By William di Canzio
When it debuted, E.M. Forster’s “Maurice” offered a rarefied view of queer possibility: a happy ending for gay men, with the book’s protagonist, the wealthy and well-educated stockbroker Maurice Hall, finding love with the young groundskeeper Alec Scudder. The book was originally written in 1913 and 1914, but Forster tinkered with the manuscript for decades until it was eventually published posthumously in 1971. Thus, he watched his initially contemporary novel age into an embalmed period piece about the crippling, self-cannibalizing anxieties that homosexual men lived with in early-20th-century England. But, as he wrote in a 1960 “Terminal Note” that serves as an addendum to his manuscript, sketching out a happy ending was always an imperative for the book: “I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.”
Forster didn’t dare usher readers further into his lovers’ future other than letting us know that they end up together. Dreaming up their material lives through the fateful years that followed would have sullied the idyllic “ever and ever” he’d suggested at the close of his book.
Enter: “Alec,” by William di Canzio, a novel that aims to both complete and complement “Maurice” by picking up Forster’s characters and thrusting them into the muck-riddled trenches of the Great War.
In “Alec,” di Canzio (re)introduces readers to Maurice’s lover, beginning with Alec’s birth in Dorset in 1893 and following along as he grows up and into his own. Here, Alec possesses a canny self-awareness about his sexual desires and a distinctly modern approach to fulfilling them (not only does he not despise his queerness, but he even finds a certain asset to it: “It kept him out of trouble with girls”). He also develops increasingly radical political ideals, even as he remains smitten with and devoted to the moneyed, Cambridge-educated Maurice.
For anyone who has already read “Maurice” (or seen the swoon-worthy 1987 film adaptation), the first third of “Alec” will tread familiar ground. As the story revisits cricket matches, late-night rendezvous and botched blackmail attempts from the original, now seen from Alec’s point of view, this twinned Forster foil at times risks being too beholden to its source.
Once di Canzio pushes past his borrowed characters’ figural greenwood, his goal in reanimating them becomes clearer. In following the couple beyond a hazily suggested happy ever after, di Canzio makes Forster’s wish for them all the more tangible as he shows these characters building a life for themselves on their own terms.
There’s a sweeping romantic vision here that’s as old-fashioned as it is refreshingly modern, with this war-torn couple pining away for each other as they hold their love in the highest esteem, in bold defiance of English laws and customs.
“We’ve so few models, men like us, for intimacy, for devotion that endures,” a friend tells the couple as he looks back on how the war inadvertently opened his eyes to the life he was denying himself. “By no fault of our own. How many of our stories have been expunged — from history, from memory? With no stories, we’re made to feel alone, unnatural, ashamed.”
Di Canzio’s novel reads like an attempt to make these forgotten men feel less alone, to proliferate their stories. In nudist safe havens in the countryside at peacetime, codified arrangements between privates and majors during war, lurid encounters in Continental brothels while on leave and lively salon conversations about Hellenistic poetry post-armistice, the novel presents the many ways other “outlaws” like Maurice and Alec successfully, if tenuously, carved out spaces for themselves.
“Alec” is fiction as queer archaeology, demonstrating that looking back doesn’t necessarily mean looking backward.