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Damon Galgut's 'Arctic Summer': How to read EM Forster afresh

Chris Roper

Damon Galgut's dazzling historical fiction is also a set of modern morality tales informing the present.

Writer Damon Galgut. (Supplied)

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut
(Random House Struik)

On one level, the exquisitely crafted Arctic Summer  is the story of how EM Forster came to write A Passage to India. It traces the years of personal evolution necessary to do that writing, from Forster’s first trip to India in 1912, where he followed his friend Masood for love, through to the novel’s eventual publication in 1924.

Perhaps the first direct echo of A Passage to India  is as early as the third page of Arctic Summer, when a fellow passenger on the boat taking Forster on his first visit to India comments disparagingly on the only Indian passenger on board. “He has been to public school in England … He thinks he’s one of us, but of course he never will be.”

This “casual vileness”, upsetting to Forster, echoes Ronny Heaslop’s assessment of Aziz in A Passage to India: “Aziz was exquisitely dressed, from tiepin to spats, but he had forgotten his back collar-stud, and there you have the Indian all over.”

This state of being an outsider from a dominant culture is one that Damon Galgut also threads through his novel but, in Arctic Summer, the prejudice against homosexuality takes on equal weight with the bigotry of empire. The reader can see, much more starkly than in Forster’s own novels, the relationship between Forster’s inner self and his political being, and the way a culture’s disregard for personal freedoms seems to go hand in heterosexual hand with aspirations of power and oppression.

Dedication
In truth, the first reference to A Passage to India is outside the main narrative of Arctic Summer, and thus frames that narrative and changes the way we understand it. The dedication to Arctic Summer mimics that of A Passage to India, differing only in the names and spans of years. Forster’s is to Syed Ross Masood, and the 17-year friendship that helped shape both A Passage to India and Forster’s understanding of his homosexuality. Galgut’s reads: “To Riyaz Ahmad Mir and to the 14 years of our friendship.”

I leave it to assiduous scholars to trace the biographical inferences here but it’s a pointer to another level of meaning in Arctic Summer, one that shifts the novel from the plane of the merely good to that of the truly excellent. We are not only dealing with historical fiction here but also a very contemporary set of misshapen morality tales to inform our present.

There is an insight into this authorial intention in the description of Forster’s encounter with the Greek poet CP Cavafy in Alexandria (many of Forster’s famous contemporaries – Lytton Strachey, DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf – feature in Arctic Summer). Cavafy, portrayed as a fussy, erratic egoist, reads his poems to Forster. “In each of them, a visit was paid to the ancient world, either through history or mythology. And in each of them the lost past was reclaimed, brought back – through an image or a sentiment or a longing – to the present.”

But Galgut isn’t just reading the present via the prism of Forster’s past. He’s also teaching us how to read Forster afresh. I was amazed at how, when I finished Arctic Summer, rereading A Passage to India felt like encountering a brand new text. There’s a confused, Borgesian quality about this. In Pierre Menard’s contemporary rewriting of Don Quixote, every word of the narrative is identical to the original but the meaning is vastly different because it’s being read by a 20th-century reader. In Galgut’s narrative of how the narrative of A Passage to India came into being, Forster’s emotions are rendered exactly the same (or at least that is the fiction) – but they mean something very different to a 21st-century reader.

Here, of course, the telling of the gradual evolution of Forster’s homosexuality reminds us both of how far we have come and, regrettably, of how little things have changed. Galgut conveys beautifully the trauma and tedium of being a homosexual, or “a minorite” to use Forster’s terminology, in early 20th-century English culture.

Arctic Summer (the title comes from the novel Forster began in 1909 but never finished) is also about the act of creativity, of writing and not writing, and it cleverly muses on that at the same time as acting it out on a sometimes parallel track. Galgut shows us that writing is not just the conscious transmission of meaning onto a page but also the involuntary revelation of a writer’s being.

Of Forster, he writes: “More than anything, he felt, writing showed his own failings to him. The struggle that was involved was a demeaning and dutiful one, a matter of grinding craft rather than lofty art.”

Anomalies
I’m not a Forster scholar, merely a fan, so it will have to be for the academics to tell us where Galgut has been faithful to Forster’s biography, where there are anomalies both conscious and inadvertent, and how this affects our reading of Arctic Summer. But the reader will take an immense pleasure in the detailed, warmly human Forster that Galgut brings to life for us.

It’s tempting to try to map an evolution in Galgut’s style in the same way that he has mapped Forster’s. If we exclude Echoes of Anger, his 1983 play about Rasputin, this is the first time that the South African novelist has written about a historical figure and deliberately inserted himself into the Western canonical conversation.

When JM Coetzee published Foe in 1986, also arguably his first deliberate striking-up of a conversation with figures of the classical canon (in this case, Daniel Defoe), he was lambasted by many for abandoning his South African roots.

We have come a long way since then and Arctic Summer will be – or at least should be – celebrated as a triumphant expression of the universalism of literature. Not literature’s universal truths – we are far beyond that concept, as A Passage to India shows – but the useful universality of its multiplicity of negotiated truths.

The end of a novel is always the best place to start reading it and Arctic Summer‘s final sentence wistfully captures the point of Galgut’s retelling of Forster’s literary journey.

A young Indian student, a representative of the new, emerging India, is showing the elderly Forster the unkempt grave of Masood, the great love of Forster’s life. He crossly asks Forster whether he is ready to leave. “‘Yes,’ he told him. ‘I am ready.’”

Follow Chris Roper on Twitter:  @chrisroper


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