Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why I like E. M. Forster

I have read a few of E. M. Forster's novels and sometimes have a mixed reaction to them. His writing is sometimes a bit "forced" to my taste, by which I mean that he inserts his own observations into his narrative where I think things might be better expressed by his characters through dialogue, internal monologue, or action. I think such "faults"--if they are faults--are more present in Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread, and less so in the other three novels of his I've read: Maurice, Passage to India, and Howard's End.

Still, he more than makes up for it. One review of his work that I read over at noted that one of his novels--I think it was Where Angels Fear to Tread, but I forget--seemed really simple, even simplistic, but upon a re-reading showed much more complexity. At least that is my view of this particular novel.

I have recently finished reading Passage to India for the first time. In this novel, Forster indulges in the author-inserts-his-observations-too-forcedly technique that I tend not to like (although, as I claim above, he does not do so as much as in his earlier novels). After the first part of the novel--it's divided into three parts, I was disappointed, as I had heard this was Forster's "masterpiece" and yet I found it less provocative than his other works.

Yet in part two, there was a scene that was truly awe-inspiring. The protagonists embark on an excursion to the Marabar caves, and one of them, Mrs. Moore, is overwhelmed by her experience there. In a sense, she encounters the "truth" of Hinduism, as Forster appears to understand it (disclosure: I know too little about Hinduism to comment on the truth or verisimilitude of this account). Mrs. Moore is in one of the caves and notices, and is overcome by, the deadening, all-encompassing echo*:
The echo in a Marabar cave is...entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. "Boum" is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or "bou-oum," or "ou-boum,"--utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce, "boom." Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling, which is too small to compete a scircle but is eternally watchful. And if seveal people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently. [p. 163]
And later, after Mrs. Moore exited the caves:
No, she [Mrs. Moore] did not wish to repeat that experience. The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush [of the crowd of people who had accompanied her] and the smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, "Pathos, piety, courage--they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value." If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same--"ou-boum." If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge or bluff--it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling. Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind. [p. 165]
*E. M. Forster. A Passage to India. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984. (Originally written in 1924)

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