A Passage to India (Penguin Classics)

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Great Art Doesn’t Just Happen: The Millions Interviews Bill Goldstein


Bill Goldstein and I met in the spring of 2014 at Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming. Our studios were actually quite far from each other but we became fast friends in part because we shared the same work schedule: every morning we’d meet in the quiet kitchen for a pre-dawn breakfast, both of us eager to get to our desks before procrastination could claim the day. A lot of the time we joked around; my coffee was always sludgy with grounds, Bill said, and I would remark on his debonair bathrobe-and-pajamas combo. Other times we talked novels. Bill not only hosts a segment about books on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, he also went back to school a few years ago to get a PhD in literature, and we’d often sit for longer than planned chatting about Edith Wharton or a contemporary novel we loved. Sometimes we would discuss our works in progress. While I was wrestling with my second novel, Bill was writing a literary history of 1922, specifically, the creative and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. His studio was filled with books about these figures, and I knew that before coming to Ucross he had dug into primary sources at many libraries and archival centers; his book struck me as so much more expansive than mine, and I enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes one of us would have a breakthrough with our writing. Other days, we were made miserable by a bad paragraph or uncooperative chapter. I distinctly remember Bill worrying he’d never complete what he had begun.

Well, he didn’t have to worry: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature was published last month, receiving praise from such varied publications as The Times Literary Supplement, People, and The New York Times Book Review. I myself tore through the book in just a few days. I loved it. Bill renders this history vivid, compelling, and even dishy. It made me want to re-read The Waste Land and seek out D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo. It inspired me to return to my (lately neglected) third novel.

It also made me grateful for my own literary friendship with Bill. All of our sprawling, funny, and thought-provoking conversations in Wyoming informed my work and helped me to clarify my aesthetic intentions; I’d like to think that in some minuscule way I was involved in the making of The World Broke in Two. Bill was kind enough to continue our conversation here for The Millions; he answered these questions via email.

The Millions: As someone who only writes fiction and the occasional personal essay, I’m interested in the process of writing biography. It strikes me as such a daunting and mysterious task! How do you shape all this history into a compelling—and, perhaps more importantly, intimate—narrative? Tell me about your process. How did you go about researching this material, and then organizing it?

Bill Goldstein: I wouldn’t say I was aware that it was going to be either or both of those things while I was working, or even that I was consciously shaping it to be that. The editing process is so different from the writing and the researching (and the researching, at least for me, was so much easier than the writing). I think, at least from the evidence of what my own main subjects were dealing with in 1922, that one thing writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common is the difficulty and anxiety of writing. Poets, too—because I think T.S. Eliot said it most succinctly, when he wrote to a friend in December 1921, just before The Waste Land began to take its final shape, “I do not know whether it will work.” (Being Eliot, he wrote it in French—“Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I think he turned to French for that one sentence in the letter because it was too frightening to say it in English, and yet he had to confide it to someone.) This was just before he went to Paris, in January 1922, and began to edit, with Ezra Pound’s help, what had been nearly 1,000 lines of poetry into the poem half that length that was published at the year’s end. At almost the same time, Virginia Woolf was editing Jacob’s Room, her first unadulteratedly modern novel, into its final form, and was worried that it was only “sterile acrobatics.”

So much of my book is about my main subjects’ insecurity about what they are working on, and their absolute despair that they will be able to do the work they want to do. Whether they will achieve their artistic goals—or whether, physically, they will be able to finish the work. I loved that Virginia Woolf, just before her 40th birthday in January 1922, wrote to E.M. Forster that writing was like heaving bricks over a wall—she had a severe case of influenza—but also cautioned him that even though she was about to turn 40, he must count her only 35 because she had spent so much time sick in bed.

But finding lines like that is why the research is the best part of biography. Also because the process is comparatively straightforward, as opposed to the writing or editing. I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, and it is just wonderful to be able to go through original letters, diaries, manuscripts—you’re actually holding them, and that’s thrilling in and of itself —but then you always convince yourself (and you’re right) that you must look at more. My focus is pretty specifically 1922, but I found so many important things looking in later and earlier archival material. So much depended on how much time you had in any one place. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where I researched for two months. You don’t have to do the same kind of triage as when you are in a place for only a few days or a week. The New York Public Library was a similarly endless resource, and luckily I live here. You gather this enormous amount of stuff, and then you have to cut most of it.

