13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 26 March 2014
I'm an admirer of E. M. Forster's novels but have never read any biographies. ARCTIC SUMMER by Damon Galgut is brilliant. It provides a novelist's viewpoint on the development of Forster as a novelist, and Forster's coming into his own as a person through his friendships, loves, and travels, and his unique point of view. It's hard for us to imagine today what it must have been like for a timid Englishman like Forster to break out of the constraints of the British class system and pervasive racial prejudice in order to live life his own way as a gay man who was primarily drawn to men of different classes and different cultures. It's a moving story, very well done and consistent with Forster's worldview, particularly on issues of friendship and loyalty. Well worth reading, whether you know anything about Forster or not. The writing is lyrical and compelling, striking just the right notes throughout. I could not put it down. It's my first exposure to Damon Galgut, and now I'm going to catch up on all of his other books.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
What Colm Toibin did for Henry James in 'The Master', Damon Galgut has done for E.M. Forster in this persuasive portrait of the writer. Though much of what he includes is based on Forster's writings and on biographies, diaries and letters, etc., this book does what only the novel can do: it humanises the subject to a deep and complex degree, bringing him alive and getting under his skin. It fills in those gaps and places that are not documented, that are the realm of speculation and imagination, places that a good biographer would be wise to avoid. Having read Forster's novels and about the writer all my life, I have formed a picture of him which, I'm glad to say, resembles closely that of Galgut's recreation of him; everything about it had, for me, the ring of truth.
It doesn't attempt the cradle-to-grave coverage of the traditional biography, it concentrates on a dozen years or so during Forster's 30s and 40s. It traces the connections between Forster's lengthy stays in Egypt and India, of his two main romantic friendships in these countries, and of the books he was writing - or finding it impossible to write - at the time. Forster was always a diffident outsider: in middle-class England and as a foreigner abroad, as a sensitive artist rather than a man of action. He was an outsider, too, because of his sexuality. In a homophobic society (only a generation after Wilde's disgrace) fear and shame damned up his desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another man (he was not to lose his virginity until his late 30s).
Forster's search for love and sex provides Galgut with a major theme. He charts the writer's complicated, unsatisfactory relationships with the two men he fell in love with, Mohammed and Masood, both of whom died relatively young. This is where he takes us to places where only the novelist can venture. Forster, as an outsider, remains, during this period, essentially alone, his desire to connect thwarted by mismatched sexuality and homophobia. Eventually, he achieves a sexual liaison at the crumbling Maharajah's palace where he was staying, with a young barber bought for his services (a rent boy in today's terms), but this too was unsatisfactory: it brought out in him disturbing impulses towards colonialism and cruelty.
I doubt whether Forster, always a private man, would have appreciated this novel, even though, without hero-worshipping him, Galgut is very much on his side; but such figures - like Virginia Woolf, who makes several cameo appearances here, or like Henry James - in time become stock figures of culture, their avatars if you like taking on a life of their own in the collective imagination - and in novels as the main protagonists. Biographical novels have elbowed out a respectable place of their own as a sub-genre in recent years; this is, I think, a fine, balanced, scrupulous example of it. Though, if I'd been the subject of such a novel, I'd wince at how much it reveals, how close and personal it gets; but that, after all, is the form's raison d'etre and without it we'd feel cheated.
Who would this novel appeal to? Fans of Galgut's work, of course, as well as Forster's. People interested in gay history - it is, besides anything else, a study in how the shame of being gay at that period crippled men's emotional lives, leaving them feeling isolated and undeveloped. People interested in the India and Egypt of the time and the background to 'A Passage to India'. All those who relish a biographical novel that is subtle without being difficult, that does full justice to its subject during one formative period of his life. And, of course, anyone who enjoys a literary novel whose prose strikes the right note on every page, is mature and beautiful.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
South African author Damon Galgut's fictionalized biography of author E. M. Forster (1879 - 1970), known as Morgan, takes a different approach from non-fictional biographies, synthesizing all the author's research into the character of Forster and then journeying inside his mind, ultimately allowing "Forster" to tell his own story. As the openly gay Galgut asserts throughout this novel, Forster's most significant difficulty in his personal life and in his writing seems to have been in reconciling his homosexuality with the rest of his life so that he could live and love fully on all levels.
