Friday, July 10, 2009

On Reading Howards End

Since I had already studied 'A Passage to India' for Elective English at school, 'Howards End' (all and complete chapters provided by the link) was not my introduction to Forster. But yet again, I'm struck by this man's ability to put the abstract into words. Correction. Comprehensible words.

When I read Forster, I feel like he just reaches into my head and with ease, lays out all my thoughts on his pages. And all of a sudden, the thoughts become much much more coherent, significant, and even poetic. I feel that this newfound and positively startling clarity, is not the result of scrutiny or analysis. What he does, is much more beautiful than pedantic deconstruction. What he does, is express our thoughts in terms of language. No matter how much we say we're confused, most of the time we know how we feel. Every ebb and flow of our emotions, every inner pulse and tremor, all send some kind of alert that shoots into our consciousness. We can detect in our heads, parallel strands of contradictory feelings. We can perceive distinctly the waves of alternating thought that wash over us. The only reason why these emotions appear to be a tangled heap, is because we can't represent them in terms of known objects. Forster can. In this case, the 'known objects' are words.

And the structure of his novels are fascinating too. Our so called 'spiritual' world- not to be confused with the religious or the supernatural- is captured in all it's spontaneity and ephemeralness. It isn't compartmentalized into neat, brown-paper-wrapped boxes, all for the sake of creating a tight, wholesome plot. Yet, the contradictions aren't confusing, and the impulses and whims of the characters are engaging rather than ridiculous. When a character does something unexpected, it seems more of an astounding quirk rather than a jarring element. Each word adds layers, and each layer adds richness. And together, the layers call out to us, to unravel them and widen our view on the world. Not once do these layers weigh down on us, restricting our vision.

But interestingly, the plot IS tight and wholesome. Little events at the opening tie up to major incidents in the end. Unobtrusive details gently speak as symbols for overwhelming themes. The tension and shock are present just to the right degree- they stir without stifling. And the flux and abstractions finally build up to a firm, satisfying conclusion, which allows peace and catharsis without being overly tidy.

And then there is the subtle satire, the sharp and sparkling wit, the omniscient voice of the narrator that cajoles you into reading between the lines while making you feel YOUR fine-tuned perception has triumphed in doing so.

All this makes Howards End seem quite heavy. And it could be, it could easily be. But there's one thing that stops it from being so-- charm. It's got that twinkle in the eye that stops you from hating the dusty old lecturer. It's got that mellow note of warmth that stops you from hating the sterilized old dentist. The sense of history, mood and atmosphere is captivating. You can hear the chink of crystal, the clink of fork against china plate, the boom and tinkle of a piano. And you can hear the more uplifting sounds of nature- the breathing of the river, the whispers in the field, the laughter of the stars.

There is a widely acclaimed movie on this book, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter, among others.

Wow, right? Quite. And it's a well-made movie. It's just that Forster novels shouldn't be made into movies. Or rather, people should NEVER watch a movie on a Forster novel if they've already read the source. If my review has made any sense, you should understand why.


  1. A perfectly polished review. You didn't sound like a critic, rather on the lines of an appreciative reader. The seamless borderline he creates is almost perfect. The only thing I would like to say is that you should also have spoken about how well the different stratas of society are portrayed in almost every one of Forster's works.

    As for the film, I completely agree with you when you say that once the book has been read there is no real point in watching the film. Although I must say that Hopkins' performance was absolutely breathtaking.

  2. It's tough for an 18 yr-old to be aloof and critical about a work of this magnitude, isn't it? =]

    But thank you for the sound comments!

  3. Read the book a second time. Then you can be all aloof and critical about it. Once the surprise of turning the page over and discovering a twist disappears, you can actively detach yourself from it :P