DAMON GALGUT Arctic Summer. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
Galgut’s fictional tribute to EM Forster is a triumph – an elegant, original novel of love and loneliness.
In a 1953 interview with the Paris Review, novelist EM Forster was asked about the process of turning a real person into a fictional character. ‘A useful trick,’ Forster responded, ‘is to look upon such a person with half-closed eyes, fully describing certain characteristics. I am left with about two-thirds of a human being and can get to work … When all goes well, the original material soon disappears and a character who belongs to the book and nowhere else emerges.’
It’s advice that applies not only to writers but also to readers. Reading Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, a novel based on the life and work of EM Forster, with your eyes half-closed, eventually the facts of Forster’s life begin to fall away. What remains is a truly remarkable, utterly original character – a version of Forster that feels as though he belongs here, in this novel, and nowhere else.
Though he lived to the age of 91, Edward Morgan Forster published only five novels in his lifetime. A sixth novel, Maurice, about a gay relationship between two men of different social standing, remained unpublished until 1971, a year after Forster’s death. Forster started another novel, Arctic Summer, in 1909, but abandoned the manuscript shortly after. It’s from this fragmentary work that South African playwright and author Damon Galgut borrows the title of his latest novel.
Arctic Summer opens in 1912, with a literal passage to India. We meet 33-year-old Morgan Forster aboard the SS Birmingham, travelling to India for the first time to visit old friend and former student, Syed Ross Masood.
Among the passengers on the voyage, Morgan notices Kenneth Searight, a soldier returning to his post in India. When he has a chance to talk to Searight alone, Morgan is stunned when the stranger speaks obliquely about his sexual exploits with men, seeming to recognise a kindred spirit in the timid author. It’s an encounter that leaves Morgan – barely able to admit the fact of his own homosexuality to himself, let alone to a stranger – as thrilled as he is terrified.
The electricity of this meeting, combined with the anticipation of seeing India – and Masood, with whom Forster is deeply in love – perfectly sets the tone for Galgut’s novel. We follow Morgan through India and back to England; then to Egypt during the First World War, where he works for the Red Cross, before he returns to India once again.
Between Howards End, published in 1910, and Forster’s final novel, A Passage to India, released in 1924, Forster was silent for 14 years. Galgut’s Arctic Summer takes place during this long silence.
Silence sits right at the melancholy heart of Arctic Summer. Forster, who famously wrote about the importance of connection in Howards End, is portrayed by Galgut as a man who stands apart from the world, unable to make the connections he so desperately craves.
This metaphoric emptiness becomes literal when Morgan visits the Barabar caves, an echo of a key moment in A Passage to India. While Forster leaves his readers to wonder what happened to Adela Quested when she ventured into the same cave in A Passage to India, Galgut takes us with Morgan as he enters the cave alone and experiences a moment of sad insight that reverberates throughout the novel:
Looking out from the first arched room through the entranceway, he had the sense of the sunlit world beyond as a remote dream, which he was looking at through a window. Then he retreated deeper, into the second chamber. Instantly, he felt sunken profoundly into the world, or into himself. He spoke his own name aloud; the cave repeated it endlessly. He said Masood’s name too, and then the word ‘love’ – all of it rumbled back at him.
There’s an enticing, precarious balance of fact and fiction at play in Arctic Summer. It’s clear that Galgut has drawn on a huge amount of source material to bring his novel to life, including references to Forster’s fiction, as well as details from the author’s letters and diaries. However, there are some instances in which Galgut seems to lean too heavily on his source material, and the life quickly drains from the novel, leaving only bold facts where once there was vivid story. Thankfully, these moments are few and brief, and it’s not long before the colour and the charm of the writing will draw you back to the story.
In spite of these occasional lapses, Galgut’s Forster is a triumph. In Arctic Summer, he’s every bit the quiet, complicated soul avid readers of his fiction would imagine him to be. There’s a particularly lovely moment towards the end of the novel, when Morgan completes the manuscript of A Passage to India:
He felt he ought to do something more. It was still early and the rest of the day stretched vacantly ahead. He wrote a quick letter to the Woolfs, announcing that he was finished, but after that – aside from the prospect of posting the letter – there was nothing else to keep him busy. So he stacked the pages neatly and sat at his desk for a little longer, humming vaguely to himself, before growing hungry and wandering downstairs for a cup of tea.
However, Galgut’s Forster isn’t always so benign. Galgut doesn’t shy away from showing the author at his worst. Although Morgan is weighed down by the intense shame of his homosexuality, at the same time he longs to cast his Englishness aside and experience that kind of orgiastic abandon Kenneth Searight offers him a glimpse of during their short acquaintance on the way to India.
Galgut’s wonderfully evocative, borrowed title gestures towards the contradiction that is his version of Morgan Forster; the searing heat of lust and the chill of unrequited love; the perpetual longing for a world that remains always, painfully just out of reach.
Carefully researched and tenderly written, Arctic Summer is an elegant, original novel of love and loneliness – and a fitting tribute to EM Forster.
Damon Galgut Arctic Summer Atlantic 2014 PB 368pp $29.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).