So far my preparations for November’s lecture on E. M. Forster have consisted of reading the novels again, even the ones I read earlier this year. I finished A Room With A View last week, and polished off A Passage to India this week.
I was introduced to E. M. Forster’s work when I was 18 and studying English Literature for “A” level at West Kent College. My excellent teacher, Robin Brown, was keen on Forster and A Passage to India was one of the optional exam topics. We also read and discussed Aspects of the Novel and some other essays.
I remember being fascinated by, and yet not quite “getting” A Passage to India, especially the last part, “Temple” and the enigmatic Professor Godbole. As a result, I decided not to concentrate on it for the exam, which was a sound strategy, as it turned out.
The art of reading certainly improves with reading and whereas there was a time when I could read a novel without really knowing what on earth was going on, but forcing myself onwards out of a dedication to the cause, nowadays I seem to be able to chew my way through a novel much as a Suffolk Punch Petrol Cylinder Lawnmower goes through grass…
After having lived in the Orient for the best part of two decades one of Professor Godbole’s enigmatic habits seems cheerfully familiar. Who, who has lived in these parts for any amount of time, has not had one of those “Why Didn’t You Tell Me?” moments that Aziz, a Muslim, has with the Hindu Godbole when he discovers that Godbole had known for a year that Fielding had married Mrs Moore’s daughter and not Miss Quested, as Aziz had thought…
‘Sorry,’ said Aziz. The other smiled, and again mentioned the guest house party, and, when he heard that Fielding’s wife was not Miss Quested, after all, remarked: ‘Ah, no, he married the sister of Mr Heaslop. Ah, exactly, I have known that for over a year’ – also without heat. ‘Why did you not tell me? Your silence plunged me into a pretty pickle.’ Godbole, who had never been known to tell anyone anything, smiled again, and said in depreciating tones: ‘Never be angry with me. I am, as far as my limitations permit, your true friend; besides, it is my holy festival.’
Readers will remember at this point that it was Miss Quested’s “telling” that plunged Aziz into a much prettier pickle after the disastrous picnic at the Marabar Caves, when Aziz stood accused of sexual assault; and it was her “telling” a different story in court that cleared his name, so there is something to be said for Oriental hesitancy as opposed to Occidental hastiness, at least in this novel.
One idea that I took up with alacrity was Forster’s “double vision”, something that also occurs in the novels of Conrad. I read Conrad at York as an undergraduate and he was the novelist who made the biggest impression on me at that time, such that his “double vision” displaced that of Forster’s to the extent that I had pretty much forgotten about Forster’s use of the concept until I started reading his novels again this year.
She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time – the twilight of the double vision in which so many elderly people are involved. If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events, there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation—one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air. All heroic endeavour, and all that is known as art, assumes that there is such a background, just as all practical endeavour, when the world is to our taste, assumes that the world is all. But in the twilight of the double vision, a spiritual muddledom is set up for which no high-sounding words can be found; we can neither act nor refrain from action, we can neither ignore nor respect Infinity.
It is also the “double vision” presented by the Marabar caves, especially the “circular chamber” of the cave reputed to be inside the rock that rests on the Kawa Dol:
One of them is rumoured within the boulder that swings on the summit of the highest of the hills; a bubble-shaped cave that has neither ceiling nor floor, and mirrors its own darkness in every direction infinitely. If the boulder falls and smashes, the cave will smash too – empty as an Easter egg.
There it is in the infinity of the universe and the fragile inconsequentiality of an Easter egg. Everything in the cave is reduced to “bou-oum” or “ou-boum” and this is another thing that Professor Godbole had neglected to tell (p. 129) although he was eagerly intreated by Miss Quested to describe them:
‘Do describe them, Professor Godbole.’
‘It will be a great honour.’ He drew up his chair and an expression of tension came over his face. Taking the cigarette-box, she offered to him and to Aziz, and lit up herself. After an impressive pause he said: ‘There is an entrance in the rock which you enter, and through the entrance is the cave.’
‘something like the caves at Elephanta?’
‘Oh no, not at all; at Elephanta there are sculptures of Siva and Parvati. There are no sculptures at Marabar.’
‘They are immensely holy, no doubt,’ said Aziz, to help on the narrative.
‘Oh no, oh no.’
‘Still, they are ornamented in some way.’
‘Well, why are they so famous? We all talk of the famous Marabar Caves. Perhaps that is our empty brag.’
‘No, I should not quite say that.’
‘Describe them to this lady, then.’
‘It will be a great pleasure.’ He forwent the pleasure…