Friday, 14 October 2016

Played on Squares (Bloomsbury and Chess) 9: Forster, part 2

This is the second part of an exploration of Edward Morgan Forster's chess - one of the Bloomsbury Group whose chess playing activities we have been documenting in a series of posts beginning here.

From here

We have been trying to keep a chronological grip on our subject - so before we return to the period of the 14-18 War, we'll highlight some passing chess references in his earlier novels...

...starting with a Room with a View, published in 1908. The novel is described helpfully on this internet site: "it's strength lies in its vivid cast of characters, humorous dialogue, and comedic play upon the manners of the day, and in Forster's engaging and sympathetic exploration of Lucy's character." Lucy Honeychurch is "a young woman from Surrey who doesn't know what she wants" but "she grows into a woman through the course of the book." She is in Italy, one of a party of English tourists, Baedeker's in hand, on an expedition through the hills to visit Fiesole. The narrator makes some reassuring observations concerning their Italian tour guide:
"Italians are born knowing the way. It would seem that the whole earth lay before them, not as a map, but as a chess-board, whereon they continually behold the changing pieces as well as the squares. Any one can find places, but the finding of people is a gift from God."
And talking of places, and people, we can assume Forster was familiar with Simpson's-on-the-Strand as it crops up several times in Howards End published in 1910. Henry Willcox, a main character, is a business man and an habituĂ©. He is "stuffy, conventional, and chauvinistic" - which, even if typical of Simpson's clientele there for the roast beef, couldn't, for one moment, be even remotely true of those there for the chess.

Both of these examples hint at Forster's familiarity with chess culture - and they get us on to 1917 and Alexandria where, as noted last time, he played chess with wounded soldiers in R and R. He would also play off-duty with Mohammed Adl, a local tram conductor some twenty years his junior who he had befriended: indeed, who Forster went out of his way to befriend.

Mohammed Adl
 from here

Morgan corresponded - in so far as war-time conditions allowed - with the folks back home and, in a letter dated 13th September 1917, he wrote to Florence Barger (a significant woman in his life - as friend and confidante only) about his sometimes necessarily furtive affair with Adl:
"You enquire what A[dl] and I do. Talk mostly - you see our time seldom averages over 2 hours a week. Occassionally chess but 'I have learnt to play, but not learnt to think he says. - Ways and means are increasingly difficult.' "(Lago and Furbank (1985)
Furbank describes a chess encounter:
"On the next occasion, Mohammed came to Forster's room...They played chess and laid on the bed; and after a little while, they leaned towards each other and began to stroke each other's hair. Mohammed murmured, 'Beautiful hair', and they kissed. Things now went wrong, for Forster, growing excited, made too fierce a grab at Mohammed, and there was a scuffle, during which Forster hurt his hand and Mohammed hurt his eye." (Furbank p 38.)     
This same incident is also described by Wendy Moffat (2010 p157): "On their fourth meeting, in Mohammed's room, Forster and el Adl got into a literal scrape over sex" - but there is no chess in her account of the bungled consummation, even though she explicitly mentions it in their earlier assignations. Neither can she and Furbank agree about the room in which the lovers made their moves. While one wouldn't want to be pedantic over incidentals, nor - more importantly - spoil a good story, it would be nice if the biographers could sink their differences on the crucial historical detail: on that particular occasion, was chess-play really fore-play, as is suggestively construed by Furbank? The affair continued until Adl married, and they remained in contact - with Forster sending money - until Adl died in 1922.

And so we get back to that famous piece of Forster chess prose, The Game of Life, which we touched on last time. It was first published in the Athenaeum 27 June 1919, just after his return from Egypt - which makes you wonder if it was conceived as a result of the testing circumstances of his chess encounters in the field hospitals and with Adl, especially as the essay contained this observation:

The second most well-known Forster quote.
 ("Only connect" - since you ask.)

Most sources (e.g the one illustrated above) omit the words in Forster's original immediately after "chess". His text in fact reads: "Chess, which severely eliminates accident, is a forcing house...etc". So, according to Forster, chess doesn't admit a sufficient quantum of the contingent - it is over-controlled - to provide an adequate simulcrum for "Life" - the search for which is the aim of the essay. "O Life, thou art Piquet, in fact" is how he rounds it off - adding a final rueful note: "Still, she might have been Golf."

As for golf, Forster seems to have been an enthusiastic duffer - he recorded a round of 148 in his diary on the 3 February 1898 (a day when the uncontrollable called the shots). In The Game of Life he admits also to misfortunes at the chess board, although the essay provides "the best-ever analysis" - applauded thus by the late Mike Fox, and Richard James - of the Evans Gambit. If chess readers reach for their copies of "The Complete Chess Addict" (1987) or "The Even More..." (1993), they will find the relevant extracts on pages 40 and 48 respectively. To keep this post non-technical (just as Forster manages to do, so brilliantly, in his chess writing) we can say that he riffs with dry humour on the theme of Captain Evans - the inventor of the Gambit - and the sea.

In 1873 via here 

The old sea-dog's romantic variation sets a "heavy current" running from the "south-west" (i.e. the bottom left quadrant of the board where White sacrifices his pawn) which "laps against the foundations of Black's King's Bishop's Pawn" up in the top-right. In the flow of the play "the whole surface of the board breaks into whirlpools".

