David Lean's hugely successful film version of E.M.Forster's A Passage to India set its minute examination of the human heart against the backdrop of epic changes in British India. A Room With A View, which also dealt with attempts to bridge the gap between cultures and classes, won three Academy Awards. And now critics and movie-goers are discussing Maurice, the third of Forster's novels to be filmed in recent years.
We can't seem to get enough of Forster these days. Why?
Above all else, there is the artistic excellence of the novels: vividly-hued landscapes of England, India and Italy; sympathetically yet unsentimentally created characters who lodge in our imaginations; rich catalogues of gesture and nuance in a never-ending war against miscommunication and disconnection. Forster's heart felt insights into human alienation and the oppression of some racial and social groups by others provide further clues to his growing popularity. One commentator called Maurice "a beautiful and poignant work: Through the character of its scrupulously decent hero who liberates himself from the shackles of society it offers a vision of hope to all who feel alienated from the laws of the tribe."
Forster's "vision," whether of hope or pessimism - it can be argued both ways - matured considerably during his years with the International Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt. Seeking noncombatant involvement during World War I, he served from November 1915 to January 1919 as a "hospital searcher" at the local Red Cross facility. Forster's main responsibility was to interview the wounded troops for information about missing soldiers but, like Walt Whitman during the American Civil War, he spent much time tending to the needs of the wounded: writing letters, fetching small comforts, and aiding their recovery.
Forster had arrived in Egypt shortly after his significant visit to India, and he returned there, after his years in Alexandria, to complete his masterwork, A Passage to India. This India-Alexandria-India sequence seems highly significant in the creation of the novel, thought to be one of the 20th century's greatest: The seed of the masterpiece was planted in India, matured in Alexandria,,and flowered during the second trip to India.
While in Alexandria, Forster also produced a number of non-fiction works, minor in comparison to A Passage to India, yet fully able to stand on their own. For the Egyptian Mail, a local newspaper popular with the British community, he wrote articles like "Our Diversions," a lively account of Alexandrian cultural events; "Handel in Egypt," a review of Handel's Messiah, which Forster thought good music, yet the peak of English sentimentalism transplanted to foreign soil; and "Cotton from the Outside," a humorous sketch about visiting the Alexandria Cotton Exchange with a Greek businessman, Pericles Anastassiades. In this latter article, a verbal exchange ensues very much in the style of Mark Twain.
"Oh Heaven help us!" Forster shouts. "What is that dreadful noise? Run, run! Has somebody been killed?"
"Do not distress yourself...," Anastassiades responds. "It is only the merchants of Alexandria, buying cotton."
"But they are murdering one another, surely?"
"Not so. They merely gesticulate."
"Does any place exist where one could view their gestures in safety?"
"There is such a place."
"I shall come to no bodily harm there?"
"Then conduct me, pray "
Many of Forster's Egyptian writings are gathered in his book, Pharos and Pharillon (1923). He also published an influential pamphlet, The Government of Egypt (1920), in which he supported views that Great Britain should recognize the independent status of Egypt, that British troops and advisers should be withdrawn from Egypt immediately, and that the Suez Canal Zone should be leased to Egypt for a term of years. Though the views originated with others, Forster's support of them clearly showed his growing anti-imperialist inclination, a perspective that would blossom fully in A Passage to India, where British involvement in India's social and political life is seen as a great evil.
The novelist's other significant Egyptian work was the brilliant Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922), which for some enthusiasts remains the most insightful travel book ever written about Alexandria. "Charming and scholarly," writes one such commentator of this volume, which is part lively history and part well-illustrated travelogue, woven together into a concise 225 pages in which Forster says what another writer might have taken 500 pages to say. What is even more special about Alexandria: A History and a Guide is that it foreshadows more graphically than any other work the coming of A Passage to India. As a biographer notes, "Many of the pages ... open a route that leads straight to the great Indian novel."