The novel opens in 1912 after the success of Forster's first three novels - Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907),and A Room with a View (1908), and Forster is on his way to India for the first time. Six years earlier, he'd been living in Surrey with his mother when he was asked if he would tutor a seventeen-year-old student from India, Syed Ross Masood, a young man who needed Latin tutoring before he went to Oxford. Over the next five years, the young man steals Forster's heart. Masood, in turn, finds Forster "like family to him," and the relationship remains chaste.
After this introduction, the novel divides into three parts and a conclusion--Forster's six-month trip to India after Masood returns home, three years in Egypt working for the Red Cross during World War I, another trip to India, and the conclusion in which he describes writing his final novel, A Passage to India. Throughout the novel, Forster looks for companionship and sees friends, some of them from the Bloomsbury group, who share his minorite proclivities but still feel isolated. Amng them, only Leonard Woolf seems to have a direct involvement with Forster's issues regarding his writing.
The novel, as a novel, is superb, with a main character who opens his life to the reader and reveals his feelings. The descriptive scenes and the dialogue bring much of the exotic setting to life, and few readers will be able to forget the agony that colored Forster's life and the writing of his novels. Where I part company with many other reviewers is on a more abstract plane, beginning with the question of why the author wrote this novel in the first place. While it is an excellent novel on all literary grounds, I am uncomfortable with the idea of one person, author Damon Galgut, presuming to "become" another person, E. M. Forster, and telling an audience all the intimate details of what Forster is feeling at any given moment from Forster's point of view.
Though Forster kept a diary and wrote many letters, he chose not to reveal his inner conflicts publicly or in his own writing. His novel Maurice, in which he wrote about same-sex love in England in 1913 was left unpublished until after his death, and though it was eventually made into a film and a play, Forster himself uses characters named Maurice Hall and Alex Scudder, not E. M. Forster and his unnamed great love. The fact that Galgut also publishes this novel as Arctic Summer, a novel which Forster himself never finished or published, suggests that he may actually see himself as an incarnation of Forster. That's a blurring of the line between reality and fantasy which, for me, went too far.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 27 June 2014
I was taken a bit by surprise by Arctic Summer. I had done no on-line research and because I read it on Kindle, I had no dust jacket blurb to alert me to the fact that it was a fictionalised (though fact-based account) of the writing of one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It was only when I was several pages in (about 3 percent in Kindle-speak) that I realised that the subject - Forster - was the great EM of that ilk.
Forster’s homosexuality is pretty well-known though I have never read his overtly gay work, Maurice. The gay element in the book was therefore not a surprise. I thought at first this was a book about the influence of the writer’s personality on his work - which it was up to a point. At the end, however, it seemed clear - to me at least - that this was a study of the whole creative process and ultimately quite a fascinating one. Here is a man who is struggling to express himself but frustrated by the knowledge that much of what he wants to say is simply unsayable in the the early twentieth century so the whole story has to be dressed in suitably heterosexual clothing. In the end I was left with a sense that the creation of Passage to India was serendipitous - that it somehow happened in spite of the intentions of EMF. For most of the eleven years he was writing PTI, he was deeply despondent about the outcome - something which is reflected in the early stages of the project when he wrestles with the issue of the pivotal incident in the caves …”No matter how he tried it, the words sat on top of the deed: they had no soil and no roots. There was something wrong with how he had imagined it, something essentially dishonest and out of balance, and as his narrative crept toward the threshold, the rock refused to open for him.’
When the book is finally published, he is surprised - if not stunned - by its success.
Galgut offers a very believable view of how the author’s personality is reflected in the book - and not just his sexual orientation - his relationship with his mother and with women generally, his views on war and, most importantly, his conclusions about the British Empire.
In the final chapter of the book, Galgut tells us that Forster was criticised for not fully understanding the British-Indian relationship. Galgut himself is Guilty of a couple of minor solecisms; he describes one of the Indian characters, Imdad Iman, as feeling ‘warmly about many things English, from poetry to playing polo.' Polo is of course essentially an Indian game. In the Egyptian episode there is reference to British officers avoiding duty in the trenches in WW1 when in fact the casualty figures show that the British officer class suffered disproportionately more deaths in the battlefield than the other ranks.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
“Arctic Summer” is in fact the name of an incomplete novel written by E.M.Forster in 1912/13 but published only in 2003; and Galgut uses its title for his novel about the author. From the beginning it is clear that much of it is about Forster’s tormented homosexuality: how he awoke to his own homosexual feelings; how inhibited, formal and proper he was (and dependent on the conventional opinions of his mother, with whom he was living when he was in England); how it was partly love but on other occasions feelings of sheer lust; how these loving, but unconsummated relationships began with his Cambridge friend Hugh Owen Meredith, and continued with a young Indian, Syed Ross Masood whom he was supposed to coach in Latin for his entrance exams to Oxford. When Masood returned to India, Forster travelled out to visit him there, and the novel begins on shipboard during that journey in 1912.
