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14 August 2008 @ 11:46 pm
the unoriginal series  
A Passage to India, E.M. Forster.

The classic-basher in me once more raises its ugly head, this time to say: if this is 'Forster's finest novel,' I don't want to read the others.



This book, on reading, gives off a faint air of awkwardness. I imagine Forster thought he believed in a regime of racial tolerance, but didn't actually. This is something I picked up on reading, not the character's dialogue - with such plums as 'the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die' - but between the lines. There's certain phraseology within the prose itself that suggests Forster really didn't have a clue. I call the main offender the oft-used phrase 'the Oriental mind'. Forster passes an awful lot of judgment on Oriental thinking, behaviour and action for someone who, um, isn't an Oriental.The fact that his main characters, the Indian Aziz and the English Fielding, found themselves unable to be friends in the end because they reverted to type, bears this out.

It's a hard line to walk, because at what point can you ever say you understand another race to the point where you're able make sweeping statements about them? The point is: never. That point does not exist. Sweeping statements of any sort are a crime. Morgan Freeman agrees with me. We both say, judge each person on their individual merit. I find all these post-Imperialist, guilt-ridden efforts to 'get behind the native' rather ooky. It's all right for one person to be bad or good, suspicious or trusting, and so on and so on, without bringing praise or indictment down upon their entire race. For god's sake. Logic 101.

Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession.

This is the best proof of what I've outline above. What the fuck is he even talking about? I mean, was there anything more inherently false than the Victoriana system of hospitality, with morning calls and afternoon calls and politeness before sincerity? And 'like most Orientals.' How I loathe that phrase. Had Forster MET every Oriental and asked them their views on hospitality and got them to rate said views out of 10? I DO NOT THINK SO. YOUR REASONING IS FAULTY. YOU ARE THE WEAKEST LINK, GOODBYE.

Here are two examples of what I believe is the embedded racism in this book:

She did not admire him with any personal warmth, for there was nothing of the vagrant in her blood

Riiiiiiiiiiight, because everyone who makes a mixed-race marriage is a VAGRANT. What.

Exempted by a long career in the Secretariat from personal contact with the peoples of India, he was able to speak of them urbanely, and to deplore racial prejudice.

Again, wow. Just. Wow. The only way to avoid racism is to avoid the race? Excellent argument for apartheid, thank you.

The punkah-wallah was none of these things; he scarcely knew that he existed and did not understand why the court was fuller than usual, [...] didn't even know that he worked a fan, though he thought he pulled a rope.

This part of the book is not written from the POV of the punkah-wallah. It is written from the POV of an English girl, with no special insight into the punkah-wallah's mind or knowledge of his background. HOW DARE she make these casual assumptions based on nothing but his caste and occupation? And this is the person set up as the reluctant heroine of the book? Bite me.

The blurb says the book describes 'the racism inherent in colonialism.' Silly me, I thought that would be the plot, not the view of the author.

Here are some lovely examples of intended racism, which burned me like FIRE:

'Now look here,' said the logical girl, 'wouldn't you expect a Mohammedan to answer if you asked him to take his hat off in a church?'
'It's different, it's different - you don't understand.'


'You're superior to them, anyway. Don't forget that. You're superior to everyone in India except one or two of the ranis, and they're on an equality.'

Ouch.

So that was my capital B big issue with the book. There remains, however, the plot. It is so unbelievably contrived. The outcome of the trial was made completely obvious due to Forster's reluctance to demonise anyone. I would have liked this book more if Aziz had actually done it, if in his efforts to be precisely fair Forster didn't employ the tactics of reverse racism. Miss Quested came off hollow - nothing more and nothing less than a plot device, her motives unassailable because they were non-existant. Ditto for Fielding's marriage. The constant nameless references to 'my wife' didn't give it away; it was the fact that Fielding and Miss Quested so obviously should have married that I knew they wouldn't, even by that stage in the book. That pat little conversation about how neither of them wants love didn't fly with me, particularly when Fielding fell in love just twenty pages later. I wonder what happened to that poor, priggish girl. Mrs Moore was right; love would have livened her up, if only she could feel it.

Don't even get me started on Mrs Moore, the queen of what happens when you tell not show.

Jackals were indeed less to Mr Sorley's mind, but he admitted that the mercy of God, being infinite, may well embrace all mammals. And the wasps? He became uneasy during the descent to wasps, and was apt to change the conversation. And oranges, cactuses, crystals and mud? And the bacteria inside Mr Sorley? No, no, this is going too far. We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing.

The book does have some deft touches of humour, which makes the fact that 90% of it is dull and racist even more telling. And it ends on a pointed note: we must exclude. We must separate and segregate and have everyone in their neat, clearly defined little boxes by bedtime. This quote is the plot of the story.

'Then they've started,' she moaned, clasping the infant and rather wishing he would not blow bubbles down his chin at such a moment as this.

