'Alec' - William di Canzio's new view on Forster's 'Maurice'
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In the last two decades, a popular literary trend has been modern retellings of classic novels, whether it be updating them or narrating them from a different character or perspective. Some successful examples of this reappropriation have been: The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which re-envisioned Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway in three different eras; Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding. which modernized Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice into contemporary Londoners; and March by Geraldine Brooks, which reimagined Louisa May Alcott's Little Women from the viewpoint of the missing Civil War soldier father Mr. March.
Now we have William di Canzio's gay adaptation of E.M. Forster's landmark novel Maurice inspired by the classic love story of upper-class stockbroker Maurice Hall and working-class gameskeeper Alec Scudder.
The novel was written in 1913/1914 but due to legal issues (homosexuality in England wasn't decriminalized until 1967) and believing the public attitudes wouldn't be favorable, it wasn't published until 1971 after Forster died. The book was made into a hit film by Merchant Ivory in 1987.
Forster was adamant that his book have an idyllic ending since during his lifetime, gay characters were often murdered, committed suicide, or led lives of quiet and sad desperation.
Playwright William di Canzio has decided to ask what happened to this iconic couple after they resolved to remain together. Did they live happily ever after? Di Canzio tells this story from the stance of Alec Scudder, providing us with his past history as well as their future together once Maurice ends.
Di Canzio narrates Alec's beginnings with his birth in Dorset in 1893. He recognizes early he's attracted to men, having his first sexual experience with a male bodybuilder. He doesn't have any shame about his homosexuality or make any excuses for it. He's excellent at sports and exercises with weights to develop a handsome physique which gives him confidence to make his way in the world. Having left school, he has successive servant jobs eventually becoming gameskeeper at Penge where he meets Maurice.
Di Canzio quotes dialogue almost verbatim from Forster, and ties the two books together (they easily could be read in tandem with each other), though we see the same courtship events from Alec's perspective rather than Maurice's. They quickly fall in love in an all-consuming romance. They plan to buy land in the countryside where they can raise wild game to sell to restaurants and hotels. They meet other 'bohemian' men, all of whom are portrayed positively.
Alec and Maurice seem intent to "set their life together as outlaws," but from the dates the reader will guess that World War I will intrude on their happiness. They decide to enlist, hoping they will be stationed together, but due to their class differences they're separated, with Alec as infantryman sent to the Somme, and Maurice as an officer serving at Gallipoli. Both experience senseless violence and loss. Do they survive and are they reunited? No spoilers will be telegraphed here.
What is noteworthy about di Canzio's approach is how well he describes the underground gay lifestyle both before and during the war, with private parties, bars, brothels, often in secret coded language, as imprisonment was always a distinct possibility for any missteps. Yet he mimics very well Forster's style and language, exuding his intelligence, humanism, and mystical links with the past.
The war destroyed the world they knew and they had to somehow re-create a new life for themselves despite feeling rejected by society. And di Canzio does render the period faithfully, though it could be argued that Alec's self-awareness and acceptance about his sexuality seems a tad bit post-Stonewall, though not inconceivable.
The theme of class differences is maintained throughout the novel showing how they complicate any relationship. The characters' sexuality is described in a more erotic, though not explicit, fashion than Forster, though even in the 1970s the author was criticized for awkward depictions of gay love.
Probably the strongest writing are the vivid battle scenes, describing the horrors of war in the trenches all realistic in their agonizing details and maintaining suspense as to what will happen.
But despite their separation, the spotlight remains on Alec's and Maurice's love for each other and how challenging it was to create a safe space for that devotion to blossom and mature.
However, a side subplot about Maurice's sister Kitty which will play a role in the ending, is less engrossing. Also, because Clive Durham was such a central figure in Maurice, one kept hoping there might be another meeting between the two characters and how Alec might have viewed such a reunion, but alas there was no such encounter. Finally, some readers might find the ending not as emotionally satisfying as one might have wished.
Still, overall this is a valiant attempt and there's no doubt anyone who read Maurice or has seen the film, must have wondered how their life together might have enfolded despite all the odds stacked against them. Di Canzio satisfies those yearnings while remaining loyal to Forster's intent, providing a plausible if not terribly inspirational conclusion. If you're in the mood for an ardent love story, Alec will richly serve that purpose in a way that even Forster himself might have approved.
Alec: A Novel by William di Canzio. Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($27.00) us.macmillan.com/author/williamdicanzio
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