16 OCTOBER 1953, Page 22


Mr. Forster's Quandary

By RICHARD HUGHES HERE are quotations from Mr. E. M. Forster's new book, The Hill of Devi: " The New Palace, Dewas. October 10th, 1921.—Tomorrow, is the ' Dassera,' the great National Festivity, and we shall have to put up a coconut in the office and worship it or eat it, I am not sure which . . . I find that the motor-cars and the electric battery each want to worship one, too.. Hoping to have caught the spirit of Dassera, I then offered one to the Tennis Court, and another to the Guest House, but, no, wrong again. The Tennis Court and the Guest House never pray to coconuts, and the Garden did its ceremony about ,a month ago. . . . October 13th. We are just through Dassera. I had to act the priest twice. It was enjoyable. The first time I adored a pen, an inkpot, a wastepaper basket and a piece of foolscap, under the direction of my clerk, and administered both to them and him a sacra- ment of coconut. The coconut kept bouncing up from the office carpet and looking at me when I tried to crack it. Then, proceeding to the Electric House, I did similar to the switchboard, the dynamo, the batteries and the engineers. One hasn't to say anything, still less to feel. Just wave incense and sprinkle water and dab with red powder any- thing you like."

" Affection all through his chequered life was the only force to which Bapu Sahib responded. It did not always work, but withodt it nothing worked ": again: " Quite often I did not understand him—he was too incalculable—but it was possible with him to reach a platform where calculations were unnecessary ": and again: " His religion was the deepest thing in him," and again: " The things of this life mean so little to him—mean something so different, anyway—I never feel certain what he likes, or even whether he likes me; considera- tion for others so often simulates affection in him. I only know that he is one of the sweetest and saintliest men I have ever known, and that his goodness is not mawkish, but goes with deep insight into character and knowledge of the world. It is very difficult to desciibe him because he does belong to another civilisation in a way that other Indians I have met do not." .., What quality, what class of book then is this that Mr. Forster has given us at long last ? A major work, or a delicate trifle 7 When an author so eminent as Mr. Forster has published so little for so long both he and his public are put in a quandary. That next book, when at last it comes—if it has any pretensions to being a major work at all, surely it will have to be something stupendous I It has to do even more than just to emulate past works already grown to exem- plary status, it has as well (he and we may feel) to outweigh the accusing decades of virtual silence piled up and still piling up in the scales against him. Consequently we shall open it with jealous suspicion. The more indefatigable kind of author, the book-a-year man, is allowed his occasional lapses, to publish something inferior now and then, even a blatant pot-boiler masquerading : we permit him to be a little below par in 1953 in the hope that he will be his old self again quite early in 1954. But we can't extend any licence of this sort to the Forsters. That at least is one side of the quandary —Mr. Forster's quandary and ours. Here is a great reputa- tion to enhance, a long period of silence to justify by its fruits. To put it as brutally as possible : if Mr. Forster cannot after all this time give us an even better book than the ones which long ago made him famous, surely he is ill-advised now to break his Trappist vows at all ? Better, that in duo course he should go down still dumb into the tomb ? But fortunately the quandary has quite another and a gentler aspect, another way out (as in India, where every hole you get yourself into is said to have two ends). When an author so eminent as Mr. Forster has written so little for so long, ought we not rather to be grateful for anything —anything at all from his golden pen ? A volume of his school essays, his lecture notes, even his laundry lists ? In short, for anything graceful, provided it makes no masquerade of being a. work of the imagination, the awaited masterpiece . . . yes, that is the essential point, it must be something patently unassuming, with no pretence of being a major work. A bundle of old travel-letters (containing interesting source-material for A Passage to India), for example, worked up with a few pages of commentary into a biographical sketch of an unimportant Indian princeling . . . what could be more unassuming, and what, in the quandary, more suitable ?

We con the blurb, then, on the wrapper of the new book,* and the slightly apologetic preface : we glance at the faintly " period " frontispiece photograph bf H.H. Sir Tukoji Rao III, K.C.I.E., and then—confident that we have guessed right about Mr. Forster and his famous quandary and the way out of it he has chosen—we begin to read in a totally disarmed frame of mind : with a sigh. perhaps, because we know we must not expect too much, but prepared to enjoy anything enjoyable however slight. This notion that in The Hill of Devi we shall be faced with deliberate triviality, will, indeed, be enhanced by some of the first letters we read, those written during the brief 1912 visit to Dewas State : they are readable, they are intelligent, but for the most part quite undistinguished, and it is only in a passage of commentary that we get our first clear glimpse of the young Maharajah himself : " His clever, merry little face peeped out of an enormous turban : he was charming, he was lovable, it was impossible to resist him or India."

But after a brief interlude of descriptive narrative, designed to fill the gap between this fleeting early visit and the siX months in 1921 when the author returned to Dewas as the Maharajah's temporary private secretary, come the 1921. letters themselves and the narrative passages which link them,. This was the period when the two men became really inti- mate, and this is the backbone of the book. The letters at varied in mood and they are vivid : the serious ones are es vividly serious as the first batch of letters quoted at the head of this review are vividly farcical and somewhere in the course of reading them the entranced reader finds growing in him all

* The Hill of Devi: By E. M. Forster. (Arnold, 15s.)-

uneasy feeling—has he been hoodwinked ? Is this after all liter- ature, masquerading as something trivial ?

For all the book's brevity and unassuming airs, is it the awaited major work ? It would need a critic a good deal more cocksure than the present reviewer, and a longer period of cogitation than any reviewer can hope for, to give an unequivocal answer to that question— especially with so much double-bluffing in the air. For the present a few pointers must suffice, and the reader must decide at his leisure.

It was suggested in these columns a little while ago that a proper description of literature is to call it the self-consciousness of society. From that point of view at any rate this book is certainly literature ; for it brings into our consciousness a way of living and feeling and thinking and worshipping that were not there already. The Maharajah, " certainly a genius, possibly a saint, and he had to be a king " : the canvas is small, but as a character he is more vivid and more valuable than any character in A Passage to India, for example : he is a person, whereas those (no doubt deliberately) were types. An exceptional person, and the catastrophe of his bankruptcy, his flight to Pondicherry and his death have an imagin- ative as well as a historical truth which exceeds the more contrived catastrophe of the novel.

Again, ars est celare artem—how is the effect produced ? It is no belittlement of A Passage to India' to say that it is always possible to see " how it is done " (which is a far cry, of course, from pre- tending one could do it oneself) : but the literary machinery of The Bill of Devi is subtler : after reading it twice, it is still not easy to see "how it is done." There is either consummate conjuring here, or else true magic.

One could continue quoting interminably, and yet the effect of the book would somehow continue to slip between one's fingers. For this effect is an effect of the whole, and not to be found in any of the parts, nor can the eye see quite how the parts combine to create it. Thus we are brought back to the earlier question : has an unwary reviewer allowed himself to succumb to a particularly skilful double bluff—or is this in fact a piece of literature, a major work of its author, something that perhaps will live in the minds of readers of a genera- tion which shall label A Passage to India as no more than a skilful political tract ?