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

A Passage to India

I’m going to do something new for this entry, and write about a book that I’ve re-read, rather than one that’s completely new to me. My excuse is that ‘Passage to India’ felt like a completely different novel to the book I read aged 18. For a start it felt like a piece of literature which told a story that engaged me through language, character, structure and themes; basically, it was a novel. I have an embarrassing memory that previously I read it only as a book. There were words on the pages and my eye passed over them and there were definitely names of people that recurred at frequent intervals, but I recall being extremely disappointed in the book as a whole. All I can say is, I was wrong.

This time I was stuck from the very first page with the joy of Forster’s prose. I don’t know what it says about my reading habits as a teenager, but it is humbling to realized that I passed over phrases like ‘they had tried to reproduce their own attitude to life upon the stage, and to dress up as the middle-class English people they actually were’ and ‘an expression on their faces not so much of determination as of a determination to be determined’ and only thought: when’s the story going to start? The very sentences are the clue to the story. Outwardly innocuous, they are filled with shadows and black humour with a probing wit lying just under the surface.

The characters are equally slippery. Even the English prigs, the most easily identifiable clique within the novel, have just enough complexity to prevent you from ever feeling like you completely understand them. While this this frustrated me as a reader who wanted answers I now find myself seduced by the humanity of it all. Similarly, the characters who deserve good treatment from the novelist (to my mind – the Indian natives oppressed and humiliated by the British at every opportunity) are equally elusive. Although stereotypes are mocked Forster refuses to do without them; modern readers are confronted with phrases such as ‘what they [the Indians] said and what they felt were (except in the case of affection) seldom the same.   They had numerous mental conventions, and when these were flouted they found it very difficult to function.’

I’m not going to have space to write much about the structure. I’ll just let it stand that the three sections (of completely irregular lengths) juxtapose the themes of nationalism, futility and knowledge masterfully. The blurbs of most editions will tell you that the plot revolves around an accusation made by a white woman against an Indian doctor while on a friendly visit to the Marabar caves. The confusion over what actually happened, and the subsequent strangely unimpressive plot twists provide the main action of the novel. As Forster is clearly aware, however, no novel can really explain human emotions, motivations or cultures. The novel observes them with the lightest of touches, never patronizing the reader with easy answers but embodying the quest for understanding that underlies all the best novels.

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