Perhaps one might say - in tow to Forster - that playing the Evans is like surfing: you ride your initiative like the crest of the wave, hoping not to fall off. Forster contrasts it with "Old Stodge": a variation of the same opening but without the salty gambit of the pawn. "There is nothing liquid about Old Stodge", he writes, "[o]n either side runs a dreary ridge" of pieces separated by "a plain (whence the term Giuoco Piano [as this way of playing is called - MS]) where the Pawns butt one another like rams." Forster, his chess maybe as fragile as his golf, bemoans that whichever variation he plays (Gambit or Stodge) "there rises a familiar corpse" - his own: a consequence, perhaps, of his self-confessed "timidity", or some other "superficial emotion".

So Forster draws the conclusion that whether it be in choice of opening, or neck-tie or lover, character is at the root of failure: of that, "the men of goodwill will remind us, we are entirely and eternally responsible." It is for this reason, incidentally, that the "severely limits accident" clause is important for his thesis. It reinforces the point that success or otherwise in chess - where pretty much everything happens as directed by intention, even if the intended result may not always follow - rests on your own personal resources. What lies outside the chess board plays no role in your achievements, or failures, on it. In the discourse of another philosophy, each move is an existential moment.    

By the way - the "Old Stodge" label has been employed effectively by one chess club to caution young players against the allegedly dreary manoeuvring of the Giuoco Piano. There is some irony in that in todays Grandmaster play the wheel of fashion has turned to put the "Stodge" back on the board once again.

There are just two more Forster chess references that we should mention, both from later years. In the King's College Forster archive there is an "ink sketch of E.M. Forster's head while playing chess, by George Barger, 1929 (Ref EMF/18/39)." It was made en route to South Africa - George was the husband of Forster's close confidante Florence Barger. However, the King's College Archive tells me that, disappointingly, the artist has not included any chess paraphernalia in the sketch. But for the assertion of the caption Forster might just as well have been playing Piquet.      

To conclude these Forster posts, the best perhaps comes last. In 1932 Forster visited Cracow, alone, after an invitation to Bucharest from the First Secretary at the Embassy. "He found it altogether a strange place and witnessed there a game of chess played with human pieces." (Furbank (1979) v2 p 172). Forster's account of the spectacle was published in Time and Tide in August 1932, and then in the Abinger Harvest in 1936, as Chess at Cracow. It is a minor masterpiece of chess journalism.

Chess at Cracow weaves together a poetic description of the night-time scene in the courtyard at the medieval castle at Wawel, "the refuge of dead kings"...

Wawel Castle courtyard, but in day light.
From here
...with a lucid, and discreetly droll, explanation for the uninitiated of the opening moves of the King's Gambit (i.e. 1.e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Bc4 Qh4+ 4. Kf1 - though Forster gives the moves in the descriptive notation of his day):
"those who do not play chess had better be told that...["Black"]...was, with his second move, faced with a crisis. Should he or should he not take the pawn offered by the other fellow? To take it would be rank folly - generations of previous players have taken it - but experts are now in favour of resisting the temptation and doing something else  ....Check occured as early as the third move, and by then I was already puzzled over the quality of the game. It was either too good for me or too bad". 
That "Black" in quotes is my stand-in for Forster's "blue and green mannikin", he who was impaled on the horns of his dilemma - but, "sombre decision taken, he summoned his two torch bearers, and they lead the pawn away into outer darkness, to the sound of cymbals and drums."

Forster doesn't give us all whole game, but we are left in no doubt about the likely result:
"I had paid sixpence and watched with sympathy, and I was soon engrossed by the difficulties surrounding the black queen. She had never liked being moved out so early, she had a haggard, offended look, as of a matron compelled to join in a party too soon, and was fain to rest on the hem of her mighty crinolin. By the eighth move, pawns were closing her in. I suspected collusion and withdrew...While I hesitated in which direction to go, there was a sound of cymbals and drums from the interior of the castle. The queen had fallen."   
Superb, and a fine note on which to finish these two Forster posts.

We have not pinned down any serious chess play by Forster, but he clearly was beyond the beginner stage. Nor is there any evidence of a chess obsession in the manner of some other Bloomsberries. In his novels he sprinkled judicious chess metaphors here and there - like so many other authors - but in his writing about the game for "those who do not play chess" he was, among the Bloomsbury Group, and indeed authors more generally, exceptional.

So - I hope - that really is the conclusion to Played on Squares.

Chess at Cracow and The Game of Life, Abinger Harvest by E.M. Forster (1936) Edward Arnold and Penguin (1967).
The Even More Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox and Richard James (1993) Faber and Faber London.
E.M.Forster: A Life by P.N.Furbank (2 vols in 1977 and 1978 - combined in 1979) Oxford UP.
The Journals and Diaries of E.M.Forster edited by Phillip Gardner (2011) Pickering and Chatto London.
Selected Letters of E.M.Forster v1 1879-1970 edited by Lago and Furbank (1985) Arena London.
E.M.Forster: a New Life by Wendy Moffat (2010) Bloomsbury, London.

And with thanks to Richard James, and Patricia McGuire at the King's College Archive Centre.  

Lost in History        

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