In terms of writing and editing, I found that the thing I most resisted, but in the end most depended on, was simply chronology. You’d think that in the story of a year that would be obvious! But that is somewhat alien to my digressive mind, and I learned I had to keep the story as chronologically clear as possible, and that involved, in the editing, sometimes working paragraph by paragraph. If one paragraph did not follow logically from the previous one, and I was spending too much time working on a transition that inevitably became too baroque or abstract—I gave up, basically, and cut it. It only took me several years, and imminent deadlines, to sharpen my mind that way.

I think one thing nonfiction writers can do that is perhaps harder for novelists is that whole chapters can move around—they are much more discrete than chapters in a novel, I would imagine. I don’t know that novelists write in order—I certainly didn’t—but then once I got back to the chronology, I could find the place for things I had drafted, or I could cut. The chapters fit into place because of the time period they covered. Though I remember once many years ago interviewing Ann Beattie, who said that in writing her novel Love Always she didn’t want to “tell a story chronologically.” She wrote the novel in pieces, and when she had finished all the chapters, she spread them on the floor of her living room and re-assembled them “like pieces in a puzzle.” What “foiled” her, she said, was “having to fix it technically, to go back and revise the chronology.”

Talk about losing myself in research—I just went back and looked up the interview.

TM: Was there any sweet little piece of history that you couldn’t fit into the book?

BG: Do you know the phrase l’esprit d’escalier? Literally, the spirit of the staircase? What you think of saying to someone only after the conversation has ended, some caustic or brilliant reply that only comes to you when you’re on your way out—dramatically—down the stairs? When I do my TV segment, I almost always think more of what I should have said, what I wanted to say, than I do of what I did say. So, in terms of the book—most of what I wanted to get in I had to leave out. I feel almost as much despair now about all that I couldn’t use as I did when I was trying to organize all my research notes into a draft. But there are two quotes I tried to fit in, moving them from place to place, and they just never fit. One was a line of Clive Bell’s to his mistress Mary Hutchinson. Clive Bell was married to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. He admired T. S. Eliot’s poetry but did not warm to him as a person. Mary, on the other hand, was close to Eliot, was very sympathetic to him in the many financial and marital struggles that in 1922, as at other times, consumed his life (and which made their way into The Waste Land). I think Clive liked to tease her with his barbs about Eliot, a kind of literary foreplay, almost. Eliot published The Waste Land in late 1922, but also spent a lot of time that year working on the first issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine he inaugurated that year (and which he edited in one form or another until 1939). Eliot wrote the prospectus for the magazine in the summer, and Clive, as he often was, was dubious of Eliot’s efforts. When the prospectus arrived, he wrote to Mary that the morning post brought many letters, “all, except yours, very dull—bills for the most part.” One of the very dull things she had likely seen herself: “the prospectus of The Criterion on which most unluckily, though perhaps prophetically, a swallow shat before I had time to read it. You will lend me your copy I dare say.”

The other quote was one of E.M. Forster’s. He read Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in late 1922, and wrote her a beautiful letter about how ecstatically he read it, and what a profound an effect it had on him and, he thought, on the work (A Passage to India) that he was trying then to do. I quote the letter at length. It just didn’t fit to have the wonderful kind of P.S. that he offered to a friend, more traditional than he was, to whom he recommended it highly, but with a caution: “Good. Very very very very very very very—modern.”

TM: You rely on diaries and personal letters to provide insight into these writers’ careers and domestic situations. There are some real gems here. For instance, D.H. Lawrence remarks that the people in Ceylon would be as “beshitten” there as anywhere else on “this slippery ball of quick-silver of a dissolving world.” In her diary, Virginia Woolf describes an evening spent with T.S. Eliot; he was, “sardonic, guarded, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual.” Can you describe what it was like to interact with these personal papers? Did reading correspondence or private writings alter your understanding of these writers, or even change the course of the book as you might have first imagined it?