In truth, however, nearly everything Forster observed, experienced and produced in Alexandria leads to "the great Indian novel." He absorbed the elements of his new environment, not with the novice's sense of infatuation - he was approaching 40 and had already established himself as a literary celebrity with the publication of Howard's End (1910) - but as a seasoned veteran familiar with Eastern and Western intricacies. Beauty and mystery, oppression and compassion, politics, spiritual searching, and enmity between social and racial groups - each passed before Forster's artistic eye and through his mature, reflective mind.
To a close friend, S. R. Masood, Forster wrote on December 29, 1915: "All that I cared for in civilization has gone forever, and I am trying to live without either hopes or fears - not an easy job, but one keeps going somehow." This first letter from Egypt seems to indicate a receptive mind, removed from distractions and aching with disillusionment. Forster knew the bitterness of social ostracism, a theme he explores in Maurice.
Yet he was primed to make clear observations, and prepared to witness ambiguities and contradictions without bias. Much later, regarding generalizations about the Middle East, he was to write in Abinger Harvest (1936), "What is the use of generalizing...? Syria isn't Egypt nor Turkey Arabia; what is true of the Moslem is only partly true of his Christian compatriot; classes vary, conditions alter...."
It was "the spirit of the East," Forster believed, that would help him better understand the region: "The East isn't palm-trees and sunsets, or friendly rogues, or the Harem.... It is a spirit also, and... we must attempt to define it."
Once settled in Alexandria, Forster began to demonstrate that he was finely attuned to the new environment. His unsentimental appreciation of geography there, for instance, resembles the landscape and sunset descriptions of A Passage to India. He described a seaside villa to his future "biographee," Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson:
I'm writing.. .at Montazah this morning. It is the country place of the ex-Khedive and has been turned into a Convalescent Hospital. Among its tamarisk groves and avenues of flowing oleander, on its reefs and fantastic promontories of rocks and sand, hundreds of young men are at play, fishing, riding donkeys, lying in hammocks, boating, dozing, swimming, listening to bands.
His descriptions of the sun and moon - even in letters to friends - parallels his attention to the heavenly bodies in A Passage to India. In the novel, Forster carefully weaves into his text ancient myths about the origins of the universe.
One such myth, paraphrased, holds that the two sibling bodies are eternally inimical to each other. The light-bearing Queen of the Night was the first-born of the Primal Egg - the ancient Earth Mother. The sun, born later, turns to abuse its mother and her other child, the moon. Hence, the moon loses half her kingdom to the sun's day and is monthly devoured, piece by piece, by this enemy. In describing the moon as "the exhausted crescent that precedes the sun," Forster pits the sun and moon against each other and personifies them; the seeds of such mythologizing were already germinating in Alexandria. He writes in a letter dated August 25,1917, "The half moon, with beautiful blue markings on its primrose, stands looking at the sunset." The summer skies of Alexandria were apparently serving as a personal observatory where Forster could, like an ancient Arab astronomer, monitor the heavens - a process crucial in the preparation of A Passage to India.
However, Forster was a people-watcher, too, always interested in the inhabitants of Alexandria and of Egypt. His references to children, for instance, reflected a close attention to personality, physique, and facial gestures. Attire, physical features and movement all attracted Forster's attention, and his letters indicated that he enjoyed the temperament of his Egyptian acquaintances. They were a "mild and cheerful people," he wrote on one occasion, "especially to one who had known Indians" - and they were "an easy people to live with."
Intellectually, however, he identified more closely with the Greeks of cosmopolitan Alexandria. To be with them, he noted, was "to re-enter, however imperfectly, the Academic world. They ... effervesce intellectually, they do have creative desires, .... " This affiliation bore fruit for Forster, and indeed for the literary world at large, in his friendship with the Greek poet C.R Cavafy, whom he later introduced to the West. Born to cotton and wheat exporters from Constantinople, Cavafy was working as a civil servant in Alexandria when Forster "discovered" him. Today Cavafy is viewed as certainly the greatest Greek poet of the 20th century.
