Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer (Atlantic Books 2014)

0857897195After Howard’s End was published, E M Forster began another novel named Arctic Summer, but never finished it. Damon Galgut has co-opted the title for this novel about Forster, appropriately enough given that the book is suffused with a sense of unfulfilled desire and unachieved goals.

Forster is homosexual (his term is ‘minorite’), which for a middle-class Englishman just a few decades after Oscar Wilde’s trial is terrifyingly illegal and paralysingly shameful. A central powerful thread of the novel follows Forster’s agonised path towards an active sexual life and the closely allied quest for intimacy. He has two great loves, neither of them ‘minorites’, and neither of them Englishmen. One, the Indian Masood, rejects his physical advances; the other, Egyptian Mohammed, accommodates what he calls his ‘foolishness’. Forster has other, more compliant sexual partners, but it is with these two men that he forms abiding emotional connections, as each of them reciprocates his love in deeply un-English, heartfelt ways.

The novel is also a story of artistic triumph, an imagining of how Forster came to write his greatest novel, A Passage to India. If I didn’t have other more pressing demands on my time I would now be rereading that novel, which must surely have been changed – enriched, I would guess – by the light shed on it by this one. Damon Galgut inspires trust, partly because he has obviously researched his subject meticulously, and partly because his protagonist’s inner life is so powerfully realised. The story he tells, persuasively, is that Forster’s cross-cultural relationships, with the men he loved and with others in India and Egypt, provided the emotional and dramatic heart of his novel. 

It’s interesting how much this book is in dialogue with others. There are Forster’s books, of course: phrases from and references to A Passage to India  are scattered though it, apparent even to someone whose memory of the book is as vague as mine; Howard’s End and Room with a View crop up, though they’re not named; Forster writes Maurice pretty much as wish fulfilment and shows the manuscript to friends; he has a couple of collections of short pieces published. The richly evocative dedication of Galgut’s novel, ‘To Riyaz Ahmad Mir and to the fourteen years of our friendship’, echoes that of A Passage to India, ‘To Syed Ross Masood and to the seventeen years of our friendship’, surely as elegant an indication of an author’s relationship to his subject as you’re likely to find anywhere.

Forster has significant conversations with other writers: Leonard and Virginia Woolf (the former wanting to publish him, the latter agreeing, not unkindly, when he says he’s not a novelist); Lytton Strachey (who loves Maurice and wants its title changed to Lytton); Edward Carpenter (who gives him a vision of relaxed homosexual intimacy); D H Lawrence (hilariously, dogmatically voluble, and totally heteronormative); and Cavafy (who reads his poems to Forster in Alexandria). Even the raffish character who in the first pages shows Forster some explicit erotic writing (a neat way of showing that Forster’s problem is not simply prudishness) turns out, according to the acknowledgements pages, to be historical.

As well as the intertextuality implied in these encounters, I wanted to put  Arctic Summer on a shelf between Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and a DVD of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: the three of them could have an interesting chat about the Raj, with Galgut’s novel forming some kind of bridge between the horrors portrayed by Ghosh and the movie’s golden-glowing nostalgia. I’d also like to eavesdrop on this book in conversation with Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques: where I found it hard to read Dessaix’s accounts of Oscar Wilde and André Gide’s erotic adventures with much younger men of colour as anything other than sex tourism, Galgut’s version of Forster’s superficially similar experiences reads as complex cross-cultural encounters.

At the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Fair on Sunday there was a Police Department stall in the middle of all the glitter. That evening I went to Belvoir Street to see the supremely silly and sexy The Blue Wizard – billed as ‘the gayest one-man show ever’. I had this book in my bag at both events.

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