Bay Area Reporter :: ‘Alec’
Over the past two decades, a popular literary trend has been modern tales of classic novels, whether updating them or telling them from a different character or perspective. Some successful examples of this reappropriation have been: Hours by Michael Cunningham, who reimagined Virginia Woolf’s film Mrs. Dalloway at three different times; Bridget Jones Diary by Hélène Fielding. who modernized Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice in contemporary Londoners; and March by Geraldine Brooks, who reimagined Louisa May Alcott’s Little woman From the perspective of the father soldier who died in the Civil War, Mr. March.
Now we have William di Canzio’s gay adaptation of EM Forster’s flagship novel Mauritius inspired by the classic love story of high society stockbroker Maurice Hall and working class game keeper Alec Scudder.
The novel was written in 1913/1914 but due to legal issues (homosexuality in England was not decriminalized until 1967) and believing that the public’s attitude would not be favorable, it was not published. only in 1971 after Forster’s death. The book was adapted into a blockbuster film by Merchant Ivory in 1987.
Forster was adamant that his book had an idyllic ending because during his lifetime, gay characters were often murdered, committed suicide, or led lives of calm and sad desperation.
Playwright William di Canzio decided to ask what happened to this iconic couple after deciding to stay together. Have they lived happily ever after? Di Canzio tells this story from Alec Scudder’s position, providing us with his past story as well as their future together once Mauritius ends.
Di Canzio recounts Alec’s beginnings with his birth in Dorset in 1893. He recognizes early on that he is attracted to men, having his first sexual experience with a male bodybuilder. He has no shame about his homosexuality and makes no excuses for it. He is excellent at sports and exercising with weights to develop a beautiful physique which gives him confidence to make his way in the world. After leaving school, he successively held jobs as a servant, eventually becoming a game warden in Penge where he met Maurice.
Di Canzio quotes Forster’s dialogue almost verbatim and ties the two books together (they could easily be read in tandem), although we see the same courtship events from Alec’s perspective rather than Maurice’s. They quickly fall in love in a all-consuming romance. They plan to buy land in the countryside where they can raise game to sell to restaurants and hotels. They meet other “bohemian” men, all of whom are portrayed positively.
Alec and Maurice seem intent on “outlawing their lives together,” but from the dates, the reader will guess that WWI will encroach on their happiness. They decide to enlist, hoping that they will be stationed together, but due to their class differences, they are separated, with Alec as an infantryman sent to the Somme and Maurice as an officer serving in Gallipoli. Both suffer insane violence and loss. Will they survive and are they reunited? No spoilers will be telegraphed here.
What is remarkable about di Canzio’s approach is how he describes the underground gay lifestyle before and during the war, with private parties, bars, brothels, often in secret coded language, for imprisonment was always a distinct possibility for any misstep. Yet he mimics Forster’s style and language very well, exuding his intelligence, humanism, and mystical ties to the past.
The war destroyed the world they knew and they had to somehow recreate a new life for themselves despite feeling rejected by society. And di Canzio faithfully renders the period, although one could argue that Alec’s self-awareness and acceptance of his sexuality seems a bit post-Stonewall, though that’s 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, but not explicit, way than Forster’s, although even in the 1970s the author was criticized for his awkward portrayals of gay love.
Probably the strongest writing is that of the living battle scenes, depicting the horrors of war in the trenches, all realistic in their agonizing detail and maintaining the suspense of what will happen.
But despite their separation, the spotlight remains on Alec and Maurice’s love for each other and how difficult it was to create a safe space for this devotion to flourish and mature.
However, a subplot about Maurice’s sister Kitty, who will play a part in the ending, is less captivating. Also, because Clive Durham was a central figure in Mauritius, we continued to hope that there might be another meeting between the two characters and how Alec might have seen such a reunion, but alas, there was no such meeting. Finally, some readers might find the ending not as emotionally satisfying as one might have liked.
Yet, all in all, this is a brave attempt and there is no doubt that anyone who has read Mauritius or saw the movie, must have wondered how their life together had turned out despite all the odds against them. Di Canzio satisfies these aspirations while staying true to Forster’s intention, delivering a plausible if not terribly inspiring conclusion. If you’re in the mood for a fiery love affair, Alec will richly serve that purpose in a way that even Forster himself could have approved of.
Alec: a novel by William di Canzio. Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($ 27.00) us.macmillan.com/author/williamdicanzio
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