Another friendship Forster initiated was with Mohammed al-Adl, a tram conductor in Alexandria. Forster's letters of the period focus on a richness of friendship and mutual concern in the relationship that tend to overshadow its physical dimension. He wrote to his longtime friend Florence Barger, "When you are offered affection, honesty, and intelligence ... (including a delightful sense of humor), you surely have to take it or die spiritually." It was Adi who fell ill, however, and eventually died, leaving Forster alone but with tender memories.
Individual tenderness attracted Forster, regardless of the giver's social or national background. The devout Muslim physician, Aziz, in A Passage to India - a character who in many ways seems representative of Mohammed al-Adl - is known for his tenderness, charm, and sensitivity. Forster writes, "His face grew very tender .... He was tender to everyone, ... even to the English; he knew at the bottom of his heart that they could not help being so cold and odd and circulating like an ice stream through his land."
He was also, of course, attracted to the details of history that surrounded him in Alexandria. Unlike Western writers who first encountered Middle Eastern antiquity at less mature stages - the American writer Mark Twain comes to mind - Forster was objective, examining facts carefully, commenting on them after patient observation, always letting history serve him rather than overwhelm him.
Since he wrote his imaginative works both before and after his Egyptian period, most commentators agree that Forster responded historically, not imaginatively to Alexandria. However, it might be better to say that history caused him to respond imaginatively to the city. In Abinger Harvest he would reflect upon his ongoing fascination with "The Past," devoting a fifth of that volume to historical wonders. He wrote, somewhat imaginatively,
It is pleasant to be transferred from an office where one is afraid of a sergeant-major into an office where one can intimidate generals, and perhaps this is why History is so attractive to the more timid amongst us. We can recover self-confidence by snubbing the dead. The captains and the kings depart at our slightest censure, while as for the "hosts of minor officials" who cumber court and camp, we heed them not, although in actual life they entirely block our social horizon.
One reason why Alexandria: A History and a Guide reads so commandingly is Forster's trick of shuffling like cards the faces and names of Alexandria's history. The book represented his attempt to reconstruct "a ghost city" inhabited by the eternal presences of Alexander, Cleopatra, Eratosthenes, and other immortals. Short, concise character sketches give the book its human element.
Of the twin ambitions of Alexander and Cleopatra, for instance, Forster writes:
Thus the career of the Greco-Egyptian city closes, as it began, in an atmosphere of Romance. Cleopatra is of course a meaner figure than Alexander the Great. Ambition with her is purely selfish; with Alexander it was mystically connected with the welfare of mankind. She knows nothing beyond the body and so shrinks from discomfort and pain: Alexander attained the strength of the hero. Yet for all their differences, the man who created and the woman who lost Alexandria have one thing in common: monumental greatness; and between them is suspended, like a rare and fragile chain, the dynasty of the Ptolemies.
Forster gave Alexandria a breathing spirit of its own. Though the city owed its creation to Alexander, in his book it becomes its own entity as ages pass. It gives birth, nurtures, accepts, rejects - but most of all, it transcends and outlives the paltry humanity that filters through it. Cleopatra becomes "the last of a secluded and subtle race,... a flower that Alexandria had taken three hundred years to produce and that eternity cannot wither..."
Centuries later, Forster's city becomes middle-aged. Amr, the multi-talented Arab poet-general, drives the wicked Alexandrian genius Cyrus from the city and back to Constantinople. Described by Forster as "one of the most charming men that Islam ever produced," Amr helps to usher Islam into the territory. Forster narrates:
Riding into Egypt by the coast where Port Said stands now, he struck swiftly up the Nile, defeated an Imperial army at Heliopolis and invested the fort of Babylon. Cyrus was inside it .... He knew that no native Egyptian would resist Arabs, and he may have felt, like many of his contemporaries, that Christianity was doomed, that its complexities were destined to perish before the simplicity of Islam.
