn between our house and the shed. I slid the piece of my dense and profundity-packed prose out of its manila envelope. I read the first three lines. The prose I held in my hand was as good as I could write. No better.
Since Forster was once again buried in the Austen, I decided to pick up Odysseus Jones. When I’d set the story down a few days earlier, I had followed Hemingway’s strategy and mapped out my next move. But even with a well-planned attack, I am accustomed to one or two false starts before anything good begins to flow. Hemingway, I am sure, understood that knowing what happens next and telling what happens next are two different things. Forster’s presence made my false starts all the more false.
Although my back was to him, and five feet of floor separated us, and obviously his attentions were elsewhere, I still I could not bring myself to jot down one word that I felt he did not see. And his seeing it—my feeling that he did—made each word, each phrase, each sentence stand out awkward, clumsy, and false. I wanted to write only what would meet his approval. And I knew he would only approve my best. There I was stuck. I did not know what my best was; so everything I wrote died on the page even before my pen stumbled dumbly to the end of the line.
I had tossed my seventh false start in the wastebasket when Forster spoke. “A few times I had to give up because I felt the project dying, felt it withering all the more as I fed it my best. Yet even as the story expired on the page, as the voice of my characters faded, as the setting became hazy and I could only focus on the tip of my pen stalled in mid page, even then my belief rested not in my powers—obviously failing—nor in my understanding of craft—weld characters to setting, drive the whole kit and caboodle down the road of plot and over the cliff of climax, sweep up the debris—no, my belief rested in that sense of mystery, that awe one feels when faced with the fact that good writing happens at all. And my awe was tinged with gratitude that I could be present, on occasion, when it did.”
Exasperated, I told him that great literature was all fine and good, but I was trying to write a simple story about a Soldier/Killer, bound for the allocation games on Mars, who becomes involved in matter teleportation experiments.
Forster bobbed his head twice, then glanced at my green particleboard bookcase, the second shelf of which contains only the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, except for a copy of Naked Lunch purchased by mistake. “I won’t argue the merits of the enterprise,” he said. “But can you accomplish it? I fear you are looking too far beyond the page, watching the reader. Writing—all art, really—is illusion. You, as writer, are a trickster. But a trick performed well can only be itself. And that is, really, satisfaction enough. Watch the audience and your feet miss the wire. Since you perform without a net, missing the wire can be deadly.” He paused, surveying the tips of his fingernails. “Oh, my, a circus analogy. I don’t often use those.”
What annoyed me most was his saying something pithy and then directing his attention elsewhere. Annoyance quickly gave way to anger. I found his condescension offensive, and I told him so. In answer, he buried himself deeper in Austen and puffed loudly on the pipe. Slamming down my pencil, I left the study. As I crossed the snow-covered lawn, I thought that, for all his insight, Forster was still somewhat a supercilious old fart.
The next day as I crunched across the lawn to the shed, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted Forster to be there again or not. I had wanted him to spur my productivity, not rein it in. As I opened the door, I knew his presence was a miracle I could have lived without and now only wished to live through. Who was he to sit in judgment of me? Deft critic, superior novelist, clever essayist, sure, he was all of that—for his time. But the demands of this age are different. Aesthetics, like all philosophy, flounders in a sea of probabilities, trying no longer to build something solid, forgetting completely the naïve dream of flight, hoping only to stay afloat for the length of one lousy work. That being the case, how dare he ask me to touch the heart?
Pulling back the dangling rug, I found him once again seated in the center of the study, flipping tentatively through my copy of Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. Mailer I have always defended as giving us a real and effective vision of the world precisely because that vision is filtered so poorly through the thick membrane of his ego. I explained my stance to Forster. He gave me one of those looks that skirts condescension by hinting that there might possible be more in what I’d said than I ‘d put there.
He lowered his gaze to the work in question and said, “What I don’t understand is that you Americans, you American writers, are always so caught up in the expression of yourselves. It is as if you believe that life itself were a personal achievement and identity an artistic creation.”
Pulling up my chair, I told him that that was the point exactly. With the demise in the belief in the consistency of character, what had the twentieth century writer to deal with, without being manipulative and false, except his own sense of self. That is our curse as children of our time. The sureties are gone. We had found the “I am” dubious and were left merely with the “I think, therefore.” We, and I unabashedly included myself, marked a turning point in the history of literature, perhaps of all art.
