Reading A Passage to India on the heels of The Grass Is Singing, I couldn’t help but note the similarities between Forster’s 1924 novel and the one Lessing wrote nearly three decades later. Thirty years is approximately the span of my life. What did the world (or, all right, the British) gain in understanding in that time? I speak not about the characters but the writers themselves. Certainly Lessing’s level of sophistication in dealing with the relationship between the colonizing and the colonized, the alien and the native, surpasses Forster’s. And then she was only 31 when her novel was published–stamped perhaps with the revolutionary works she had been reading–while he was solidly in mid-life: 46. (It was also to be the last novel Forster would write.)
I forgive old, dead writers much. After all, I wasn’t alive then. I suspect it was typical to use the word “Oriental” to describe Indians, and to make sweeping generalizations about race (though, to be fair, Forster generalizes both the English and the Indians). His description of the main Indian character Aziz is, while characteristically astute, still…how should I say it? “Other.” As if describing a wondrous, little known phenomenon. An example:
The dialogue remained light and friendly, and Adela had no conception of its underdrift. She did not know that the comparatively simple mind of the Mohammedan was encountering Ancient Night.
I am a little less tolerant of his depictions of women in this novel. Particularly Adela, the female protagonist. Were women so delicate back then that they could not be touched (or approached? it’s unclear what happened in the cave) without going into hysterics? But maybe I’m being too harsh on poor Adela because I recall a certain unwanted advance producing a similar, albeit more tempered result, in myself.
Still, our sympathies (Forster’s sympathies as well, I suspect) are with Aziz. All throughout the scenes where he is being wrongfully accused, I was choking on that feeling of dread I get when I believe nothing good will come to the characters I care about, and it’s all from human stupidity. I almost wanted to stop reading: the shade had fallen; once more, civilization (though past now) had wronged, grievously wronged, its outcasts. But it’s not that type of story. For Forster is not dark. He is melancholy, sometimes downcast, but he is not brutal. He is not of that world. So the plot veered in another direction, away from Lessing and her kind of truth.
Does that mean that British India pre 1920s was “better” than the independent but apartheid-riddled South Africa of the 1950s? I cannot say. They echo each other, miserably. And neither microcosm explored can be said to represent the entire society at that age. Still, if one image feels truer–well, it is Lessing’s.
What I have always loved about Forster’s writing (predominantly in Howard’s End, but also in A Room with a View and the lesser Where Angels Feat to Tread and Maurice) is his almost feminine sense of the intuition of relationships. In that regard he is Lessing’s brother, for they are both excellent at describing the air between two people, that murky, shapeless substance that is the very essence of an interaction, though the characters cannot articulate or even notice it. Here is an excerpt from one resonant passage in Forster’s novel:
How gross he had been at Mr. Fielding’s–spoiling the talk and walking off in the middle of the haunting song! As he drove them away in the tum-tum, her irritation became unbearable, and she did not realize that much of it was directed against herself. She longed for an opportunity to fly out at him, and since he felt cross too, and they were both in India, an opportunity soon occurred.
Under their influence, I am experimenting with that sort of writing right now, a short story about an English teacher who–well, that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.
Despite my measured admiration for A Passage to India, I did not think it lived up to Howard’s End. I’m quite sad that I have only one more of his novels left to read (The Longest Journey). I don’t have high hopes, having heard nothing of it. When I was younger I used to love certain novelists’ more obscure works, but now I find that my tastes are in general more aligned with Those Who Know, aka The Gatekeepers, etc., the fact of which reflects on me negatively or not, I don’t know.
India is more mystical than his other novels. All the talk of the “echo” started to bewilder me, especially with regard to its effect on the excellent Mrs. Moore’s psyche. Had she become deified? The novel is broken into three parts, titled “Mosque,” “Caves,” and “Temple.” The religious references in the first and last are clear, but “Caves” takes up the bulk of the story. I posit that Mrs. Moore’s apotheosis is the religious connection in the central piece. Nevertheless, it feels all a “muddle,” as Forster’s characters would say, and, by the end, Mrs. Moore’s importance begins to seem forced. I miss the focus (both in characters and theme) of his earlier novels, but then maybe they weren’t quite as ambitious.