Time passes again, and Alexandria enters the modern age, beginning with the reign of Mohammed Ali during the early 1800's. And with history receding before him, Forster begins to wind his narrative down. A few topics remain to be considered, but Forster is losing interest as his pocket history trails off to become a guidebook of present-day Alexandria. His ghost city fades once again into the wisps of memory.
When he was not dwelling on history, Forster busied himself with his work at the Red Cross hospital. He was the prototypical conscientious objector, viewing his calling earnestly and with deep empathy for victims of battle, and never losing his animosity toward military powers and the wars they waged. Of the pain and humiliation that he faced each day, he complained to a friend,
Oh my God the mess - the suffering in the hospitals which here and everywhere are crammed, the decent young men all so free from nonsense and false pride, so calm about the enemy ... and over their heads solemn bloody lies. War ... is almost devoid of hate.
As throughout the entire text of A Passage to India, he began to cast the blame for misery on the presence of the British military in a land where it didn't belong. The army dehumanized people in a continuing nightmare of regulations enforced by violence. Early in 1918 Forster despairs, "The army just shovels [people] about like dirt .... One can face bad luck and unhappiness. It is the process of organization and dehumanization that is such a nightmare to me...."
He would, of course, document his contempt for British imperialism in The Government of Egypt. And there was more disparagement to come once Forster had left Egypt and returned briefly to England before his second trip to India. He sympathized with Egypt after Britain had rudely thwarted the country's efforts toward independence. Writing for the Manchester Guardian in the spring of 1919, he reflected:
When I arrived in Egypt the people were invariably friendly, but in 1918 there was a marked change - silence from the adults, and from the children an occasional hooting which, trivial in itself, showed how the wind was blowing. And just at the time of our victories a plaintive little popular song was born and sung to a minor tune about the street - "My native town, oh my native town! The military authorities have taken my boy."
In all of Forster's disdain for British "bungling," one recalls Aziz's angry plea for Indian unity without foreign - especially British - intervention. On the closing page of A Passage to India, the Muslim doctor, humiliated by the British, shouts:
"India shall be a nation! No foreigners of any sort! Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and all shall be one. ... Down with the English anyhow. That's certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you the most.... If it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea...."
Such attitudes were certainly foreshadowed while Forster matured in Alexandria. Further, though he laid much blame on his fellow countrymen for the strife in both Egypt and India, he was not naive enough to leave it there. Social and racial gulfs grew ultimately from something far more elusive and mysterious than one country's political domination of another: The enmity was partly psychological, partly sociological - and perhaps partly the "ancient night" of human and prehuman existence.
When encountering this "ancient night" deep within the primeval Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, Forster writes, "What dwelt in the first of the caves? Something very old and very small. Before time, it was before space also. Something snub-nosed, incapable of generosity - the undying worm itself."
Essentially the same thoughts, less carefully articulated, occurred to Forster during the Alexandria period. When he discovered his own inherent racism, for instance, he claimed it helped him to understand his countrymen better, but he despised it for its small, worm-like quality. "It's damnable and disgraceful, and it's in me," he lamented, just months into his tour of duty. Another time, despairing of the prejudiced judgements human beings apply to one another, he argued, "How misleading generalizations are, whether racial or social. I envy children their power of regarding each person as a new species." Finally, Forster, in Alexandria, spoke several times about a "psychological hitch" that takes place when humans try to connect socially. The difficulty emanated somehow from a disjuncture between our private and public selves, he believed: We have good intentions toward each other privately, but when we take those intentions public something runs amok.
Man in his public capacity [is] a contemptible failure .... Privately most men attain to love and unselfishness and ... one would expect them to display these qualities in their social life, for they certainly bring earnest ness of purpose to it. But some psychological hitch takes place, whose nature is not easy to determine ....Gulf between "private" and "public" has….dizzying…
Forster deplored this "hitch." He longed for unity between peoples. Even after Mohammed al-Adl died, he wrote to him a kind of plea for oneness: "It was dark and I heard an Egyptian shouting who had lost his friend: Margan, Margan [the name Forster went by] - you calling me and I felt we belonged to each other, you had made me an Egyptian."
