By Guillaume di Canzio
around 2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$ 27/336 pages
A sequel almost as good as the original! An intriguing queer love story! What more could you ask for at the end of summer?
Today, on and off the page, homosexuals fall in love, have sex, partner, marry – embrace polyamory – as frequently and openly as politicians trade insults.
But, until recently, you rarely found LGBTQ + characters in the books. With a few exceptions, when you meet homosexuals in fiction, they are sick, dying, or in jail.
It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary it was for gay people when queer British writer EM Forster’s “Maurice” was published posthumously in 1971.
For many of us, it was our first time reading a love story in which gay lovers ended up alive – unrepentant and unpunished.
Forster, who died at age 91 in 1970, began writing “Maurice” in 1913 and finished it in 1914. Yet he felt that it could not be published during his lifetime.
Forster’s novels (in particular, “A Passage to India” and “Howards End”) have received critical acclaim.
Forster has lectured in England and the United States. Listeners heard him on the radio as he read his acclaimed 1939 essay “What I Believe”.
In this essay, Forster spoke of his belief in personal relationships, endorsed the humanistic values of “tolerance, good humor and sympathy” and denounced authoritarianism.
His assertion in “What I Believe, that“ if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I would have the courage to betray my country ”, has been a credo for many.
Yet because being gay was illegal in the UK for most of his life, Forster did not want to publish “Maurice” while he was alive.
Homosexuality was not decriminalized in the UK until 1967.
Although he dated some of his friends, Forster couldn’t be openly gay due to the homophobia of his day.
“Maurice”, which Forster dedicated “To a happier year”, does not only have LGBTQ characters. Her two homosexual lovers, Maurice, from high society and educated in Cambridge, and Alec, a gamekeeper, end up happy.
We can be concerned about the obstacles they will encounter in going through such a repressive time. But we know they left together.
“A happy ending was imperative,” Forster wrote in a 1960 “Terminal Note” on “Maurice”, “I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise.”
“I was determined that in fiction anyway,” he adds, “two men should fall in love and stay there forever and ever as fiction allows, and in that sense Maurice and Alec run through always the green forest. “
Forster’s legacy resurfaced during this century. Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel “On Beauty” is a tribute to “Howards End”.
Matthew Lopez’s play “The Inheritance”, which was performed on Broadway, is also, in part, a tribute to “Howards End”.
Many sequels, no matter how well-intentioned, are not good. This is even more true when it comes to classic novels like “Maurice”.
Yet in “Alec” the cheerful and distinguished playwright di Canzio achieved a captivating, lively and moving feat of the imagination.
In “Maurice”, we see things from Maurice’s point of view. During a visit to his friend Clive, a country squire, he meets Alec, Clive’s gamekeeper.
We know that Alec and Maurice, after both trying to blackmail each other, fall in love. But we learn little about Alec except that he loves Maurice.
In “Alec” we see things through Alec’s eyes. Alec, in di Canzio’s reimagining, is a three-dimensional character with feelings, ambitions, and a story.
Born in Dorset, England, in 1893 to working-class parents, Alec loves to read. He knows, because of his class, that he won’t be able to go to college.
But he absorbs as much literature as he can from the library.
He enjoys reading about classical Greek myths and looking at art pictures depicting muscular mythical heroes.
Very early on, Alec knows he loves boys and men. While there’s no way he’s openly gay, he’s okay with his sexuality.
“It saved him trouble with the girls,” writes di Canzio.
Following his father in his work does not attract Alec. Her father is a butcher. He does not want to become the servant of the rich if he has to be at their disposal and pass inside their house. Knowing that he has to do a certain type of job, Alec becomes a game warden for Clive, a country squire.
He and Maurice meet when Maurice visits Clive. As in “Maurice”, the lovers, after much anguish and failed attempts at blackmail, leave together.
So far, di Canzio follows the plot of “Maurice” – even citing some of the novel’s dialogues.
In less hands, it may seem too laborious or too derivative. But di Canzio’s retelling of the story, while a bit slow, is cool. You want to keep reading.
The lovers live happily together for a while. They cannot be openly homosexual. Yet they find people like them and LGBTQ-friendly people in lounges, clubs and other underground queer spaces.
World War I shatters their happiness. Serving under horrific conditions in separate locations, Alec and Maurice are unsure whether they will survive or reunite after the war.
“How many of our stories have been erased – from history, from memory? A friend asks the couple.
You will continue to turn the page to find out how the story of Alec and Maurice ends.