In India Forster spent only a short time with Masood. Though their relationship was close, they seemed to expect different things from each other, in a way that I do not completely understand (nor, said Galgut in an interview with the Economist, did he himself quite understand what had been happening between them. There are great blank areas about Forster’s inner life, and these Galgut has been trying to fill). So Forster explored much of India on his own, and this is described in some detail (the only part of the novel that I thought was a little pedestrian). He felt an outsider among his fellow-Englishmen in India, and not only because of their contempt for the Indians; but he was equally an outsider among his Indian friends.
He returned to England, in love with India, though much had distressed him there, and still in love with Masood, unhappily so because his intensity was not reciprocated. He began the novel in which he used his experiences in India, but something blocked him and “ A Passage to India” was not completed until ten years later, in 1924, the last novel he was to write, 46 years before his death.
In between he met the charismatic Edward Carpenter, a well-known radical in all sorts of ways, one of which was his avowal of love between men. It liberated something in Forster, who now for the first time wrote about a homosexual relationship in the novel “Maurice”, though this novel, too, would be published only posthumously in 1971. But here he was writing about a full physical encounter between two men when he had never yet ventured into carnality himself - just as his first four published novels had described relationships between men and women when he had had none such himself.
During the First World War he worked for the Red Cross in Alexandria. He did not find the Egyptians nearly as attractive as he had found the Indians; but then he fell for a young tram-conductor called Mohammed; and the development of the relationship between these two is lengthily and delicately described by Galgut; and at the end, for the first time, Forster has the physical experience he has been longing for so many years. Then the war ended and he returned to England.
On his previous stay in India, he had met and impressed the Maharajah of Dewas, who now invited him to come to become his Private Secretary on a temporary assignment while the previous Private Secretary was on a few months’ sick leave in England. Forster, who had become stuck with his India book, agreed, and sailed out again in 1922. He was bewildered by the Maharaja’s court (very good description, as also of the Maharajah himself). His sexual advances to a coolie led to an acutely embarrassing and then to a quite unexpected - almost comic - consequence. This set him free for further “adventures” - they were now merely physical and exploitative, without any of the affection Forster had felt for Mahsood and Mohammed, and they heightened Forster’s self-disgust.
The Maharajah had been very kind to him, but Forster had not really enjoyed this second visit to India very much, though what he did take away from it was an appreciation of the mystical side of Hinduism which lay behind the worship of the doll-like idols.
Back in England, he resumed, after a while, the work on the book over which he had got stuck for so long. On his first visit to India he had visited some caves in Bihar; he had set a scene in such a cave, and had felt vaguely that this scene should be central to the novel, but he had not been able to see the MEANING of the episode. In a fine piece of imagination, Galgut describes how the blockage was suddenly lifted, as the very Indian thought came to him that we should not always look for meaning, but should accept that mystery is at the heart of things. There were some other problems, philosophical and personal, left, but eventually the book was finished. There are few pages on its reception; there is a poignant moment (imagined, as the author makes clear) when Forster overhears a comment about himself, which explains the title Galgut has given to his novel. The elegiac ending is set during Forster’s third visit to India, in 1945, some years after Mahsood and the Maharajah had died.
That India was on the verge of independence, and one of the aspects of the book is Forster’s awareness, both in India and in Egypt, of the resentment in those countries over British rule.
A beautifully written and sensitive novel.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 8 March 2014
A beautifully told fictionalised account of E.M.Forster and the inner torment he went through as he came to terms with his sexuality. Galgut writes in a similar vein to how David Lean brought A Passage To India to life in film – sensuous, evocative and a pleasure to experience.
on 19 April 2015
This is a beautifully written, semi-fictional account of the period in E.M. Forster's life during which he explored his homosexual inclinations, and wrote 'A Passage to India'. Having never read any of either Forster or Galgut's work previously, I wasn't sure I'd appreciate this novel - but I did.