Egyptian and Englishman, Arab and European, Hindu and Muslim and Christian, East and West - Forster felt the human race had been somehow cheated by the improbability of establishing and maintaining lasting relationships. "Why can't we be friends now?" says a voice at the end of A Passage to India. "It's what I want. It's what you want." And then Forster's chilling conclusion:
But 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."
It was fitting that in his desire for unity Forster should use as an epigraph to Alexandria: A History and a Guide the words of Ibn Dukmak: "If a man make a pilgrimage round Alexandria in the morning, God will make for him a golden crown, set with pearls, perfumed with musk and camphor, and shining from the East to the West." Forster, in Alexandria, treated Muslim concerns with a reserved admiration.
He certainly held an appreciation for Islamic architecture. Devoting plenty of space in Alexandria: A History and a Guide to the description of various mosques, he analyzed interiors and exteriors with considerable insight. Of the inside of the Chorbagi Mosque (built in 1757) on Rue el Midan, he wrote: "The door of the pulpit is handsome; it has duplicated Kufic inscriptions, which on the right read from right to left, as is usual, and on the left are reversed for the sake of symmetry: a good instance of the decorative tendency of Arab art."
And in Abinger Harvest, where he thrust himself into the role of a mosque, he explained in the first person: "I was built... in the first place at Medina, where I was a courtyard, and if you would understand me today you must still think of me as a courtyard...." He further claimed that the mosque - like all authentic religious architecture - faithfully expresses its theological beliefs, adding:
The [Ka'ba], the worship ... , the [Makkah] position, do not succeed in obscuring the central truth: that there is no god but God, and that even Mohammed is but the Prophet of God; which truth, despite occasional compromises, is faithfully expressed in Moslem architecture, and should be remembered by those who would understand it.
Forster, despite his appreciation for the Hindu religion, felt he could understand Islam far better. Early in his second visit to India he wrote of the security he felt in knowing that Muslims were not beyond his comprehension, whereas Hindus remained obscure. "The more I know the less I understand," he reflected.
When... I stood on the minaret of the Taj in Agra, and heard the evening call to prayer from the adjacent mosque, I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard; it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines and horizons. So with the [Muslim] friends .... They may not be as subtle or suggestive as the Hindus, but I can follow what they are saying.
Thus the straightforwardness of Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India stands in sharp, refreshing contrast to the complexities of the ever out-of-focus Professor Godbole, the Hindu. And in Aziz, we see the fundamental security a Muslim feels: "He himself was rooted in society and Islam. He belonged to a tradition that bound him .... " Forster had seen such "rooted-ness" while living in Alexandria, concluding his chapter "Islam" in Alexandria: A History and a Guide with these words:
There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God, says Islam .... The man Mohammed has been chosen to tell us what God is like and what he wishes, and there all machinery ends, leaving us to face our Creator.
The Alexandria interval must in the end be seen as necessary to Forster's development as A Passage to India grew within him. We often read about great writers who began their most significant books at premature times and places, and wind up finishing them years later. The in-between time allows the original vision a chance to solidify while new experiences supply maturity and richness. As one Forster commentator notes, "Alexandria ... provided a resting place, a point of balance, a breathing space in which to reflect... [and] a vantage point from which to develop a new vision of life."
Forster would certainly have agreed, writing midway through the period that there were "things in these last ... years that I can never be too grateful for, never. My work here is obscure and occasionally humiliating. Never mind. It's been worth my while." And in his final letter from Egypt, dated January 1919, he concludes, "I leave Egypt in comparative content."
He would return to England, and then to his beloved India - where he "hoped to die someday" - but he was never to lose the Alexandria of his middle years.
Daniel Pawley, an assistant professor of communications at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, has studied topics relating literature and Middle Eastern history.