This weekend I will be under a different sky, breathing in fresh country air. I’ve fled London’s smog and will be frolicking in a field at Port Eliot literary festival.
I’m always amazed at how free people are at festivals, how happy and chatty and energised. I feel, perhaps naively, that it’s more than all the drugs that are inevitably on offer. It’s being in a new setting, free from the constraints of home.
The liberating effect of a different landscape is something that I feel Forster explores with real intelligence. In Italy I read Where Angels Fear to Tread. Set in ‘Monteriano’, a thinly veiled San Gimignano, it was a perfectly-placed novel for a stay in Tuscany.
The Italian landscape seems to turn everything, in Philip’s (the main character’s) eyes, into aesthetic scenes. When he goes to the opera:
he saw a charming picture, as charming a picture as he had seen for years – the hot red theatre; outside the theatre, towers and dark gates and medieval walls; beyond the walls, olive-trees in the starlight and white winding roads and fireflies and untroubled dust …
Later he describes Miss Abbott and Gino with a baby:
Just such a baby Bellini sets languid on his mother’s lap … So they were when Philip entered, and saw, to all intents and purposes, the Virgin and Child, with donor.
But the Italian air has more of a profound effect on the women in the book. Miss Abbott, after the opera
had had a wonderful evening, nor did she ever remember such stars or such a sky. Her head, too, was full of music, and that night when she opened the window her room was filled with warm sweet air. She was bathed in beauty within and without; she could not go to bed for happiness.
Miss Abbott (and Lilia before her) fall in love with Italy, and are transformed from uptight gossipy characters in small-town England into greater, more romantic figures. Italy puts everything in a new light, transforms characters, pulls them out of narrow-minded Englishness.
This is far more optimistic than Forster’s portrayal of India in his last novel, A Passage to India. Here it is the Marabar Caves, which have the most powerful effect. These caves, the very first thing that is mentioned in the book, are a menacing yet exciting presence on the horizon; the are the only ‘extraordinary’ thing about Chandrapore, the fictional Indian city where it is set.
One fateful day, Aziz takes Adela and Mrs Moore on an expedition to the caves. Mrs Moore is overcome with horror when they go into one of the caves. This is because of ‘a terrifying echo’, terrifying because it is ‘entirely devoid of distinction’:
Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘ou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’ – utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce ‘boum’ … And if several people talk at once an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.
Mrs Moore is completely overwhelmed by this echo, which continues to reverberate her head, making her feel that everything essentially boils down to the same sound, the same engulfing nothingness. And Forster implies that this hideous, deadening, nihilistic echo is the sound of India; it is how ‘the mood of the last two months took definite form’.
The expedition to the caves is an attempt to bridge the gap between the English and the Indians – an attempt at friendship – and it results in catastrophe because of the caves. For Adela then claims that Aziz has assaulted her in one of them, and this is the beginning of the end of Aziz’s reputation and a warning against future attempts at cross-cultural friendships.
Trouble after trouble encountered him, because he had challenged the spirit of the Indian earth, which tries to keep men in compartments
Forster returns to this idea of the Indian earth, the very essence of India, being against friendship between the English and the Indians throughout the book, perhaps most effectively at its close. Aziz and Fielding want to be friends with each other, after all the messy events of the book, and Fielding says to Aziz, ‘Why can’t we be friends now? … It’s what I want. It’s what you want.’ Forster states:
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 carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voice, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.’
So India and its echo prevents any true union between the English and the Indians. Forster suggests it is the land of India itself that makes it so difficult, the Indian earth, the Indian sky. Rather than helping people grow out of small-town narrow-mindedness, like Italy, India seems to actively prevent it. Perhaps Forster grew more cynical with age.
I just hope the festival will be cynic-free …