BG: Yes, and yes. When you write a nonfiction book, you usually write a proposal first, for your agent and prospective publishers. That, of course, takes years of work (or at least it did for me). You have to do a lot of research, but in researching that, I relied on published material—Virginia Woolf’s complete letters and diaries are published, and Lawrence’s letters too. But when I began working most of Eliot’s letters of the period were still unpublished, and most of Forster’s letters (and his diaries) were also unpublished. You don’t know, of course, what you don’t have, or even whether you will find it or if it still exists. I knew the story of 1922 I wanted to tell, and knew that there was a story in these people’s lives that I could tell by focusing on one narrow bit of time in which they did important work. A story that by necessity the definitive biographies of all of these people could not tell because they had whole lives to encompass. Each of them had a little about 1922, of course.

I knew the story, then—of Woolf, for example, writing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the spring of 1922, the story that by the end of the year gives rise to Mrs. Dalloway; of Forster’s picking up his “Indian fragment” (which becomes A Passage to India) after nearly a decade. In the same way, I knew where Eliot and Lawrence began and ended the year. In the book, the story is the same—the stories, I suppose I should say—but the details are almost completely different from what I’d planned. What I hadn’t counted on was the range of unpublished material by them and about them. The fact that Woolf’s diaries and letters, and Lawrence’s letters, for example, have been published in complete editions obscures the other salient fact—that so much private writing by and about my subjects is available in archives and libraries and has not been published. There’s so much of Eliot’s correspondence and Forster’s that hasn’t been collected yet, and it was all a revelation to me, including much that they wrote later that revealed essential aspects of 1922, and their work—and their private lives—in that period. Even more thrilling for me—because finding it all was completely unexpected—were the diaries and letters of the people who knew my main subjects extremely well, and either loved or loathed them or both. That was a perspective I never thought to have, and discovering them provided me with some of the most juicy and insightful and bitchy and jaundiced raw material (see Clive Bell’s letters to Mary Hutchinson; and there are hundreds of them at the Ransom Center). The trouble, then, was that I had more than I could ever use—which brings us back to the editing paragraph by paragraph. My editor, Gillian Blake, had a very help suggestion (really, directive)—quotations should be ornaments. Perhaps that’s something every editor says—but it related very specifically to a dilemma my drafts posed to both of us, and that advice helped me enormously.

One other thing about working in these archives is the thrill of holding the original letters. You’re looking for particular things, of course, and you get so used to moving quickly through the papers. Sometimes I would have to scan letters looking only for capital letters—to see if any of my subjects were mentioned. And then every so often you just stop yourself in awe and realize, these are Virginia Woolf’s letters! This is her paper, her ink, she wrote this—it’s not a facsimile. The same thing with drafts. You are holding Eliot’s typescript. You are holding D.H. Lawrence’s notebooks. At the Ransom Center they have Virginia Woolf’s copy of A Passage to India inscribed to her by Forster. And Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which he made not one single pencil notation, unfortunately.

The challenge, I think, is to convey some of the excitement in the book.

TM: I read The World Broke in Two on vacation, far from my writing desk, and by the time I was done, I was thinking a lot about my new book, eager to get back to it. Part of that is due to reading about these brilliant writers and their artistic processes, challenges, and goals. I loved learning about Woolf’s interests in depicting human consciousness, and how inspired she was by Marcel Proust. I’ve read a lot of Forster but didn’t know much about what was happening in his personal life as he returned to the book that would become A Passage to India. And then there’s Eliot, struggling to finish The Waste Land, take care of his ailing wife, and go to work as a banker, a job that demoralized him and caused him great anxiety. Last, we’ve got D.H. Lawrence, giving himself the challenge to start and finish a draft of a novel in six weeks. These could be writers I know personally, in 2017! I felt a connection between their artistic struggles and passions and my own, which was exhilarating. Was that your intention, or was that simply an intriguing part of these writers’ lives that you couldn’t help but focus on, being a fellow writer yourself? Did their processes echo your own, as you worked on your book?

BG: I struggled for a long time with the book, as we’ve discussed. It took me over six years to finish it. And practically every day as I wrote I was immersed in these writers’ despair (which eventually becomes triumph in one way or another by the end of 1922). And I kept thinking of my own difficulties, “But they are Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster! Who am I?” It was comforting on the one hand and intimidating on the other. I mean, what right did I have to struggle? The end result was not going to Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land. But at least I had a much smaller goal!

