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E.M. Forster and the Politics of Imperialism
Mohammad Shaheen
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£47.50, 209 pages, ISBN 0-333-74136-6.

Shannon Wells-Lassagne
Université de Bretagne Sud


Mohammad Shaheen is an author who has essentially published works on Meredith or on Arabic literature; this topic of E.M. Forster’s relation to imperialism is both new to those who have followed his work, and at the same time in the prolongation of his previous work (he emphasizes the admiration that Forster had for Meredith several times, for example).

The treatise is divided up into seven chapters, which deal with several examples of Forster’s non-fiction, before going on to examine the criticism of Forster’s work, notably that of Peter Burra and Edward Said. It also includes appendices where Shaheen reproduces in full several of Forster’s non-fiction works that pertain to his experience of the British colonies (Egypt and India in particular), as well as to his passionate relationship with two nationals of those respective nations, Mohammed El-Able and Ross Massoud. The appendices also include peripheral analyses of Foster, in his reaction to Conrad’s “horror” that concludes The Heart of Darkness, and in the relation and analysis of a personal conversation that the author had with Forster himself. In this organisation, the reader can intuit the strengths and weaknesses of the text to follow: the use of Forster’s non-fiction is a strength, especially to the extent that it allows the reader to discover new aspects of the novelist’s thoughts about imperialism, and a new vision of Forster as a political being (not necessarily in accordance with a given party, but with clear beliefs as to the misdeeds inherent to the imperialist system). However, by relating the non-fiction directly to the fiction (in particular A Passage to India, of course), and by concentrating on critical response to the novel rather than the novel itself, the reader may often feel that Forster’s personal beliefs are more important to the author than his fiction; the biographical aspect thus becomes predominant. However, by concentrating on A Passage to India both in the introduction, and crucially, in the final chapters of the book (be it principally by means of the critical reception of the novel), the author seems to partially contradict this aim.

Shaheen says in his introduction that his ultimate goal is to examine A Passage to India in the context of E.M. Forster’s non-fiction, and then go on to nuance the interpretations made about the novel by Said and Burra. Burra’s interpretation of the novel, one which was approved by Forster in his lifetime, concentrated on the novel’s aesthetic qualities, playing down the text’s political aspects. Forster himself did much the same, claiming that the novel was not about “simple politics.” Said, on the other hand, discussed A Passage to India in his seminal work Culture and Imperialism, and gave it a primarily political reading, which emphasized the anti-imperialist nature of the novel, while lamenting the suspension of racial and cultural tension in the ending, where two characters, one British, the other Indian, are ultimately unable to maintain a friendship (“Not yet;” “No, not there”). This reservation about Forster’s text is the interpretation that Shaheen wishes to re-examine in his own work, but for the most part his approach is admittedly similar to Said’s (as the title itself would indicate). Thus, through Forster’s non-fiction, Shaheen is attempting to re-examine Forster’s Indian novel. This is an interesting, if delicate, approach, especially when the author tells us that

Forster seems to believe that once politics enter the realm of fiction they should no longer be as explicit or straightforward as in his non-fiction, and the difference between the non-fiction writer and the novelist is also the difference between the historian and the novelist. [4-5]

In this case, isn’t the author essentially transforming the author into what he is not (a historian)? Isn’t he seeking the political figure rather than the novelist? To this extent, it is especially interesting to read the third chapter of the book, “Forster’s Debate on ‘Kipling Is Not Literature,’” which serves as a kind of mise en abyme of the author’s own intentions: looking at a manuscript essay Forster wrote about Rudyard Kipling, it analyzes the text to ascertain Forster’s feelings about Empire. After all, it concludes, “the introduction shows that Kipling’s poetry is not the real target of Forster’s criticism. It is more or less an occasion to discuss Kipling’s views on imperialism [38].”

The power of Shaheen’s prose lies largely in the progressive unveiling of Forster’s original text: for example in Chapter 3, Shaheen begins his analysis of Forster’s critique with excerpts that may, but do not necessarily pertain to imperialism, and he then extrapolates the quotes to apply them to the topic. It is not until well into his analysis that he gives incontrovertible evidence of Forster’s anti-imperialist aims, thus causing the reader to agree not only with what is currently under discussion, but also, retroactively, with the aspects of the question that have already been broached. However, this approach can also be detrimental, as it can sometimes border on repetition; thus for example the idea of Forster’s “lasting home” is reiterated at length at least three times within a dozen pages, creating a sort of textual fatigue, and consequently weakening his argument.

Though what Shaheen seeks to demonstrate is clear, i.e. the re-vindication of Forster’s anti-imperialism and thus a justification of the suspended ending of A Passage to India, his argumentation seems inconclusive, not least because the strongest arguments used to justify Forster’s novel (in the reviewer’s opinion) are in fact biographical texts (letters, etc.) explaining Forster’s own feelings of simultaneous fascination and repulsion or fear in regard to India, and these are presented in Chapter 5, “Beyond the Mediterranean Norm,” which ends a good sixty pages before the book itself comes to a close. The analysis therefore seems very much anticlimactic, even if the reader should happen to concur with Shaheen’s own interpretation of the novelist’s views. Though this book will undoubtedly prove useful to those interested in Forster and in post-colonialism, it is less likely that it will leave an indelible mark on either terrain.

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