Incorporating material from Forster's own diaries, Galgut portrays the difficulty creative British homosexuals experienced in expressing themselves through their work at that time in history, as well as the difficulties such tendencies brought in terms of family life, friends, employment, etc. Given the stark difference in attitudes towards homosexuality around the world today, this book draws attention to what is, unfortunately, still an important and relevant issue for many people.
Galgut's prose is simple yet emotive, and Forster is brought to life with great sensitivity. I'd have believed this book was an exceptionally well-written biography, authored by someone who knew Forster personally, had I not known otherwise. One gets the impression Galgut has experienced for himself some of the agonies Forster did, so well does he get into his head. Everything about this book felt genuine and I came away with a real sense of Forster's somewhat fragile character, and a desire to read his work. I plan to start with 'Maurice'.
I was surprised to discover this book was as long as 370 pages. I've recently been reading shorter novels but I whizzed through this in a few days. I've since read several other books by Galgut, of which I'd most highly recommend 'The Impostor' - it's equally well written and illustrates Galgut's deep understanding of the murkier aspects of human nature.
on 1 April 2015
This is a deep and sensitive fictionalised account of E M Forster’s life, with particular focus on his relationship with his mother, his trips abroad and the intimate relationships that he was able to pursue away from the constraints of British morality at the time, and the influence these trips had on his writing, especially of ‘A Passage to India’. I wonder if it would help to have read, at least, that? As I read anything of Forster’s I could lay my hands on some forty years ago, it’s hard for me to imagine how this might read to someone unfamiliar with his work, and with his place in 20th century English literature.
I, however, found the whole thing a delight. I thought Mr Galgut managed exactly the right level of speculation into Forster’s troubled homosexuality, and I was completely convinced by his view of what might have been going on inside Forster as he negotiated his own shame and desire at a time when the consequences of exposure could have been horrific. I also thought he tied this in very well with Forster’s relationship with his controlling elderly mother, for whom the knowledge that her son was a ‘minorite’ might well have killed her, but would certainly have shocked her narrow, provincial little world to its foundations.
It made me wonder how Forster’s life might have gone if he’d found himself able to be more courageous, like his friend Edward Carpenter. Would we have had the remarkable books from him that we have? They would certainly have been different.
As another reviewer mentions there are a number of utterly convincing vignettes, of Carpenter, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence, and other figures that featured in his life, and larger roles given to his intimates, especially Messud and Mohammed. There is a foreshadowing of many of our current world issues, in India, in Egypt, in the Islamic world, all of which are treated with, I believe, accuracy and sensitivity, without any sacrifice of the story.
Lastly, I found very touching Mr Galgut’s dedication at the beginning, echoing Forster’s dedication at the beginning of ‘A Passage to India’, and showing, I think, how close the writing of this book was to his own, Mr Galgut’s, heart. This book touched my heart, too. I felt so sad for Forster's suffering, and his longing for love, never truly fulfilled, so beautifully described. I loved it.
E.M.Forster, known as Morgan, hates the stuffy conventions and snobbish prejudices of middle-class Edwardian society, yet is unable to break away from living with his mother who reaches the ripe old age of ninety. He recognises his sexuality, but for years is only able to express it abroad, in Egypt or India, by forming risky unequal relationships with young men from the other side of the race and class divides. In similar vein to Colm Tóibín's novel, "The Master", based on Henry James, Damon Galgut has chosen to fictionalise Forster's life rather than produce a biography, no doubt because this gives free rein for his creative imagination to get inside the author's head and embroider facts to suit his interpretation. He is at liberty to pick and choose what he wishes to include and emphasise.
Although I often found Morgan's furtive fumblings quite tedious, it is undeniable that Galgut's subtle prose has the power to enable heterosexual readers to understand the complex, shifting feelings of a sensitive and introspective gay man seeking fulfilment at a time when this was against the law, or the topic of mocking gossip. In one telling scene, an English official in Egypt is prepared to help get one of Morgan's young native friends out of a scrape, but is desperate to counsel him against the liaison, without ever managing to overcome his reticence to speak plainly. "Tall and dry, composed of jointed segments like a large, untidy bird, Robin seemed always uncomfortable, but more than usually so at this moment".