I was talking to a friend just after I was finished with the book. He works in politics but admits he is really a struggling screenwriter. When he said something about how hard it was to do it, and even to find the time, I told him about what Woolf, et al were going through in 1922. He said, “Most people think great art just happens—but it doesn’t.” I think that’s what my book is about. It helps goad you forward, at least a little, to know that whatever struggle you are having with your writing doesn’t indicate, by itself, that you are doing bad work or aren’t a good writer. You can recognize you are not Woolf, Forster, Eliot or Lawrence, and still try to do your work.

TM: You have a PhD in English and you’ve written this literary history of 1922. But you’re also very much part of today’s book culture: you host “Bill’s Books” where you review contemporary work, and you were the founding editor of The New York Times books website. I’m curious how it felt, to be immersed in two literary worlds, past and present. What feels different? What feels similar? Do we have modern day counterparts to these brilliant minds? (And who is our modern-day James Joyce—arrogant, uncouth, genius?)

BG: It was a relief to move between the past and the present. I mean, each was an escape from the other, though of course having to do so much work in the real world leaves you less time for writing. But if you don’t earn money, you can’t write. It’s not a new dilemma. Forster put it wonderfully (and sadly) about his own journalism, which he was doing in part to distract himself from his failure at his novel: “How fatuous!…Always working never creating.” So much is the same, or at least we seem to feel the same way about some things as the writers in my book felt then—overwhelmed by their own work (of course), but also, as Woolf, who was also a publisher of the Hogarth Press, felt, simply by the number of books published. She made fun of the sheer number of books published, and the hype about them (that’s not the word they used then, but she describes the same machinery for it, both from the publisher’s side, creating it, or trying to, and the public’s side, the press’s side, trying to make sense of it). She wrote an article in 1922 decrying this very thing, part of which was trying to understand what her own place was in that universe, not only as a publisher, but as a writer—where would her own work fit in? How would Jacob’s Room make its way in that world? It was the start of her trying to figure out what role the “common reader” plays in making an audience for a writer—but also a posterity for a writer? Would she be read in later years? She could barely see her way to finishing the work she was doing—but still she was anxious about whether she and it would have a posterity. She and Leonard Woolf conducted a mock debate for the BBC in 1927 about whether too many books were being published. The text survives, but not a recording, unfortunately.

As for who is like Joyce—two things. One, I love that you’re quoting Clive Bell’s reaction to him when they met in Paris in 1921, which is from one of his letters to Mary Hutchinson, and which I think he also shared with Virginia Woolf and which influenced her own sense of him as a person (she and Joyce never met) and more vitally as the writer of Ulysses. And two—I think I know too few writers well enough to answer your question. I only know the nicest ones.

TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you, what’s the last great book you read?

BG: You mean other than Woman No. 17? I recently read and liked Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (in alphabetical and chronological order, conveniently enough). The last great book I reread is Mrs. Dalloway.

Modern Library Revue: #38 Howards End

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I borrowed Howards End from my local university library, an early edition in a sturdy and narrow-margined library binding. Pages from these kinds of books don’t tear — over half centuries and quarter centuries of tugging and smoothing and creasing by grubby fingers, they achieve a fine cloth-like texture that no e-reader can hope to replicate. I think that libraries are worth our patronage for the feeling of these pages alone. They are the impressions worn by feet on the path to the Parthenon. They are the pig’s teeth wedged in a wych-elm by superstitious peasants.

People who love books are always telling high school students that reading opens doors, that old books will surprise you with their sudden relevance, the startling light they can cast onto your own life. This is such a true thing about reading that it feels stupid to say of one or another book that it reminded you of a feeling you’ve had, or that its themes resonate in the present day.  On this front, Howards End should have lots to say to me. Like its Miss Schlegels, I am a bookish, opinionated lady with claims to progressive values. Like that of the Schlegels, my imperial nation is rife with inequality, class division, and economic precarity for the Leonard Bast class of people with aspirations but no advantages. Even the search for a suitable lodging is familiar: “We are reverting to the civilisation of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.” There is much to which I can relate. But Howards End makes me think instead about things that are different and gone — farmland and buildings and ideals and ways of thinking and kinds of conversation and styles of beautiful writing.

