Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Arctic Summer

EM Forster began the novel he called Arctic Summer in 1909, on the heels of three others that had brought him considerable renown as a writer. He would go on to publish Howards End in 1910, and 14 years later, A Passage to India. His novel Maurice, written between 1913 and 1914, about love between men in a repressed, homophobic England, would come out posthumously. But Arctic Summer would never be finished, its mysterious, moody title evoking instead the uncertainties about writing, sexuality, relationships and empire that racked Forster's life, especially during the long stretch between Howards End and A Passage to India.

Forster could not, of course, have known the fate of his unfinished novel when he began writing it. Nor could he have foreseen the resurrection of his title, more than a century later, in the hands of the South African writer Damon Galgut, who uses it, in clear homage and affection, for his own novel about Forster's stasis and transformation during those years. It is a project to which Galgut, whose fiction has often covered the terrain of love, race and politics, seems perfectly suited as a writer. His previous novel, In a Strange Room, consisted of a sequence of three narratives featuring a solitary man called Damon pursuing companionship and love across countries and continents. The book moves across South Africa, Lesotho and Switzerland, with possible relationships that go nowhere, while the final section culminates in India, where the troubled South African friend that Damon is taking care of suffers a breakdown.

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On December 19, 1910, a few months after the publication of Howards End, EM Forster began sketching out the plan for a new novel. This book, he wrote in his diary, would contain “no love making – 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, which he 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 called Kenneth Searight, who informs him that 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 the First World War 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.

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The term “literary historical fiction” might be used for noncommercial novels set in the past and full of thoughtful allegorical implication. Or one could employ it for a highly specific subgenre, that portion of “fictional biography” consisting of novels about real-life writers. This territory seems to be expanding of late, with Colm Toibin’s re-creation of Henry James (“The Master”), Jay Parini’s incarnation of Melville (“The Passages of H. M.”) and David Lodge’s imagining of H. G. Wells’s energetic sex and writing lives (“A Man of Parts”).

“Arctic Summer,” by the South African novelist Damon Galgut, now joins this shelf. A judicious, well-proportioned look at the personal life of E. M. Forster, it’s a solid contribution to a literary niche, though a relatively unadventurous extension of Galgut’s own oeuvre, which includes a splendid short novel about post-apartheid life in one of South Africa’s former “homelands” (“The Good Doctor”) and a series of three linked novellas called “In a Strange Room.” In that work, Galgut sometimes alternated the first and third person in a single sentence, a point-of-view experiment that may have proved more remarkable than interesting, but was certainly bold.

Readers of Forster’s own letters and P. N. Furbank’s biography will come to Galgut’s novel knowing the story of Forster’s fitful liberation, both on and off the page, into greater sexual freedom and frankness. In “Arctic Summer,” they will find a narrative voice reminiscent of Forster’s own calm, percipient one. Galgut depicts the novelist participating in ­“buttoned-down conversation about books and travel and opera and architecture” all the while unable to “keep his gaze from sliding sideways, to the figure of the servant who bent in to clear the plates.”

Dominated by his widowed mother, Morgan Forster experiences a cripplingly prolonged adolescence inside “the old, powdery, frangible halo of women who encircled him.” He manages to produce several youthful novels of increasing depth — most notably “Howards End” — while remaining aware that he probably lacks the experience to create something unfettered and truly authentic: “He was 34 and virginal and would perhaps be virginal all his life.”

Forster confesses his attraction to Syed Ross Masood, his Indian tutee, to a “locked journal” and begins furtively to write gay-themed stories that he shows only to particular friends. The longest and most important of these, the novel “Maurice,” will not be published until 1971, a year after his death. Its subject matter makes it unfit for bookshops, and its happy ending seems forbidden by life itself. The fate of Ernest Merz, an acquaintance of Forster who hangs himself in 1909, perhaps in a moment of sexual despair, seems more socially acceptable.

Confident, fast-talking young Masood displays, at least on the surface, an emotional forthrightness, upbraiding Forster for his own stiffness and reserve. But when they are together during Forster’s first trip to India, shortly before the Great War, Masood sharply rebuffs the writer’s attempted kiss, leaving Forster to conceal an angry shame during one more well-practiced retreat into the “willed cheerfulness” of “his usual life, mild and diligent.”

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The new book from the South African writer Damon Galgut takes as its inspiration the simple dedication in one of EM Forster's most famous novels.

"To Syed Ross Masood and to the seventeen years of our friendship" is the tiniest of clues as to where A Passage to India began.