More funny. If only I had more than two lines of it.

the palisade of cactuses stabbing the purple throat of the sky

I thought that was beautiful and warranted praise. Although - isn't the plural of cactus, cacti? Maybe it's the fishes/fish thing again.

Crammed into a carriage with the Nawab Bahadur, Hamidullah, Mahmoud Ali, with his own little boys, and a heap of flowers, he was not content; he wanted to be surrounded by all who loved him.

Trust me to scour everything with a fine-toothed comb o' feminism - Aziz wants his great friend Fielding, he's surrounded by his other friends and sons ... um, hello? Missing anyone? YOUR DAUGHTER, MAYBE?

Then there's the flashes of insight, which have no relation to the rest of the story.

'... what a temptation, at forty-five, to pretend that the dead live again; one's own dead; no one else's matter.'

This argues against the resurrection of vast zombie armies, I feel.

'Is emotion a sack of potatoes, so much the pound, to be measured out? Am I a machine? I shall be told I can use up my emotions by using them, next.'

I remembered thinking in relation to my USMLEs that the stress one feels for any exam is always the same, regardless of how irrelevant said exam is or how little you care about it. Emotions are certainly not measurable, although it would be nice if they wore out.

'There is no such person in existence as a general Indian.'

I'm amazed, quite literally amazed, that Forster could have a character say this - the first true thing he's said about India or anywhere - and still get the rest so atrociously wrong. There is no such thing as a general Indian, or Irish, or American, or Iraqi. Individual merits, people. Look into it.



Previously, on Book Glomp 2008:
Middlemarch | Invisible Monsters | A Thousand Splendid Suns | Love in the Time of Cholera | Oscar and Lucinda | Kim | Breakfast at Tiffany's | Atonement | To the Lighthouse | On the Road | Brideshead Revisited | Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Bonjour Tristesse
 
 
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Sorry we said fuck so much20thcenturyvole on August 14th, 2008 11:28 pm (UTC)
Okay, I feel slightly bad for speaking in defense of this book, because it did seem to anger you so much, but I studied it in Lit last semester, and I really liked it. The whole point of it was that all the Anglo characters were wrong-headed, to varying degrees - Mrs. Moore was ignorant, miss Quested stupid, her fiance objectionably racist even by other characters' standards - and though Forester's writing certainly reflects a prejudice, his views, in particular the portrayal of an Indian character's thoughts and ideas and general status as a real human being, were really quite progressive at the time. If I remember correctly, he did actually spend a lot of time in India, fell in love with an Indian man, worked as a secretary to a Maharaja, etc.

YMMV, obviously. Personally, I just really loved his style of prose. Sorry.
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: socksscoradh on August 15th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
I feel slightly bad for speaking in defense of this book

Please don't! Never do! On this journal, at least. The mitigating factors in all my reviews tend to be a love of ranting and a bafflement with classic books in general. I have no basis for my ire except ... myself. ;D

I can certainly see where you're coming from, in terms of the presentation of Aziz et al. In 1920-whatever it probably was radical. However, I'm reading it in 2008. I decided a while back to go into all of these books with as little prior knowledge as possible, so I could judge them purely by their own merits. There are plenty of people - such as yourself - with the education and the background to say 'Well, but...' I'm just speaking as a plain ol' reader of a single book in time. This is how it comes across to me. Naturally my opinion is never going to be the last word. It wouldn't be the last word even if I were the world's pre-eminent twixt wars Angalo-Indian scholar. That's what makes it so fun.

It's quite funny that you bring up the fact that he lived in India, because there are tracts of descriptions regarding Chandrapore. I'm not a big fan of description, especially description that doesn't serve a plot point, so I was really grinding my teeth at his insistence on rubbing in his local knowledge (or at least, that's how it appeared to me).

I don't think his prose was bad, I just liked best the parts he left under-developed - the delicious sarcasm, for one.
screaming cardiac frenzy of berserk despair: stock // farther eastacchikocchi on August 14th, 2008 11:58 pm (UTC)
Forster wrote an essay called "Notes on the English Character" that I wish I could find in full online, because it makes interesting background for A Passage to India and states explicitly a lot of his views on culture clash, etc. The beginning's available on Amazon as part of the collection Abinger Harvest but it cuts off right as he says something that made me, at least, go "..." so that one can't see whether he redeems himself or not. (imho, he partially does. and then the rest of the essay is about his beef with the public school system and resultant ethos. eta: the preceding sentences were not related to each other, oops.) It also makes clear if it wasn't already that his frame of reference for "Oriental" is pretty much the Near/Middle East and Asian subcontinent and not East Asia at all, ahahaha. And women, huh? What women? They were definitely out of the picture as far as he was concerned.

Also interesting to note is that he had at least one long-term Indian lover (whom he refers to in the essay, albeit as a friend) and I believe an Egyptian lover earlier, both male -- I should make clear that I most definitely don't mean this as an implied "so obviously he knew what he was talking about" because there is nothing that irritates me more in my own field of interest than coming across the argument "Well my girlfriend was Japanese so I can tell you that the Japanese are [insert mindboggling extrapolation here]." It's just a point of interest in reference to all this, I guess.