There is a painful, almost superfluously beautiful quality to Forster’s writing that attracts me to this book even while I find that Forster’s class sensibility, fine as it is and perfect in Passage to India (revued here), ultimately can’t do the necessary and make Leonard Bast a real person. He dies, as he lived, a silly, pitiful, and unprepossessing little man. (This may be a failure of imagination on my end, but it is difficult to see how Helen Schlegel could be so susceptible to his obscure charm as to succumb utterly to it in a hotel sitting-room.)  But if Passage to India showed Forster at his most pointed about people, Howards End is his ode to places (and not only the place for which it is named):
Shropshire had not the reticence of Hertfordshire. Though robbed of half its magic by swift movement, it still conveyed the sense of hills…Having picked up another guest, they turned southward, avoiding the greater mountains, but conscious of an occasional summit, rounded and mild, whose colouring differed in quality from that of the lower earth, and whose contours altered more slowly. Quiet mysteries were in progress behind those tossing horizons: the West, as ever, was retreating with some secret which may not be worth the discovery, but which no practical man will ever discover.
Forster’s writing mixes poetry and aphorism in a way that makes whatever he writes sound totally convincing and meaningful, even if, for all I know, it is nonsense. Of Margaret Schlegel’s gradual retiring from society, he writes, “It was doubtless a pity not to keep up with Wedekind or John, but some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.” Of life he writes, “It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.” People write in all kinds of good ways, but it is a tragedy that nobody writes like this anymore.

Howards End, published 1910, is technically a pre-war novel in the WWI sense, and it frequently invites you to think of it on those terms (“the remark, ‘England and Germany are bound to fight,’ renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation”). A few years later, the stolid Wilcox men who form the upstanding backbone of British society in Margaret’s perception would be largely unavailable for theoretical debates with liberated young women; they would likely be dead, along with nearly a million of their compatriots, or maimed, along with the rest.

That said, another book in my pile this spring had me thinking about a different war. Just after Howards End I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a book whose construction around a portentous negative space has the effect of drawing all neighboring books into its central darkness, like a dying star. Everything becomes tinged with this darkness. (I have also been working through the novels of Anita Brookner, many of which feature Jews so thoroughly English that their eastern European origins signify only as a piece of ponderous furniture or a grandmother’s accent, and I began to wonder if these novels, too — if all novels — are actually about the Holocaust.)

And yet Austerlitz and the second World War seemed to form a fitting complement to Howards End — the latter’s interest in civilization and the built environment and the natural world and material culture slotting into Sebald’s voids in the same realms. The character Austerlitz has spent in his life in “investigations into the history of architecture and civilization,” and the novel Austerlitz is full of symbolic architectural monstrosities — “the accumulation of stone blocks” — and spaces stuffed with meaning. The novel’s narrator describes London, its “districts…crisscrossed by innumerable streets and railway lines, crowding ever more closely together as they marched east and north, one reef of buildings above the next and then the next, and so on, far beyond Holloway and Highbury…” I was reminded of Margaret Schlegel’s similar impression of London as she puzzles through her sister Helen’s disappearance: “The mask fell off the city, and she saw it for what it really is — a caricature of infinity…” She searches in St. Paul’s, “whose dome stands out of the welter so bravely, as if preaching the gospel. But within, St. Paul’s is as its surroundings — echoes and whispers, inaudible songs, invisible mosaics, wet footmarks crossing and recrossing the floor. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: it points us back to London.”

I didn’t see clearly what a tender and hopeful book Howards End is until I read Austerlitz. And a sad one. It’s a prelapsarian mirror image. How devastating Forster’s observation about the “civilisation of luggage” becomes when you consider the eventual mounds of plundered luggage sitting in warehouses around Europe. Or Mrs. Wilcox’s lament: “Can what they call civilisation be right, if people mayn’t die in the room where they were born?” How poignant half-German Margaret is, with her belief in the “salvation that was latent…in the soul of every man.” How sad to contemplate her mantra, “Only connect,” in the context of Austerlitz’s dead mama and papa and his abrupt transformation to a little Welsh boy. How sentimental Forster seems when he writes that:
London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!
I have always found there to be something lumpy and friendly and comforting about Howards End — it’s like a big, old sweater. But I see that there is something a little weird about that. I yank it away from Austerlitz’s gravitational pull, and I don’t quite see now why it should feel like such a hopeful, tender, happy novel, when it leaves a dead man and an imprisoned man and a crumpled man in its wake. Perhaps because it’s sort of a feminine triumphal. Fighting for her right to spend the night with her pregnant sister in Howards End, Margaret Schlegel delivers the most just and crushing indictment of misogyny and the double standard ever written. And she gets her way, and the dead Mrs. Wilcox gets her way, and the men die or are locked up or have a nervous breakdown, each condition divesting its victim of all former imperiousness and other unsavory qualities. The women win, and they get their beautifully cozy pastoral unwed mothers’ commune, an easy distance from London. They found a Home, and they will “create new sanctities” in it. It does sound nice.

