Originally Posted by Richard Herley
I finished reading this on 24 October, so I have had time to reflect.
I found the plot insipid until the "outrage" at the Marabar Caves. It then became much more involving. For all his expertise and indeed his theoretical works about the craft of novel-writing, Forster plainly did not understand how to grab the reader with the opening line of the first paragraph and let go only with the closing line of the last.
Nor could I readily identify with any of the characters except, from time to time, Fielding. From this you will gather that my emotions were barely engaged. As a story, I found it a bit of a flop.
Forster started to write this book in 1912, but got no further than the lead-in to the incident at the Marabar Caves. Writer's block set in. He did not know what was going to happen in the caves; had not thought the plot through. When a writer gets blocked on a particular story, it usually means he has gone up a blind alley and doesn't yet know it.
In 1922, after a second and more prolonged visit to India and notable civil unrest there (Forster being critical of both sides, which made him unpopular at home), he resumed work on Passage. By May 1923 he had finished two-thirds of it, and publication followed in 1924.
Thus the book was composed in two sections, ten years apart. Though the first section was obviously fully revised, this disjunction shows. The novelist who wrote the second part is vastly superior to and more experienced than the one who wrote the first.
You might be surprised to learn that the exact brand of snobbery and racism depicted among the Anglo-Indians is still alive and kicking in England today, hidden though it may be behind layers of hypocrisy. Though becoming rare, it persists among a few remnants of the old ruling class, especially those who have been in government and particularly military service. Exemplars of it exist in the village where I live. I cannot think of one who is under the age of 60.
These attitudes are necessary equipment for the servants of an imperial power. How else can one justify to oneself what amounts to little more than the exploitation of a foreign country? Such justification is often verbalized as follows. "We are doing them a favour, bringing civil order, railways, education, and all the rest of it. My word, look no further than Zimbabwe if you want an example of what happens when you leave them to it!"
Forster had been made a snob by his upbringing, but his instinct was to deplore snobbery and to accord each human being an equal worth (this is most evident in A Room with a View). His sympathy with Aziz comes through in the description of the changes wrought by his exposure to the whites. I thought this was extremely well handled, as was his friendship with Fielding and the realistic but rather depressing conclusion that, while India remained British, the two could never really be close.
His descriptions of Anglo-Indian and Muslim society are very vivid, but the poorer inhabitants remain a mystery -- exemplified by the punkah-wallah at the trial.
What I found really interesting were Forster's excursions into mystical and semi-mystical writing to try and convey a sense of his personal India. Such text is always composed at a subconscious level. Even if the writer does not consciously know what he is saying, if he is any good he will trust his instinct and let it go: and Forster at his peak is very good indeed. The episodes dealing with Mrs Moore, all of them, are utterly superb, as are the scenes in Part III, especially when the westerners venture onto the lake at night. These told me more about India and Forster's feelings than any other part of the book, and fully explained why Aziz and Fielding would never find an equality of friendship.
So even though A Passage to India didn't grip me, I am glad I read it. My appreciation of Forster's talent has grown, I know a bit more about my country's history, and I have a better understanding of some of the fossils in my village. Thanks to Joanne and BOb for suggesting this book: I might never have read it otherwise.