Most writers battle with periods of being blocked; it's almost an occupational hazard. But in the writing of his last and greatest novel, A Passage to India, EM Forster got stuck for nine years. Now that is unusual. The book took him 11 years in total to complete, which means the actual physical work – setting the words down on the page – lasted two years. All the rest was hesitation.
What tripped him up so badly? We may never know. There were two areas of his life, physical intimacy and writing, which Forster kept highly private. For the rest, his diaries and letters are full of self-examination, giving the impression of somebody free with his emotions. But he shared his sexual secrets with very few people, and in his journals he usually recorded such matters in a very oblique way. His writing he hardly mentions at all.
At the time that he embarked on A Passage, Forster was at a curious point in his creative life. All of his other published novels were written in a flurry between 1905 and 1910. He had published some short stories too, but there are strong indications that his novelistic impulses were running dry. He had started a new one, which he called "Arctic Summer", in 1911, but it had already stalled before he set out on his first visit to India and it would never be completed.
His motive for going to India was to see Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man whom he'd befriended in 1906 and with whom he was deeply in love. The affection was lopsided: Forster had twice declared his feelings, but Masood was straight and couldn't reciprocate. Nevertheless, the two men were close, and when Masood completed his legal studies and returned to India, Forster followed a few months later.
By then, the country had already started to exercise his imagination. Masood had talked about it with Forster and had put the idea into his head of writing an Indian novel. It was enough of a possibility for Forster to have mentioned it to his publisher before he left. From the outset, the notion of an Indian novel was inseparable from Masood. "But for him," Forster reflected years later, "I might never have gone to his country, or written about it … I didn't go there to govern it or to make money or to improve people. I went there to see a friend."
He was in India for six months, from October 1912 to April 1913. He travelled a huge amount in that time, covering a lot of ground and meeting a great many people. It's easy to pick up, in his letters and diaries, how stirred he was by his experiences. And, unsurprisingly, a great deal of what he saw and heard went straight into his book. In Simla he attended an "advanced" Muslim wedding where men prayed at one end of a veranda while a gramophone played a silly English song at the other. In Lahore he was introduced to a Mr Godbole, who talked to him about ragas and sang to him as they walked through the public gardens. In Hyderabad, a friend of Masood's lost his temper and had an outburst against the English: "It may be 50 or 500 years, but we shall turn you out." Anybody familiar with A Passage to India will recognise these and many other moments.
He began writing the book in July 1913, soon after returning from India, but just two months later, in September, he dropped it in favour of Maurice, his "unpublishable" homosexual novel. The event that derailed him was a visit to Edward Carpenter in Millthorpe. Carpenter was 20 years older than Forster, a socialist and free thinker, who took a vocal stand on issues from feminism to vivisection to "homogenic love" – his term for being gay. He lived openly with his lover, George Merrill, a much younger working-class man from the Sheffield slums.
It was Merrill, in fact, who set Maurice in motion, by touching Forster's bottom in the kitchen after lunch. "I believe he touched most people's," Forster mused later, though the effect, in his case, was startling. In a moment, like a lightning flash, the plot and characters of his new novel appeared to him. He started writing it almost immediately and by the middle of the following year he was done.
He might have gone back to his Indian novel then, but didn't. Life intervened, in the form of the first world war. Forster went to Alexandria with the Red Cross, where he stayed for three years. He took his manuscript with him and tinkered with it, but it was clear that he'd lost his way. It was only after a second, year-long visit to India in 1922, this time as the private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, that he was able to finish.
During this nine-year gap Forster was writing other things, so it's safe to assume that a specific element of the novel was causing him trouble. Oliver Stallybrass, who collated and edited the original manuscripts of A Passage to India, believed that it was on the question of what happened, or didn't happen, to Adela Quested in the Marabar caves that Forster foundered. He points out that the extant earliest versions of the scene look like fair copies, as if previous attempts had been written out again and the originals thrown away.
This episode is, of course, central to the novel and the issue of whether Dr Aziz (partly based on Masood) is guilty or innocent is the axle on which the whole book turns. Yet when he started writing, Forster had no clear idea in mind about this essential aspect. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1952, he says: "When I began A Passage to India I knew that something important happened in the Marabar caves, and that it would have a central place in the novel – but I didn't know what it would be."
