368 pages • Atlantic Books • March 06, 2014 [HB]
Christopher Bryant reviews
In 1911, a year after the triumphant publication of Howards End, E.M. Forster started work on a novel called Arctic Summer. The troubled writing of this book saw Forster enter into a dark time in his life when he doubted himself both as an individual and a novelist. The success of Howards End forced him to reassess his life and his work, and his difficulties with Arctic Summer made him realise, as he wrote in his diary in June 1911, that he had a “weariness of the only subject that I both can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa”. It was not until the publication of A Passage to India in 1924 that Forster resolved this tension. It is this period in Forster’s life that is the subject of Damon Galgut’s remarkable novel Arctic Summer.
Galgut’s Arctic Summer opens in October 1912, with Forster on a boat to India. He is drawn there by his love for Syed Ross Masood, an Indian man he tutored in Latin, and to whom he would dedicate A Passage to India. Galgut skilfully depicts the awkward, endlessly shifting Forster, as he struggles with the openness of the handsome military man Kenneth Searight, who is comfortable enough with his own sexuality that he shows Forster photographs of naked Indian men. At the age of 33 Forster was still a virgin, and his understanding of his homosexuality was couched safely in theoretical terms. “He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term; he spoke of it obliquely as being in a minority. He himself was a solitary.” His first journey to India, and the creative crisis that accompanied it, changed Forster irrevocably. His struggles would inform every word in A Passage to India. By opening his novel at this critical juncture, Galgut plunges the reader into that very moment, and when it is done he returns confidently to the point when the journey really began, to 1906, when Forster first met Masood.
Forster’s love for Masood, a love he eventually reveals only to be rebuffed, is the driving force behind Arctic Summer. It determines every move that Forster makes as he starts to write A Passage to India in 1913, then abandons it to work on his homosexual coming-of-age novel Maurice between 1913 and 1914. Galgut shows Forster’s inner life as he wrestles with his inability to finish the novel, and how this was followed by his years in Alexandria in World War I, where he meets Mohammed el Adl. His friendship with Mohammed is an uneven one in which their sexual contact is a barrier between them because it reinforces the distance between them both personally and socially. Galgut’s Forster deflects his energies from Masood to Mohammed, and also from his India novel to a guidebook about Alexandria. It is only when he returns to India as a private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas State that Forster came to terms with India and himself, so much so that he is finally able to finish the novel.
The strength of Arctic Summer is in how Galgut reimagines the details of Forster’s life throughout this time from his writings and his letters as well as the biographies. His recreation of a Forster struggling with his experiences is vivid and convincing because it employs the exact same tensions woven throughout A Passage to India. The biographical facts are balanced with the philosophical and emotional truths at the heart of that great book. It is an extraordinary achievement, one so fluid that it holds together with an air of truth.
The triumph of A Passage to India, both as a novel in itself and as a work forged from years of conflict and turmoil, is an accomplishment that Galgut makes visceral. Forster was to continue writing essays, biographies, and short stories in the following years. He even revised the fragments of Arctic Summer and read from them at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1951. Yet although he lived another 46 years after the publication of A Passage to India, Forster would never write another novel. “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more,” he recorded in his diary in 1961, “but sex has prevented the latter.” There is an element of tragedy to that statement, and yet there is an element of integrity. Forster knew when his great work had been completed, and the wonder in Galgut’s Arctic Summer is that it enables the reader to feel both the triumph as well as the pain at the heart of this conflict. It renders a convincing E.M. Forster, the writer who knew when his work was done and the man who continued to dream. “Writers should see ahead, not constantly be looking behind them, and his powers couldn’t keep pace with history,” Galgut has Forster muse. “There would be no more books like this one.”