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.
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.
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 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.
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.
on 31 March 2016
'Arctic Summer,' is the title of Forster's one unfinished novel. Is this a metaphor for Forster’s wish to become his true self as opposed to his feeling of unfulfilment?: He could sink very deep at moments like these. Once he had seen tracts of scarlet, billowing in the swell, which he was told were fish spawn, waiting to hatch. Life that wasn't human life, maturing and breaking out and expending itself, in a medium that wasn't human either.
Some of us are currently reading Wendy Moffat’s 'A New Life’ a biography of Forster (2010) which had access to Forster’s diaries and papers held by Kings College and also sought to explore the impact of his sexuality on his career. We feel that Arctic Summer didn’t offer any more than Moffat. The latter is a testament to the sensitivity of Moffat’s work.
However, this book works well as a fictionalised biography, though how much is fiction and how much is biography?
The book captures peoples’ internalised world, though to what extent can we know what they thought and felt?
We don’t get the smells and noises that assault the senses in India.
The description of the Malabar Caves is good but we wouldn’t have realised their importance in ‘A Passage to India’ unless we already knee that work.
Many of us believe the British Empire to be about plunder and subjugation rather than the bringing of so-called enlightenment. Note the racism and snobbery of the English: "And this young Indian man 'who's on hoard," she added in a low voice. "Well, he's a Mohammedan, isn't he? Ile has been to public school in England, but has it improved him? He thinks he's one of us, but of course he never will be.".. If we're pleasant to them, they only despise us." Morgan had wanted to reply, but held off, and felt bad about it afterwards.
How things have changed have changed since then: “But in India there were a great many attractive legs. Legs were everywhere on display, as Morgan would see. Flesh was generally more visible in India than at home; that was how they did things out there.” – I know somebody who came back to the UK after a year in India who was overwhelmed by the amount of naked flesh that he’d not seen during that year and which now came flooding back in.
We see Forster’s internalised homophobia: That was the truly astonishing thing: Searight appeared to be almost proud of who and what he was.
He conforms to the classic ‘father deprivation’ theory: His father had died when Morgan was not yet two, and when he contemplated sex in any form it was the image of his mother, Lily ¬widowed, middle-aged, perpetually unhappy — that rose before him, to intervene. As she did now.
When he says: “It was a leap of logic to assume that Searight was sharing a cabin with the Indian; such an arrangement was unlikely.” I am reminded of a book or film I have recently encountered where something similar happens – but I can’t remember which.
We get the suicide, obligatory for the period, as early as p.47
Morgan is disgusted by his lust. It must have been awful to have this sort of corrosive self-loathing. Of course, things were different back then but his inept forays and fumblings make him seem quite pathetic.
Morgan uses the term ‘minorite’ for homosexuals – though the word actually refers to a friar.
“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.
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 3 November 2015
I have enjoyed all of E.M. Forsters books that I have read and realised after reading 'Maurice' that he was Homosexual. I do like Biographies especially if they are about Authors whose Books I have read and was interested when I first read about this Book. I knew from what I had read previously that he kept his private life 'private'. I enjoyed the Book but found him weak in many ways and lacked confidence. His friendships he kept away from his Mother and I am not sure I if I liked him as a person. A good read for Forster Fans.
I have struggled, to some extent, with Damon Galgut's `biographical novel' about E.M. Forster, Arctic Summer, which uses the title of an `incomplete' novel Forster wrote, which was unpublished in his lifetime.
The subject matter of the book is two-fold, taking as it does not a cradle-to-grave biographical approach, but an examination of the process of writing itself, particularly the writing of A Passage To India, and also, Forster's struggle with the straitjackets of his class, at a particular time in history and in geography (the time of Empire) and of a sexuality which was not only illegal, but, for a large part of his life, shameful to Forster, whether expressed or not.
My struggle with this book, much as I admire Galgut's writing, is that he is himself a writer with a tendency to conceal as much as he reveals. He is a writer of spare and beautiful prose, but the reader is deliberately not drawn in. There is a reserve in his writing. This does of course perfectly fit his subject in this book. Forster was also a man of reserve, both through the entirely stiff upper lip repressed attitudes of the times, rendered even more obvious in Forster because he did have so much to hide, and in many ways was so very unlike the hearty, anti-intellectual Empire builders of the time, who did not mingle socially with, and indeed despised `the natives.
"This was a vigorous, outdoor world, full of sports and guns. If you didn't join the club or play polo or shoot tigers or subdue barbarous tribes on the borders, you were immediately an unsound quantity, the more so if,...you lived in your mind a great deal and wrote books. Of what earthly use were novels? How did they help anybody?"
So, Galgut, a writer of some reserve, and a tendency to a kind of cool unfervent mysticism - most potently seen in In A Strange Room - writes about Forster, who seems similarly reserved. Both men are/were clearly both deeply thinking and deeply feeling, but the `Only Connect' central to, I believe, both writers, is not easy, in either of them. Reserved writing about a Reserved writer in the end left me wanting more, as the book wore on.
"Now in an extended clarity, he saw the way forward. He had wanted the story to open out, and suddenly it had, in the most Indian of ways, into wider questions about the universe"
It's strengths for me were in the earlier part of the book, where the absolute awfulness of living at a time and in a place where sexual orientation was so rigidly and restrictedly defined and culturally and legally controlled, are beautifully expressed. Galgut does not use polemic, or bang drums, or preach to a possibly largely converted audience, but, almost dispassionately, lays out what is/was, and lets the effect of that resonate for the reader. His recounting of the sense of shame and self loathing which so many `minories' inhabited, was deeply distressing.
Forster's discomfort with the prevailing racist, classist attitudes of his peers, AND his sense of shame and self-loathing at the times he became aware of those self-same attitudes within him, also formed a telling part of the story.
It is perhaps inevitable that `Forster the man' and the difficulties and challenges which arise through being part of one culture, time and place, are more immediately resonant to a reader who is not a novelist than the interesting (but, for me, more cerebrally experienced) passages about writing itself, and particularly the gestation and difficulties of writing A Passage To India, which at times for me became a little dry. I very much admire Forster's writing, but was less interested, in this case, in the process of that writing, whereas the man within the larger world, within his time, was absolutely absorbing
"He had cut himself open and showed the innermost part; it had been rash and unconsidered and regrettable. Now he had to close himself up again, to seal the carapace, and he began to do what was necessary. It was part of a willed cheerfulness he had learned back in his childhood already, as protection against disappointment. The only defence against raw, naked feeling was reason. Understanding made sadness easier to bear"