In his first drafts, Miss Quested is subjected to a physical attack, though it's not clear by whom exactly. She has just been musing to herself that she and Ronnie, her fiance, probably do not love each other. Then she becomes aware that somebody has followed her into the dark – she later assumes that it's Dr Aziz – and a violent struggle ensues, in which she fights him off.
The description is halting, unconvincing. Forster, a shy and retiring man, was never good at writing about violence, but in this instance, one feels, the action is unpersuasive because its author is only half-involved. The writer can sense that he's going in the wrong direction, but is trying to force a way through.
The solution that Forster eventually decided on is brilliant, because it is ambivalent. He doesn't show us what happened in the caves. We see Miss Quested running away down the hill, getting tangled in thorns, and all we have to go on is her feverish, half-dreamy memory of being assaulted. It's also clear that Dr Aziz is not her attacker. Perhaps the guide is responsible – or perhaps it is some kind of spiritual assailant, the evil demon of the caves themselves. Or perhaps – and this is most likely – the attack is imaginary, what a psychologist would think of as a repressed fantasy: Miss Quested is in love with Aziz, but cannot say so, or act on her feelings, and instead turns them inside out, into violence against herself.
The genius of this moment is that its lack of certainty covers all possibilities. The attack, or non-attack, is at the heart of the story, and everything turns on it. The question of whether or not Dr Aziz is guilty puts British justice, and the Raj, on trial. In that sense, it's political. But its psychology, full of repressed longings and fears, is true to the characters involved, and in that sense it's personal. The confrontation is highly charged and its power lies precisely in the fact that we don't know whether it happened at all.
Unlike many of the other elements that Forster incorporated, there is no obvious original for this event, although the setting has a basis in reality. The Barabar caves, which became the Marabar caves in Forster's version, are close to Bankipore, where Masood was living at that time. Forster was there for two weeks in the middle of his Indian travels, and he visited the caves on the day that he left.
E M Forster EM Forster. Photograph: Edward Gooch/Getty Images
With a man as timid and repressed as Forster, it is often what is not said that matters the most. So we have to pay attention to the fact that Forster had said goodbye to Masood the previous night. Although he was only halfway through his stay in India, they wouldn't see each other again on this visit or, indeed, for many years afterwards. He had travelled halfway around the world to spend time with his friend, but out of a six-month sojourn they were together for only three weeks – and Forster still had three months of his journey in front of him.
The impact of this parting goes almost entirely unremarked in his diaries and letters, and yet it must have been of huge importance to him. There are only faint but significant clues as to how he felt. In his diary on 27 January, the night before he leaves, he admits that he has had a "long and sad day". Then we find this cryptic entry: "Aie-aie-aie – growing after tears. Mosquito net, fizzling lamp, high step between rooms. Then return and comfort a little."
It seems that something happened between the two men that night. But what? He apparently never spoke about it to anybody else and the diary entry is frustratingly opaque. But it's almost certain that this incident, whatever it was, involved Masood and some kind of rejection. Whether he tried to touch or kiss his friend, it's clear that he made some sort of overture and was rebuffed. And the sparse, telegrammatic style of the words indicate – in his case – how deeply felt they were.
It was in this state of mind that he set off to the caves the next morning. In fact, the visit had been organised by Masood, perhaps as some kind of consolation, though he didn't get up to see his English friend off. In his journal Forster tersely notes: "Left at 6.30. After one glimpse the raw greyness." His mood, one senses, was saturated with the feeling of loss – and he carried this feeling with him into the caves a few hours later.
Is it too fanciful to imagine that everything Forster must have been experiencing that day – a confusion of love, sadness, disappointment and possibly anger – was projected on to the caves, and took form in the imagined attack? It's never explicitly stated in the novel, but it's obvious that Miss Quested is attracted to Aziz. If the assault is a fantasy, it's because her desires have no outlet – and the same could be said for Forster.
This would explain, perhaps, why he got stuck with the book, just as, emotionally speaking, he was stuck in his relationship with Masood. It would be many years – more or less around the time of his second visit to India – before things settled down between them again. By then Masood was married and a father, and Forster had made peace with the knowledge that his friend would never belong to him. By then, too, Forster had finally lost his virginity ("parted with respectability," as he put it) and had had his first physical affair with a man in Egypt during the war.
Much had been resolved at last, and on his return from India, Forster sat down to his book again. He finished it on 21 January 1924. It was dedicated "to Syed Ross Masood and to the 17 years of our friendship". He would never write another novel.