The title "Arctic Summer", re-using that of a novel which Forster was unable to complete, conveys the concept of being "blocked" in two senses - as a writer, and a man. In the kind of profound insight in which Damon Galgut excels, it is only in the final pages that he uses the term "Arctic summer" to describe how Morgan catches sight of himself in a café mirror, in which the angle of the light makes him seem to "stand alone in the middle of an immense whiteness - nothing moving, nothing alive". This coincides with his pain at overhearing the gossip of two strangers who have recognised him as a famous author, "He's a timid soul. They say he hasn't really lived at all, except in his mind."
Another important thread is the often painful process of writing, in particular Morgan's struggle to complete what came to be regarded as his masterpiece, "A Passage to India". Inspired by his first visit to that land, he knows that he must write about it, but for years cannot see how to bring it to fruition. Impressed by the "spiritual hostility" of the Kailasa cave, he is convinced he has found what he has been searching for, "a terrible incident, a crime of some kind. But when he tried to focus on what it was, it became unclear, all of it retreated from him".
Galgut also conveys the strong sense of place that makes Morgan a successful travel writer: walking back from an evening with a poet who has described the history of Alexandria, Morgan realises for the first time how old the city is although there is little trace of its history beneath the "ordinary and banal" modern buildings - this highlights, of course, the tragedy of the recent loss of ancient buildings and carvings in countries like Syria.
My only criticism of the book is that some of characters, like Morgan's English male friends, seem undeveloped and two-dimensional, but this may be intentional to show how little they really impinge on Forster's introspective world - plus they all seem to let him down by getting married as a way out of their dilemma.
With his well-crafted, expressive prose, full of insight, flashes of humour (I enjoyed the one-sided row with the combative D.H. Lawrence) and poignancy, Damon Galgut is an unusual writer who deserves to be more widely read and praised.
on 28 October 2014
Arctic Summer, a fictionalised biography, takes its title from an unfinished novel by E M Forster and describes the period of his life between his first visit to India in 1912 and the publication of his most famous work A Passage to India in 1924.
The novel begins with Morgan (as Forster was known to family and friends) on board the SS City of Birmingham on his way to India to visit his friend and former pupil, Syed Ross Masood, with whom he is in love. He has published several novels by this time and is on his way to becoming successful, but the young Morgan is far from confident. He is aware of his homosexuality, but has not come to terms with being a “minorite”. Virginal and inhibited, profoundly middle class and under the thumb of his overbearing mother, it is a very unsure young man who embarks on his first trip to India in search of love and inspiration for his Indian novel. This shame about his sexuality bedevils Morgan throughout the novel and it is the exploration of this inner conflict that makes the book so interesting. Galgut takes the reader under the skin of the central character and poignantly describes Morgan’s largely futile search for love and/or sex; he is destined to find the trip to India ultimately frustrating, as he discovers that Masood is firmly heterosexual.
The novel, however, also concerns itself with the writing process. Morgan describes for us his struggles to find a pivotal moment for his novel. His time in India seems to have constituted nothing more than the gathering of “loose strands” and “momentary impressions”. As Forster, in an interview with the Paris Review, said, “The novelist should, I think, always settle … what his major event is to be.” It is not until much later and after a second trip to India that Morgan manages to bring the ideas together into the famous novel.
Galgut’s novel intriguingly captures the colour, the noise and confusion of India. He shows us Morgan working hard to understand the Gokul Ashtami festival, celebrating the birth of Krishna, but becoming increasingly confused. Finally, he reaches the conclusion that “it was best, perhaps, simply to be carried by the current of events, and let understanding follow in their wake”, a feeling shared by many a foreign traveller, surely.
There are wonderful and very amusing little cameo appearances – Forster’s appalling visit with the Lawrences (D H and Frieda) when Lawrence lambasts Forster, condemning everything about his lifestyle and his life’s work. “He should find a female counterpart and dig down to this volcanic base material, instead of fossicking about with love stories set in Italy, in-between his knitting and visits to the opera.” Poor Morgan, horrified, can only reply primly, “I don’t knit.” It’s wonderful writing.
In fact, the whole novel is beautifully and sensitively written. The characterisation is masterful and yet, ultimately, as a novel, it is a frustrating read because at its heart, there is no pivotal moment, no major event. “The novelist is free, the biographer is tied,” as Virginia Woolf said in her 1939 essay “The Art of Biography” and Artic Summer suffers from the restriction that Forster’s life did not provide that wonderful major event that he so longed for and that the reader so wishes for him. But don’t let that stop you from reading this. As a fictionalised biography, it’s a great read.