‘All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one’, wrote Walter Benjamin. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), I will suggest, is a text that arrives at the limit of ‘the English novel’ and points towards ‘the novel in English’: the proliferation of postcolonial fiction in the second half of the twentieth century. As it relocates Forster’s early, very English and Jane Austen-like comedies of manners to an entirely different geography and social context, the result is a great text as problem text, and one in which (as students often complain) nothing happens.
Taking my cue from the convoluted syntax of Forster’s prose – so full of neithers, nors, nevers and nothings – I will explore A Passage to India as a work about which it is much easier to say what it is not, than what it is. Not Edwardian realism, but not quite Modernism either. ‘The poet is twitched away by the satirist’, complained Virginia Woolf in 1942, ‘the comedian is tapped on the shoulder by the moralist’. In its famous absences (What happened in the Marabar Caves?), its failed conversations, misunderstandings and muddles, in the attempts to feel its way into the experience of religious ecstasy, we can almost see a certain kind of literary liberalism dissolve before our eyes.
The result is a novel that works on us obliquely, unpunctually, unexpectedly. In the questions it owns up to, and the understated ambition with which it opens its inherited forms to foreignness of all kinds, A Passage to India emerges as a unique document of the colonial encounter, laying bare the limits of its language as it struggles to find words ‘at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind’.
Full text (PDF): Nothing Extraordinary: E. M. Forster and the English Limit. English in Africa, 40:2 (October 2013).