That said, it's been a while since I've read A Passage to India but I'm not sure how much of what is said in the narration is the authorial view, as opposed to commentary. I could also be giving the man too much credit for subtlety. XD I'm almost inclined to reread but I almost never reread except for pleasure and this definitely wasn't a pleasure read, for me.

Edited at 2008-08-14 11:59 pm (UTC)
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: hipposcoradh on August 15th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC)
It's been a point of honour for me to avoid background reading for all these classics. I tell a lie, it's actually a point of laziness, but I get cross at the idea that I have to read three other books in order to understand one. If the author fails to make me understand it at the time, they've failed. It reeks too much of JK's insertion of fifty new facts into canon with every interview. Bitch, please. What isn't between the two covers of a book doesn't count, or at least, doesn't count as much.

His Indian lovers probably did give him the notion that he could judge one by all, if certain statements in this book are anything to go by. I agree with your diagnosis on the pleasure factor: there really was none. Above all, this was my beef with the book. I'm glad I read it quickly - even if it made me feel slightly sick to do 200 pages in 3 hours - because if I'd let it drag on this rant would have EVEN MORE capslock.

(I think it goes without saying that if he'd chosen to write a story about said Indian lover my objections would probably have dwindled to naught. ;D Alas for the unobjective mind!)
screaming cardiac frenzy of berserk despair: stock // lie in the grassacchikocchi on August 15th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Okay, fair enough! I waffle on background reading myself -- sometimes I'm for it, sometimes I say exactly what you did. Shockingly enough this usually has a lot to do with how interesting said background reading is. XD

(*dies* Same here, of course! I did read his idealized gay romance Maurice totally uncritically and lovingly in high school. Now it definitely is unsettling to me in some places but still, if you're going to read Forster why not read the slash. *g*)

every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: scarfscoradh on August 15th, 2008 07:38 pm (UTC)
It's a point of principle for me atm, but on my last Austen kick I spent hours kicking around forums that analysed the relationship between Crawford and Fanny and OH, all sorts of things. In truth I haven't found a book yet in these that makes me want to know more about how it came to be.

(Idealised? Better and better! Trust me, I'd have started and ended with that if it was available, but this book was the one lost and lonely on my aunt's bookshelf. ;D)
screaming cardiac frenzy of berserk despair: stock // lie in the grassacchikocchi on August 15th, 2008 07:48 pm (UTC)
sdjkaldskl yeah, it had a HAPPY ENDING and everything. written in like, the 20s! the main character just goes off to live with his boyfriend happily ever after in, like, a forest. (trying to avoid details should you actually want to read it. *g*)
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: Pretty shoesscoradh on August 15th, 2008 08:37 pm (UTC)
That sounds like an 'arms of yay' moment! Typical it wasn't published till 1971. >.>
sleepingfingers on August 15th, 2008 01:07 am (UTC)
I picked this book to read and do a book report on during my last year of high school, and though I can't remember much about the book in particular, I remember wishing I had chosen a different book the entire time.
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: bandsscoradh on August 15th, 2008 07:21 pm (UTC)
WORD. In the end, for a book about simmering racial tension, accusations of rape and a morass of lies, it was RLY RLY DULL.
Matchy西matchynishi on August 15th, 2008 02:50 am (UTC)
sdklf I read this quite a while ago and thought I was getting mad because I was Indian. I thought I was being biased and too sensitive and things but alskdfj SO RELIEVED that it rubs people other than me the wrong way too! :O Argh, so condescending and racist. :|
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: PATD: Brendon/Ryan smilesmilesmilescoradh on August 15th, 2008 07:25 pm (UTC)
I'd nearly feel better if it was obviously IMPERIALISTS FTW, but then, Kim was like that and I hated it as well. What I dislike most is the prospect that, had I lived in that time, I might very well have thought like that too. I don't know if I'd have had the originality of mind to think outside the box on such an issue. It's just lucky I grew up in such (relatively) enlightened times.
Riakessie on August 15th, 2008 10:50 am (UTC)
I had to study A Passage to India which was... ugh.

However! I come with a different agenda: I ordered in Havemercy at work. I won't be able to read it until next month (thesis + lack of money after moving), but would you like to have it when I'm done? I've started having a major crackdown on what books I keep after I've done reading (the consequence of moving around five boxes of books, and abandoning around 65), and I like giving people books anyway.
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Art: For the Roadscoradh on August 15th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
I am sososo glad I don't have to analyse these books and maybe even come up with reasons why they're great! It would kill mah soul.

*blinks* Well, SURE. That's astoundingly generous of you! I was going to order it myself 'sometime,' like when I've finished off my vicious pile of books, so this plan sounds like a winner. Of course, if you really like it, I can read and send back. I'll totally cover postage too. ♥