Tuesday, January 28, 2020

E.M. Forster

A Passage to India is one of those novels that's attracted fame without, I think, also attracting a critical mass of readers. And honestly, I can understand why. E.M. Forster was a stylist, his writing complex: this book is more challenging than The Heart of the Matter and more ambitious than Burmese Days. But the question, I think, is: to what end? What has Forster achieved in Passage that Greene and Orwell did not?

Certainly, Forster managed to recreate the language -- the diction -- of the time: his dialogue among British and Indian communities reads with authenticity. And places, too, are realistically captured: Forster, no doubt, had explored enough of India to accurately describe its landscape, weather, and politics. 

For me, though, the story Forster weaves in Passage -- one fundamentally of reputation and forgiveness -- does not match the language used to deliver it. To the extent that the story probes the perspective of Indian characters: yes, Forster has done something new. But conversely, the story of British women wanting to "experience India" is one that's been told elsewhere -- and often, I'd say, with greater effect. There's such an emphasis on style here, and yet, the story itself fails to flourish. The result is a division, a disconnect between narrative and content. 

This is not to be overly critical of Forster -- because in Passage he does confront a difficult truth: namely that, in the face of colonialism, amity is an impossibility. Forster's characters come to recognize this, and feel a sense both of disappointment, but also of relief: the pretense, in the end, fades to black. 

Ultimately, this was a novel that did not move me: it lacked levity at moments of self-deprecation, but equally lacked clarity at moments of profundity. I understand the subtle case that's made for Indian independence, and I recognize, too, the tragedy implied by the novel's central conflict. But this did not elicit an emotional response: the cloak of language -- and the complexity of Forster's narrative -- distracted me from generating a sustained emotional connection with his characters.  

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