Book review: Arctic Summer

By Peter Parker

'Arctic Summer' by Damon Galgut.
'Arctic Summer' by Damon Galgut.

On December 19, 1910, a few months after the publication of Howard's End, E. M. Forster began sketching out the plan for a new novel. This book, he wrote in his diary, would contain "no lovemaking - at least not of the orthodox kind; perhaps not even the unorthodox ... My motive should be democratic affection." He never completed the novel, though he did come up with a title, Arctic Summer, defined as "the long, cold day in which there is time to do things".

In his own novel of the same name, Damon Galgut reconstructs the Arctic summer of Forster's long, fictional silence, which lasted from 1910 until the publication of A Passage to India in 1924. Apparently unable to write, or at any rate finish a book, Forster did indeed have "time to do things" - chiefly travel - and the subsequent period of geographical and emotional exploration was crucial to the development of both his work and his character.

Galgut's novel opens with Forster's first passage to India in 1912, undertaken principally to see Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian Muslim with whom he had fallen in love while teaching him Latin in Weybridge.

Although Masood was very good at "oriental" displays and declarations of love, he was in fact heterosexual, thus frustrating Forster's erotic yearnings. On board ship, Forster becomes acquainted with a louche British officer, Kenneth Searight, who tells him India is a land of homosexual opportunity. But the timid novelist returns to England six months later, still a virgin, at 34.

It was while working for the Red Cross in Alexandria during World War I that Forster finally "plunged into an anxious but beautiful affair", as he put it, with Mohammed el Adl, a young Egyptian tram conductor. El Adl may have been heterosexual but permitted occasional homosexual activity. By this time, however, Forster had realised that sex in itself was less important than the democratic affection he had intended to write about in his abandoned novel. "It seems to me that to be trusted, and to be trusted across the barriers of income, race and class, is the greatest reward a man can receive," he wrote to a friend.

What happened when that trust failed became apparent in his liaisons with a barber at the court of the Maharaja of Dewas Senior during a second trip to India in 1921-22. It was nevertheless his friendships with Masood and el Adl that led Forster to formulate his belief in the primacy of "personal relationships", which could vault the barricades of money, race and class and provide "something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty".

These experiences not only liberated him from feelings of shame and guilt, but also allowed him to finish his masterpiece, A Passage to India, which ends on a rather less optimistic note.

In describing these adventures and encounters, as well as meetings with Edward Carpenter and others, Galgut has so seamlessly incorporated Forster's diaries, letters and novels into his narrative that it is often hard to tell which novelist is which. The book is frequently very moving, and contains nice touches of Forsterian drollery, but the question inevitably arises: what made Galgut write a novel so closely based on readily available biographical facts? It seems at first glance a curious side-swerve after the exhilaratingly opaque In a Strange Room, which is written not only in a different style but almost a different language.

In fact the two books are complementary: stories of men, separated by time, who find themselves adrift in life, go travelling, and become involved in a series of equivocal, frustrating and unsettling relationships. At one point in Arctic Summer, Galgut has Forster reflect that "fiction is too artificial and self-conscious ever to convey anything real", but this is an example of the book's enjoyable slyness. As Forster's fiction shows, the imagination can transform mere facts into something that is real and true. The pain of unequal love and the gulf between desire and fulfilment, so beautifully conveyed here by Galgut in the case of a long-dead writer, is as recognisable today as it was over a century ago.

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Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Atlantic $36.99).

- Telegraph

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