I confess to being a Forster virgin, one reason why I chose this as my group read for this month. The other reason being that I read Middlemarch at least 50 years ago and had no great desire to return to a Victorian novelist unless it was Dickens or Trollope.
I found it a real chore to read. There were times when literary skills shone through in the descriptions of places and events and only occasionally in interpersonal interactions. I think that the problem for me lay mostly in the narrative content. The theme is pretty well known in literature and film – the silly beastly Brits lording (literally) it over their colonial populations who, in turn are a mixed bunch ranging from those who want hopefully to be accepted, the outright servile and varying degrees of resentment and hatred. Central character Dr Aziz wants acceptance but increasingly doubts that he can attain it. Fielding, the educator, seems the most sympathetic Brit and he may have to pay for it.
There are the predictable interpersonal, religious and social tensions but none really engaged me. I found I largely disliked the almost fickleness of many of the characters and yearned for some more real meaty interpersonal tension. The only time this seemed to have potential was the relationship between Aziz and Fielding. There must be echoes of Forster’s 17 year unrequited (?) friendship with Syed Ross Masood to be found here but they are very pale shadows indeed. The novel was long in gestation with a war interrupting and accommodating some visits to India and time in a Maharajah’s court and much of Forster’s travels and experiences were mined for content. Even ‘Maurice’ was written before the text was completed.
Forster has been praised for his handling of the truly awful Miss Quested’s experience at the Marabar caves leaving it as something hysterically imagined. I wonder how much of this relates to the nature of his yearnings for Masood.
I have had good friends who came to Australia from India (1947 partition) and Sri Lanka as a result of its more recent troubles. I found more interest and tension in their lives that I did in Forster’s confection. This was a very uneven read kept going by mostly some interesting description and some characterisation but sorely lacking in real personal focus. Perhaps it needed some of the more explicit sexual tension of ‘The Rains Came’ (1937) which was also made into the Hollywood ‘Rains of Ranchipur’.