Forster’s eyebrows rose in concert with the corners of his mouth. “I dare say,” he said finally. “You almost believe that.”
I said I did. I believed too that the fixed star of discernible motivation and natural dramatic structure were never in the heavens but only in the eyes of weak romantics craving certitude. The best of us knew the heavens were empty and we stood alone on a cold clod in the dark of space, not screaming defiance but whimpering gibberish.
“I can agree with you whole-heartedly on that,” he said, fingering the spine of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. “But what strikes me as peculiar is that you put such a high store on unintelligibility. We all look, sometimes, on our rantings and hope—ruefully to be sure—that they are other than what they are, that they are a new code, a new view. Luckily, we most often come to our senses and toss our rantings in the waste can. My god, my dear boy, we don’t publish them.”
I told him that unintelligibility may be all we were left. History had saddled us—Mailer, Pynchon, Gass, Hawkes, me—with the task of finding a new path, a new view; and we were forced to search with neither landmark nor compass.
“Oh my,” said Forster, fingering the corners of his moustache. “You Americans, you American writers, seem always so sure that the world begins and ends with you, or in this case ends and then begins. You seem always so worried about your place in history. But Art is not History. Lots of confusion there, in our thinking that it is or that the two are linked in some way. Art is illusion masquerading as life; History is life masquerading as illusion.” He paused, his smile broadening. “I do believe that an epigram worthy of Oscar Wilde.”
As Forster reveled in the workings of his own mind, I noticed that my manuscript “Odysseus Jones and the Matter Transporter” dangled on the end of the desk, ready to drop. I tossed the Lattimore translation of The Odyssey on top of my story to add weight to it. I covered my actions by whining to Forster that we were just looking for answers. Certainly, he couldn’t fault us for that.
Forster watched the flight of the volume Homer’s epic as he sucked the cone of flame into the bowl of the pipe. “Ah yes,” he said, as the smoke swirled about him. “The search for solid answers, the drive of science, the grail of philosophers east and west since the beginning. I think the problem is that we misunderstand the nature of answers themselves. We think of them as stones—hard, lasting, sharp edged. But answers, I think, are more like flowers than stones. In the right soil, the right climate, they flourish. They litter the countryside, like Wordsworth’s daffodils, with their ebullient, but transitory, good health. And, like flowers, answers bloom and fade. Any one that doesn’t is false from the beginning.”
He punctuated this last by blowing smoke in my face. As I waved away the sweet smelling cloud, Forster reached across the desk, pushed aside the Lattimore, and snatched up the manuscript of my science fiction story. “And here is, I suppose, the concrete result of this abstract mumbo-jumbo you’ve been spouting for the last hour.” I hurriedly explained that the story was some lightweight fluff that I was writing merely for diversion. He flipped through the first few pages. “Twenty pages of a manuscript this heavily marked with corrections is not evidence of diversion but rather of serious commitment.” I was too embarrassed to respond. He read a few lines from the middle of the story. “Oh, dear me,” he said, shaking his head from side to side and glancing from the manuscript to me. “This will never do. How can you possible defend this? Here I’ve read less than half a paragraph, and already I am suspicious that the whole thing makes sense.”
I told him that it wasn’t a serious effort; therefore, of course it made sense. He found my comment uproariously funny. His laughter degenerated into a fit of coughing. I pounded his back to help him regain his breath.
“Oh my,” he said, grabbing my hand. “We do indeed have such a lot of work to do.”
At that moment, the lights went out. I stumbled into the house to locate the problem. From a portable radio, I learned that a power transfer station had blown. With candles and matches, I trekked back to the study. When I opened the door and struck the first match, I found the study empty. Forster was gone.
About the Author
David Esselstrom, Ph.D., is a teacher and writer who encourages students to express themselves clearly and creatively. He has published fiction and journalism, and has written extensively for the stage and screen. Esselstrom combines his scholarly interests and creative projects with his passion for teaching in such courses as creative writing, composition, literature, and film and media. Via Azusa Pacific University.