Refinding fiction

How many times has one said (or felt) that in the little time there is for reading, one can't afford to ``indulge'' in fiction . . . When some of the most profound caring, learning, yearning, laughing, or wrestling one has ever done, may have been in the grip of that meaningful art?

In fact, it might not be hard to think of a work of fiction -- novel or story, play, opera, or film -- that has altered one's life.

My current, somewhat awed case in point is E. M. Forster's ``A Passage To India.'' Reading the novel first, hastily and dutifully, as a college senior, not fully understanding the events or even registering all the characters, I found myself with strange new feelings. There was a message -- that mixing cultures isn't as easy as you think. But there was also the sense of a deep secret in that message, of a wisdom not seen or acknowledged in my do-good American world.

Because I had felt that echo in the cave with Mrs. Moore, that sense of values dissolving, or values without value, I too was shaken. (As John Gardner says in his book, ``On Moral Fiction,'' ``True art . . . strikes like lightning, or is lightning; whichever.'') I could imagine myself making the same kind of innocent advances Mrs. Moore did -- and young Dr. Aziz -- out of sympathy, or out of ebullience. And, like them, getting in disastrously over my head.

A new awareness began to attend me. I would now sometimes Stop, Look, and Listen before I . . . Leaped. Years later, I realized how I'd become a student and admirer of our sage dignified kitty, who would pause on the threshold of a room and feel out its whole content and atmosphere before he'd stretch one paw to go in.

The lessons multiplied. About any claim to superiority, and the insensitivity that goes with it. About the dangers of power; and the dangers of complacency. About love, and what would try to destroy it. I knew I would always feel in Forster's debt.

Rereading ``A Passage to India'' now, it seems an even greater wonder. A case of clear and humble intelligence undertaking to illuminate, with deep human feeling and constructive purpose (though sometimes ironically expressed), the complex and contradictory problems posed by the Raj. A mild but unmistakable prophecy of the rise of Islam and its built-in rigidities, bidding to take the place of the Raj. A hint of the playful, fleshy elusiveness of Hinduism, waiting in the wings with futilities of its own.

A small book, but powerful, able to convey in something over 300 pages an essence that, later, a four-volume novel by another fine writer, Paul Scott, would require 2,000 to approach.

In its emotional range as well, Forster's work is remarkable. It's a book not just about echoes, but reverberating with them . . . with sympathies, symmetries, delicately suggested symbols, with differing mentalities, warm individualities, its own charged atmosphere, all shimmering and vibrating through a simple story. And leaving a sense of having experienced, even perhaps of beginning to understand, those mental and situational subtleties of long continuance we call ``India.'' Sir David Lean's new film based on the Forster novel is a beautiful thing, but for me it couldn't begin to evoke what the writing in the book does.

Another surprise upon this reading, one of the many available slow takes, is that only 60 years ago, in the year 1924, such an extensive tale of empire could be told without a single reference to the United States of America. The book is a vast but close encounter between the British and India; even the Continent is hardly felt.

And yet very indirectly, with that wry obliquity Forster so enjoyed, America does enter the picture.

In 1868, 11 years before Forster was born, Walt Whitman had published his poem, ``Passage to India.'' Launching his song upon the opening of the Suez Canal and the spanning of America by railroads, Whitman leaped forward to an unbarriered world of understanding, unity, and love. His flowing lines (all 225 of them) flung out wonderful promise; deep perceptions; a ``passage to more than India.''

Forster knew Whitman's work. But for us, after making our passage with Forster, Whitman's thoughts seem those of the untutored optimist -- the one not yet prepared for the real tasks.

There is something hopeful about India's new place in Western consciousness. But we may not yet be ready for her imponderables. We will have to know more about thought and its invisible strifes than we do, and what is of the human mind and what of the divine. We'll have to be able to discriminate between concepts at base material, therefore degenerative and self-defeating, and concepts essentially spiritual and therefore purifying and uplifting. We'll have to exchange wishful emotion and random philosophizing for clear recognition and reason, so that the superstitions of a former period may drop away. And, as Forster quietly insists, we'll have to be able to feel genuine love and respect for our fellow-beings, and express it spontaneously. No imitations will do.

Fiction may well have the force of truth. And some ``fiction'' hardly deserves the name.

Mellor Haynes, a traveler, writes about fiction for the Monitor Book Review.

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