‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ by E.M. Forster
For the second leg of my recent trip, a very different reader’s yearning took over. While summer may well be my ideal time for the literary fiction of Spain, there is another pull that can be even stronger—that of classic literature. I find that if I go without reading a “classic” for too long, I start to positively pine for it.
I’ve tried for years and with various groups of friends to define what it is about classic literature that makes it just so damn good. Why it’s better, why it’s refreshing after a long spell in contemporary books, how it can’t really be defined, and why we all love it so much. But, despite the vagueness of such a category, it still cannot be denied and, at least once every two months or so, I succumb.
This time around, I turned to E.M. Forster, a reliable writer of beautiful classics, all having something or other to do with some sort of English lady falling prey to some sort of foreign influence. And Where Angels Fear to Tread was certainly no exception, although it is definitely one of Forster’s odder books. Apparently it’s his first, so we must grant him a little leeway.
The plot of the book, such as it is, focuses on a small Italian town visited by two English ladies. The English ladies interact with Italians, the folks back home are scandalized, high drama of various sorts ensue, tragedy occurs, the English go back to England changed forever, etc. etc. etc. All very Forstery, if you’ll allow the term.
But you aren’t really in it for plot. Indeed, Forster jumps narrators every few pages, which is rather jarring, so it isn’t really one person’s story at all. It’s more the story of the circumstances and the consequences of what each person is doing as well as an examination of what is right or wrong in any given situation. There are infinite ambiguities as each person’s right and wrong shift or stand firm through the winding tale.
What is good about Angels is its prose, which is really what I was looking for anyway. There is some indefinable elegance of expression in all classics and I think it’s that elegance that makes reading them such a literary palate cleanser. Despite his strange plot, Forster certainly delivered on the prose front. Since I was traveling when I read it, this particular section jumped out to me:
They travelled for thirteen hours down-hill, whilst the streams broadened and the mountains shrank, and the vegetation changed, and the people ceased being ugly and drinking beer, and began instead to drink wine and to be beautiful. And the train which had picked them at sunrise out of a waste of glaciers and hotels was waltzing at sunset round the walls of Verona.
I just loved his easy description of the wonder of travel across far distances and the subtle, yet sudden, differences between your departure city and your destination.
In any event, Where Angels Fear to Tread is by no means a new favorite book, but it was a nice little airplane read and the perfect “classic” antidote to my recent adventures in contemporary fiction and nonfiction. If you’re looking to start with Forster, though, I think I would choose Room with a View instead. And I’m looking forward to his Maurice the next time I’m in the right, Forstery mood.