It is a detail explained in the excellent – if plot-spoiling – introduction to the Penguin Classic edition. But Galgut takes it further, exploring the nature of friendship, inter-racial understanding (and misunderstanding), homosexuality only years after the jailing of Oscar Wilde, and the act of literary creation itself in Arctic Summer, his fictionalised account of how EM Forster came to write the novel famously filmed by David Lean with an Oscar-winning performance by Dame Peggy Ashcroft.

Forster, known to friends and family by his middle name Morgan, met Masood when he arrived to take Latin lessons before going up to Oxford, and the writer was to fall head over heels with the young Muslim noble. The love was painfully, and sometimes carelessly, unrequited, but they became close friends and it was Masood who insisted the Englishman must not only visit India but write about it.

But, as already suggested, Arctic Summer, named after the unfinished Forster novel which some believe might have been his masterpiece, is more than the story of the writing of a novel. Instead the struggle to write is also the battle to overcome the almost paralysing shame he felt at being gay – or, in his terminology, a "minorite". He might have been friends with bohemian Bloomsbury types in Virginia and Leonard Woolf, but he lived with his mother in a Home Counties society of "deadly properness". Only with her death does he "breathe more easily".

Until then, Arctic Summer is dominated by the writer's loneliness – "now so big that it had become his life" – and his desire to live life more fully. As imagined by Galgut, Forster fears his own lack of experience mars his work, that his failure of nerve in love is a lack of courage that also blocks him from being a proper writer.

Over more than 350 pages, however, the diffident Englishman of Galgut's imagination does connect. If his first voyage to India 1912 provokes only frustration that Masood does not reciprocate his feelings, Galgut delicately traces subsequent encounters that, he suggests, do enable Forster to live more fully, most notably when a posting to Egypt with the Red Cross during the First World War finally provides the chance of fulfilment with a tram conductor with whom Forster maintains contact until the man's early death.

Galgut's knowledge of his subject seems completely absorbed and lightly worn. Diehard fans will enjoy, I assume, many moments of smug pleasure at spotting biographical details later carefully deployed in the fiction.

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E.M. Forster was a virgin at 37, and his tortuous path toward sexual maturity is a main plotline of “Arctic Summer,” Damon Galgut’s brilliant biographical novel. Its epigraph quotes Forster at age 74: “Orgies are so important, and they are things one knows nothing about.”

We know a lot about Forster, who died in 1970. In addition to his novels, stories and nonfiction books, we have his copious letters and journals and several biographies, including, most recently, Wendy Moffat’s “A Great Unrecorded History” (2010). Galgut seems to have absorbed it all, and he relies on this detailed information as the basis for his novel. He particularly is focused on the years from 1906, when Forster met and fell in love with his 17-year-old Indian student Syed Ross Masood, to 1924, when “A Passage to India,” his first novel in 14 years, was published to wide acclaim.

Galgut’s abiding theme in his previous novels (all of them excellent), and again here, is the persistence of loneliness. His characters tend to travel — and feel — alone, and when they approach connection with a stranger, or even with a friend, the result is a new kind of loneliness, one fraught with mixed feelings and regret and the mysteries of otherness. His protagonists are hungry for love, but they’re hampered by fear and apprehension. Galgut’s Forster behaves as if he’ll never have — never could have — a companionship as deep and loving as the one he has with his mother. In real life, Forster lived with his mother until she died at 90.

“Arctic Summer” — the title comes from a novel Forster never finished — centers on Forster’s long travels abroad. He first went to India in 1912, flush with the success of “Howard’s End.” Galgut’s novel opens on board the SS City of Birmingham, where Forster meets Kenneth Searight, a handsome young gay military man who shocks the uptight writer with his planned exploits in India. Forster, then 33, was traveling to see his 23-year-old friend Masood . They had met in England, where Forster tutored Masood in Latin before he went to Oxford. But in India, Forster is disappointed to find Masood busy and preoccupied and not at all in love with him, at least not in the way Forster loves him. Masood, as it happens, is not gay. But their lifelong friendship deepens.

Back in England, Forster meets Edward Carpenter, an intellectual who was a friend of Walt Whitman and known for, among other things, his openness about homosexuality. His directness, Galgut writes, strikes Forster as “both unnerving and uplifting.” Forster also encounters Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Leonard and Virginia Woolf and the gay poet C.P. Cavafy. These scenes — lightly fictionalized anecdotes of real events — give Galgut’s narrative fresh perspectives on Forster’s unrelaxed but friendly personality. He secretly writes “Maurice,” a gay novel that will be published only after his death. And then World War I takes him to Egypt, where he works for the Red Cross and spends much of his time unhappily alone. “His loneliness was now so big that it had become his life,” Galgut writes. Eventually, he meets Mohammed el-Adl, a young Egyptian train conductor, and they form a complex, illicit relationship.

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