Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster held the rare distinction of being a modernist writer without writing much like a modernist. While Joyce was going insane with recreating stream of consciousness on the page and Woolf with the quotidian detail of everyday life, Forster was busy with far more classical ambitions. His work tackled big-P Picture ideas through the lens of Flaubertian realism, and this put a lot of his writing at odds with his modernist contemporaries. Indeed, there is a passage in A Passage to India, his 1924 magnum opus that took 10 years to write, that pretty much sums up Forster’s take on the so-called modernist condition:
Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’ – it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.
Take that, Virginia Woolf.

Starting with his earlier works like Howard’s End and A Room with a View, Forster was deeply preoccupied with the idea of cultures or mindsets butting up against other cultures or mindsets as a result of British imperialism, and this was no more so the case than in A Passage to India. It tells the story of an Indian doctor named Aziz who is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a visiting white woman from Britain named Adela Quested while on a tour of India’s fabled Marabar Caves.

Whereas the novel opens with a kind of false gentility on the part of the occupying Brits, a weird sort of proto-political correctness in their interactions with the natives, the assault on Adela exposes the inherit racism and superiority they feel. Adela’s fianc√©, the deeply bigoted Ronny, breaks off their engagement after she retracts her accusations against Dr. Aziz. (Ronny sees this as a betrayal of the white race.) His mother, Mrs. Moore, who befriended Aziz before the assault, finds the trial against him a strain on her humanist beliefs. And even Aziz’s closest friend, Cyril Fielding, finds that far too much now separates them, culturally speaking, than unites them as the trial takes its toll on their friendship.

I admire Forster and keep returning to his work for two chief reasons, one of which I could never pull off in my own writing and one of which I do attempt to do in my own way. The first is his ability to create fully formed, flesh-and-blood characters who also simultaneously represent various ideas about something. This is incredibly hard to do and Forster is a master at it. Everyone in A Passage to India encompasses some broader aspect of the social or even geo-political situation of the setting, but this is in no way heavy-handed or reduces the dimension that the author gives each of his creations. In this way, Forster probably has more in common with Virginia Woolf that some critics would have you believe. He is great at capturing the very spirit of his characters while still allowing them to represent some idea larger than themselves.

The second aspect is his skill with what I might call metaphoric modulation. I love the way certain scenes or interactions in his writing call to one other in subtle but powerful ways. For example, the Marabar Caves are literally a disorienting place (indeed, Mrs. Moore abandons the tour of them due to claustrophobia, which effectively leaves Dr. Aziz alone with Adela) but they are also meant to represent the vague, disorienting nature of Britain’s relationship with India, and with the indeterminate events that pass between Aziz and Adela. These metaphors get modulated throughout the text, echoing through various passages and helping to lend a level enrichment to the writing. Again, it isn’t heavy handed or obvious; but for close readers, these echoes make for a more rewarding experience. They also help to give the narrative something different (and better) than a traditional ‘arc’ of plot. You become more concerned with how certain strands of metaphors will come together and work themselves out than you are with any preoccupation with ‘what happens next.’

Forster spoke disparagingly about this novel in his later years, calling it dated once the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan in the late 1940s. But contemporary readers will see how this text stands up, how it exposes the very personal affects of colonialism and the tensions that arise from the post-colonial hangover. A Passage to India, more now than ever, reveals how prejudice can echo endlessly around the caverns of our ignorance, and how we can lose sight of our deepest beliefs when falsehoods are allowed to reverberate unchecked.

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