In my sturdy library copy, generations of readers have penciled their notes and little stars. I tip my hat to the analytical one, a Marxist no doubt, who helped me to see that Leonard Bast’s ignorance of the Sunday paper signified “commodifying, economizing knowledge at every turn!” I raise a glass to the one who wrote of Leonard’s meager dwelling that it is “projected fake, shallow, comme moi!” I applaud the one who pointed out succinctly on the penultimate page that Margaret’s husband “becomes a pussy.” We are all more alike than we are different.

Only connect, and all that.


A Year in Reading: Elizabeth Minkel

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My year in reading has been a lesson in letting go. It began with the physical: when my apartment building was sold in January, I began a series of culls of my unwieldy book collection, of a set of shelves I’d so carefully organized when I moved in, now obscured by random stacks of cheap paperbacks, uncorrected proofs, impulse purchases, unwanted offerings from friends — so many books I’d never read, would never read, and simply couldn’t bring myself to pack up and unpack again somewhere else. I’ve always tended towards nesting and collecting — this is the kindest possible way to describe my perpetual state of clutter — but for once, I did it, discarding without mercy, hauling big bags of books into the office and depositing them on our communal bench for the next unsuspecting hoarder. I found a new apartment, and I swore I’d do the same for all the other unwieldy piles of things in my life before moving day arrived, but in the end, I never did. They were unceremoniously dumped into boxes and trucked a few exits down the BQE, then shoved into closets and corners; I have yet to fully finish unpacking them all.

But there was more to the great book giveaway than simple space: I have been slowly learning to let go of books on another level — something less tangible, I guess, maybe intellectual, or emotional, or spiritual. I am learning (just now!) to shed the guilt that keeps me turning the pages of books I honestly cannot stand; I am working to tell the difference between a book that is worth the struggle and a book that simply isn’t for me. This is, I suppose, all part of growing older: establishing and developing taste, learning to define and hone it, and being careful not to let your mind narrow — or to snap shut — in the process. And even as I joined this site as a staff writer a few months back, I was busy practicing reading books not for work, brushing off a whole different subsection of guilt, where I read classics, or books that came out three years ago, or something trashy, or novels I’ve come back to more times than seems healthy, and that was all OK, because, after all, there was a reason I’d become an English major in the first place.

But here, at the end of all this, I’m left with an incredibly scattered year in reading — I’m scratching my head and looking back at the last 11 months and wondering what the hell I was thinking through all of this. In the spring, I took a course in literary theory, filling in a gap in my undergraduate education, I thought, which meant rereading Frankenstein and The Tempest and then sighing a lot through Jacques Derrida & Co. before picking my own book — A Passage to India — for the final paper. It was my third time around, and I found it so different to when I read it last — five years ago — that it was kind of astounding. Who knew there was so much nuance! (Most people.) When I later revisited Netherland, for an essay on cricket, my memory of it held up better. I read Cloud Atlas sitting at a sidewalk café, and marveled at the number of people who stopped in their tracks to talk to me about it. There was some great new stuff — Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, for one, around which I built an argument about modern-day slacker literature for my first Millions piece of the year. There was some not-so-great new stuff — much of that gave me the chance to practice the whole “putting down and not feeling guilty” thing.

It mostly felt like I was reading a bunch of the not-particularly-new-but-largely-wonderful, like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, followed by his earlier Blood Horses, part history, part mythology, part memoir, meandering and powerfully direct all at once. There was something slowly intoxicating about English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee, which I picked up for the aforementioned slacker lit piece and with which I easily fell in love. And then there was my favorite book this year, hands-down — Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, published elsewhere as Chinaman, a reference to the left-armed bowl for which Mathew, the elusive cricketer at the heart of the story, is known. It’s the sort of book that turns you into an evangelist, in an almost embarrassing way, like, reaching into your purse to wave a copy in peoples’ faces when someone casually mentions, “I hear you’re writing about cricket?”

