When E.M. Forster sailed to Alexandria in the autumn of 1915 to take up a post as something called a “searcher”—a Red Cross functionary whose job it was to interview wounded soldiers about those still missing—he cannot have guessed at the magnitude of what he ended up finding. It certainly wasn’t what he was looking for officially; nor was it quite what he may have been seeking privately, even subconsciously.
Although a few weeks shy of his thirty-seventh birthday and already a celebrated writer when he set out for Egypt, there was something incomplete, something hobbled about him. He was as “timid as a mouse,” as Virginia Woolf (who liked him) once wrote; more to the point, he was still a total stranger to sex—secretly homosexual and as yet wholly unable to “connect,” to use his own famous term. Upon landing in Alexandria, he found himself in a place that did not, at first glance, seem likely to effect any great fulfillment, erotic or otherwise. “Vastly inferior to India,” he wrote to a friend in December 1915, reflecting the prevailing British disdain for its Levantine protectorate, “flat, unromantic, unmysterious, and godless—the soil is mud, the inhabitants are of mud moving.” Things hadn’t improved by April 1916, when in a letter to his friend Edward Carpenter he apologized for having to “grouse” about “this physical loneliness” and his fear that “the spirit is being broken.”
And yet something in Egypt loosed rather than broke his spirit. For one thing, we know that a few months after he wrote Carpenter, Forster was finally relieved of his sexual innocence by a soldier on a beach—clearly a crucial milestone. But it is tempting to see Forster’s erotic loosening-up as somehow connected to another encounter he had, just a few weeks before he wrote the letter to Carpenter, one that would prove to be momentous both for him and, in time, for the world: his meeting with the poet Constantine Cavafy.
Like Forster, Cavafy was a homosexual; unlike Forster, Cavafy, who was half a generation older—he was born in 1863; Forster, in 1879—had found a way to be unconstrained about homosexual desire in his writing. It’s worth remembering that Cavafy was circulating clearly homoerotic poetry already in 1911—fully a year before Forster, during a visit to Carpenter’s home, received the infamous “touch above the buttocks” that inspired Maurice, the novel about homosexual love that he finished in 1914 but that, on his instructions, was published only after his death in 1971. To some extent, the insouciance of the one and the constraint of the other had to do with the difference between Alexandria and England; but there were also striking differences of temperament and biography.
Forster, after all, was the Northern optimist, with his belief in the possibility of “connection”; Cavafy the weary Levantine chronicler of separations, exiles, diasporas, of …