Monday, March 31, 2014

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (1924)

I would like to say I love E.M. Forster, but I haven't (yet) read everything he's ever written, so I suppose I should just say "I"m a lover of certain works of E.M. Forster" or simply "I love E.M. Forster's A Room With A View and Howard's End."  I have tried at least one other time to read A Passage to India but failed at it; it didn't capture my attention and I put it down.  I think maybe what captured me first was this 1930s Modern Library edition, which made me imagine I was reading this on a train through the English countryside, or on the Queen Mary.  It smelled so wonderful too.  Old book smell is the best.

So the trappings of the book made me finally settle down and read it, but I didn't like it any better this time.  I obviously gave it more of a chance, but it's not my favorite Forster, and I disagree with anyone who says it's Forster's best.  Howard's End is far and away Forster's best work.  I think because Howard's End is a drawing room novel, a novel of manners, and A Passage to India is Important and has Meaning (it punches you in the face with Importance throughout the book), it gets pushed to the top of the heap.  I wonder if Forster also thought this was his best work?

I thought Forster was trying to be Serious and Important, and some of the dark humor of his other two greatest novels was missing.  I also thought he was trying to Write, and Write Something Great, which shows.  Howard's End and A Room With A View seem much more light-hearted and fun; clearly they are meant to be more comedic,  and are just more enjoyable to read.

They are also more accessible. I'm not sure A Passage to India is accessible or relevant today.  Perhaps if I were English or Indian, I would feel differently.  But I struggled with some of the Anglo Indian slang; I occasionally thought I'd fallen into an Agatha Christie novel, and kept waiting for a murder that never happened.

So what exactly remains relevant about A Passage to India?  I came up with a couple of relevant themes.

Race.  Definitely still relevant.  The big show trial had shades of similar race based trials from the Scottsboro boys and Leo Frank, to Trayvon Martin today.

Clash of cultures.  Tied to race.

Male friendship and Homosexuality.  It's there, bitches.  Forster was a gay man; Dr. Aziz was modeld after an Indian student he tutored and fell in love with.  Fielding and Aziz are lying together looking up at the stars at one point... They are friends.  But perhaps they are more.  It's buried so far between the lines that we're almost at the back cover, but I think it's there (I was listening to a BBC3 radio documentary on Forster and India and a commentator on there agreed with me, so there).

What I disliked most about the book was the heavy handed-ness, and the whole "God Si Love" bullshittery.  I understand what he was trying to do (at least I think I understand) but it just seemed graceless.  Howard's End and A Room With A View had themes and messages as well, they just were delivered in a more easy going manner.

I'm going to keep the book though.  It will look good on a shelf at home.  I'm so shallow.

A Passage to IndiaA Passage to India by E.M. Forster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn't going to go down as my favorite Forster ( Howards End is not only my favorite Forster, it's one of my favorite go-to books); I also would argue that it's not Forster's finest work (see above).  It's strongly written, but to me heavy handed, and occasionally ponderous.  It's supposed to be Important, and that fact smacks you in the head more than once ("God Si Love", "Mrs. Moore").  What I kept wondering as I read it was "is it still relevant today?"  I finally decided that yes, Anglo - Indian relations (and slang) aside, what it says about race is still relevant, and racially based accusations and trials are not just a thing of Raj India (Trayvon Martin came to mind).  Forster's gay-ness might not be there front and center, but it's also there, hidden between the lines (maybe so far down it's on the back cover - but it's there).  It's almost not worth the ride, other than Forster is a brilliant writer, and there are more than enough flashes of humor and compassion and thoughtfulness to make up for some of it's Importance.

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