Tag Archives: E M Forster

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.

Journals: Overland 201, Asia Literary Review 18

Overland 201 (Jeff Sparrow 2010)
Asia Literary Review 18 (Stephen McCarty 2010)

A dear friend of mine was once a member of the CPA (that’s the Communist Party of Australia, not the Chartered Accountants’ thingummyjig). Years after she left the Party, a former editor of Tribune asked her what she was reading to keep up to date with politics. When she named the National Times, an eminently liberal weekly of the day, he was scathing: ‘Surely you don’t think you can get decent information from the bourgeois press!’ I thought of him as I was reading these magazines: at least part of my motivation for subscribing to them is to ensure that I have a regular injection of thinking from respectively left and non-Western perspectives, neither of which – to put it mildly – is dependably represented in the mainstream press.

So, for instance, Jeff Sparrow’s article ‘The Banality of Goodism‘ starts with a quote from Aimé Césaire on the dehumanising effect that colonisation has on the coloniser, and goes on to argue that the war in Afghanistan is actually a colonial enterprise, that colonial enterprises have always dressed themselves in the robes of what he calls ‘goodism’ (we’re in Afghanistan for the sake of the women, the peoples of Central America needed to be rescued from human sacrifice), that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (bad) used some of the same justifications as the US invasion (good). He also reminds us that in the week after 11/9 George W Bush visited a mosque and described Islam as a religion of peace, a gauge of how the dominant Western conservatism has degenerated in the last nine years. This kind of thing has to be good for the soul.

Similarly refreshing are a debate on population policy, a reply to Cate Kennedy’s anti-Internet rant in issue 200, a piece on Bruce Petty’s heroic cartoon-wrestling with economic subjects, an article that discusses the state of ‘flow’ (that focused state attained by craftspeople), a challenging argument against corporations’ providing breast pump ‘lactation’ rooms in lieu of maternity leave, and indeed the replacement of ‘maternity leave’ with ‘baby leave’. I may have come across any of these pieces on the net, but I would have skimmed them there. Here, I either read them with full engagement or skipped them altogether (I couldn’t bear to read Marty Hiatt’s rebuttal of Cate Kennedy, for example, because Kennedy’s piece was exactly the kind of intervention that an incipient Internet addict such as I needed: I don’t want it watered down).

A third of this issue is given over to showcasing the work of Young Writers. No ages are given, but it’s fairly evident that the four writers involved aren’t young in the sense that term would be used in the context of children’s literature. The introductory note by retiring fiction editor Kalinda Ashton and Samuel Cooney invokes Mark Davis’s Ganglands, thereby apparently implying that these ‘young writers’ are Gen Xers. Whatever! In my naivety I had assumed that magazines like Overland would publish work by Gen X and much younger writers as a matter of course, and I found myself reading these four stories with half an eye out to see what made them ‘young’, not a good frame of mind for enjoying a story.  They’re all good stories, but Sam Twyford-Moore’s creepy ‘Library of Violence‘ was the only one that overcame the handicap created in my mind by the pigeonholing.

This issue of Asia Literary Review focuses on China, to the extent that all but three items are on topic.  There are photo essays, travellers’ tales, expat narratives, an odd little memoir by Jan Morris, and short stories. A short essay by John Batten, ‘Cracking the Sunflower Seed’, reflects on contemporary Chinese art such as we have seen at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. There’s a poem by last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiao Bo, as well as ten or so other modern poems, with a useful five page orientation by Zheng Danyi. I miss a lot of what’s happening in Chinese poetry – Zheng quotes a quatrain that ‘infuriated Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing’, but all I can see is a lament for a broken stove. So Lord knows what’s happening in Liu Xiao Bo’s poem, ‘You Wait for Me with Dust’, besides surface action of a man in prison writing to his waiting wife.

The three pieces that aren’t about China are almost worth the price of admission: Marshall Moore’s short story, ‘Cambodia’, about three US siblings visiting Phnom Penh, Burlee Vang’s ‘Mrs Saichue’, set in a Hmong community in the USA, and Anjum Hasan’s piece on E M Forster’s time in India, which includes this glorious photo:

I think it’s fair to say that Asia Literary Review is more fun than Overland this issue. Overland, on the other hand, invites sharper engagement with issues closer to home.