But even as books come and go, loosened and removed from the physical and metaphorical shelves, the ones that stay get stickier, and I’ve got a very sticky shelf full of the collected works of Stephen Fry. I started the year with Fry’s new memoir, The Fry Chronicles, which I enjoyed, though not nearly as much as the first installment, Moab Is My Washpot. When he came to America to promote it, I waited for hours to ask him to sign a copy of his first book, The Liar, which I have read approximately one million times. As I handed him the world’s crappiest, most yellowed paperback, dog-eared and spine heavily creased, already shamefully beat-up probably a decade before I paid £3 for it at that permanent used book sale under the Waterloo Bridge, I blurted out how many times I’d read it and how much I loved it. He looked utterly exhausted, but he smiled brightly as he signed the title page, exclaiming, “Oh, well, thank you!”

More from A Year in Reading 2012

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Modern Library Revue: #25 A Passage to India

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In “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster wrote: “I do not believe in belief. But this is an age of faith, where one is surrounded by so many militant creeds that in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own.” I can dig this, because I have been formulating a creed myself. I haven’t really worked it all out in a tract to hand out on street corners, but my view on human life is that it is a continuous exercise in accepting two often irreconcilable values. Things are good, but also bad; things are that way, and also this. This extends from the general to the specific, from the what to the how. Examples abound. People are angelic and loathsome. Religion is sublime and horrible. Coca Cola is divine nectar and chemical scourge. As I write, the atonal scratching of some young violinist floats through my window, evidence for and against a kind of order in the universe.

My philosophy, not at all novel, goes well with a glass of coke and A Passage to India. In his belief manifesto, Forster went on to say that “the people I respect most behave as if they were immortal and as if society was eternal. Both assumptions are false: both of them must be accepted as true if we are to go on eating and working and loving, and are to keep open a few breathing-holes for the human spirit.” A Passage to India is a work of art by someone who understood that every facet of human life is riddled with contradiction and un-sortable muddle, and that we must carry on regardless. And, like any novel, A Passage to India has its own life outside the hands of its creator. It is in itself a demonstration of the principle that things are that way, and also this. A Passage to India is demonstrative of our very finest human instincts; it is also a problematic novel.

In a novel whose plot hinges upon the existence of an unbridgeable chasm between a set of Us and Them, what I love the most is Forster’s savagery against his own team. In dispatches from inside the club, Forster lays bare the grotesque attitudes of the ruling class. Nothing is more vitriolic in its way than a fed-up colonial, and while few can approach the simmering hate of George Orwell in Burmese Days, Forster’s disdain for his compatriots, showcased in his astonishing prose, goes quite as far as Orwell’s did toward exposing the profound poverty of the white man’s burden. When Adela has made her accusation of Aziz, the English hunker down in the club:
One young mother — a brainless but most beautiful girl — sat on a low ottoman in the smoking-room with her baby in her arms; her husband was away in the district, and she dared not return to her bungalow in case the “niggers attacked.” The wife of a small railway official, she was generally snubbed; but this evening, with her abundant figure and masses of corn-gold hair, she symbolized all that is worth fighting and dying for; more permanent a symbol, perhaps, than poor Adela.

Page after page, Forster reveals the hypocrisy and general nastiness of the noble rulers, from the young and not wholly repellent transplant Heaslop, to the ossified Old Hand in the form of the Collector (“I have had twenty-five years’ experience of this country”–he paused, and ‘twenty-five years’ seemed to fill the waiting-room with their staleness and ungenerosity…”)

Here and elsewhere, Forster had it out for the Old Hand. Like most men of the world, he was protective of his traversed domains. He distinguished between real knowledge and false, those who know and those who do not, and those who know too much of the wrong thing. In his essay “Salute to the Orient,” he exhorts, “O deliver my soul from efficiency! When obstacles cease to occur in my plans, when I always get the utmost out of Orientals, it will be the surest proof that I have lost the East.” He tells us about the kind of traveler least likely to “salute the Orient” properly–a fusty old-timer with letters of introduction, who returns from his journey full of riveting anecdotes: “After an interesting conversation with the Mufti, in which Henry acted as interpreter, Lucy and I proceeded to inspect the so-called tomb of Potiphar’s wife.”

Forster is the enemy of the Old Hand, of his boring stories, his certainty, his smallness, his silly theories. Of the novel’s McBryde, District Superintendent of Police and the “most reflective and best educated of the Chandrapore officials,” Forster reveals that
…No Indian ever surprised him, because he had a theory about climatic zones. The theory ran: “All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30. They are not to blame, they have not a dog’s chance–we should be like them if we settled here.” Born at Karachi, he seemed to contradict this theory, and would sometimes admit as much with a sad, quiet smile.
The thing is, to be so seasoned a connoisseur of the Old Hand, one must likewise approach a state of Old-Handedness. This gets to the heart of both my admiration and my anxieties about this novel. How can we write across culture, or think across culture, even, in a way that is fair? The cowardly answer is that we can’t. We can’t think about anyone who is not ourselves in a way that is fair. We can’t think of ourselves in a way that is fair. Fortunately, Forster was not cowardly. It would have been a shame had he been prevented from writing this extraordinary novel because he took a college course about the dangers of Othering. We miss out if we are frightened to write about the world, especially if, like Forster, much of what we write is at odds with the edifice of policy or public opinion.

Still, there is a way that speaking of difference can inject a subtle poison into the air, especially when the playing field is unequal. Forster, the man who once wrote “Only connect!” knew this–it is in a way the premise of his novel. He was, after all, President of the Cambridge Humanists. Nonetheless, we should be mindful of the times–the early twenties–and of Forster’s own status as an Old Hand; we should be conscious of the way that observations, even from subtle and sympathetic minds, acquire their own patina of ungenerosity. “Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession.” Later, “Are Indians cowards? No but they are bad starters and occasionally jib.”

In our current age, during which immeasurable ink has been spilled on the purportedly forever-and-ever “Clash of Civilizations,” with the East represented by the clamoring Muslim hordes and the West represented, presumably, by George Bush, purveyor of light, it is refreshing in a grim sort of way to read about the good old days, when Islam still enjoyed the (comparatively) vaunted position granted it in western Europe by the nineteenth century British orientalists. In Forster’s novel, Islam is the exotic yet comprehensible religion of Fielding’s friends. In A Passage to India, religious strife is a purely domestic problem. Moreover, it is the comically inscrutable Hindus who are treated most irreverently by the novelist. (Of the exasperating Professor Godbole it is written that his conversations “frequently culminated in a cow.”)

It’s curious to see the relative ease at which “clash” models are transmuted to fit their times, how quickly they become self-fulfilling prophesy. In Forster’s East v. West match, the result of which is that the well-meaning Aziz and Fielding cannot maintain a friendship, it is not humdrum religious rancor that creates a rift. In this novel, it is the old-fashioned kind of Orientalism–at once promulgated and illuminated by Forster’s sympathy–that explains the troubles in this India. In this novel, the disease is the British Raj, it is the jib Indians, it is the poison of ill will and the strain of good will, it is the earth itself that keeps the two men apart:
The horses didn’t want it–they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House…they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “no, not there.”
I like the anecdote about Gandhi on Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” I’m sure that a brief sit-down with Christopher Hitchens or even an ideological and self-possessed tween would show me to myself as a waffling liberal twit, but I like to think there is no East and West. Forster would disagree. I think we would both be right.

I feel a bit like the irrepressible Dr. Godbole who, when asked for his opinion about the charges against Aziz, responds thus:
“I am informed that an evil action was performed in the Marabar Hills, and that a highly esteemed English lady is now seriously ill in consequence. My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz.” He stopped and sucked in his thin cheeks. “It was performed by the guide.” He stopped again. “It was performed by you.” Now he had an air of daring and of coyness. “It was performed by me.”  He looked shyly down the sleeve of his own coat.  “And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself.  When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe.  Similarly when good occurs.”

“And similarly when suffering occurs, and so on and so forth, and everything is anything and nothing something,” [Fielding] muttered in his irritation, for he needed the solid ground.
Fielding’s aggravation notwithstanding, I think Forster built up much of his novel around Godbole’s philosophy. Things are that way, and also this; we must carry on regardless.

This novel gives me some trouble–considerable food for thought, better to say–but I love it. I love it for its perfect writing and I love it for its courage and its sympathy. In his later essay on belief, Forster describes his own vision of what he calls the “aristocracy” of humanity: “They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”

If this novel isn’t the work of just such an aristocrat, I don’t know what is.

Surprise Me!