Arctic Summer 
by Damon Galgut.
Atlantic, 357 pp., £17.99, May 2014, 978 0 85789 718 3
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Forster​ started writing his novel about India soon after getting home from his first trip there in 1913. During the 11 years he took to finish it, he wrote – but didn’t publish – a same-sex love story, Maurice; worked for the Red Cross in Egypt, where he had his first serious love affair; visited India again as secretary to the maharajah of Dewas; published two books on Alexandria and promoted Cavafy’s poetry; and issued many complaints about his work in progress. ‘Shall never complete another novel,’ he wrote in his diary at the end of 1914. In Dewas, his chapters ‘seemed to wilt and go dead’, he later recalled, ‘and I could do nothing with them.’ ‘I am bored,’ he wrote in a letter in 1922,

not only by my creative impotence, but by the tiresomeness and conventionalities of fiction-form: e.g. the convention that one must view the action through the mind of one of the characters; and say of the others ‘perhaps they thought’, or at all events adopt their viewpoint for a moment only. If you can pretend you can get inside one character, why not pretend it about all the characters? … The studied ignorance of novelists grows wearisome.

Still, he continued to grind out his ‘damned novel’, making ‘careful and uninspired additions’. His feeling as he finished A Passage to India in 1924 was: ‘This is a failure.’

Forster’s subsequent activities, and non-activities, indicated that some of this was more than routine grumbling. As well as not writing any more novels, he stepped up his interventions on the side of life against aesthetics, championing openness to experience – sexual experience included – over the age’s preference for absorption in technique. T.S. Eliot came in for a politely lethal rebuke after being pissy about Forster’s description of D.H. Lawrence as ‘the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation’. (‘Mr Eliot … asks me exactly what I mean by “greatest”, “imaginative” and “novelist” and I cannot say. Worse still, I cannot say what “exactly” means – only that there are occasions when I would rather feel like a fly than a spider, and that the death of D.H. Lawrence is one of these.’) In Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster was similarly uncowed by the shadow of Henry James, taking swipes at James’s disciple Percy Lubbock and implying that it was silly to get hung up on doctrines of ‘economy and architecture’. You could arrange a story in the shape of an hourglass, as Forster said James had done in The Ambassadors, and triumph on your own terms, ‘but at what sacrifice!’ Following ‘the narrow path of aesthetic duty’, he wrote, ‘shuts the doors on life and leaves the novelist doing exercises, generally in the drawing-room’.

These ideas were in line with Forster’s practice in his novels, but they did and didn’t work themselves out in the story of his life, which can be made to look fussily patterned around a struggle between emotional fulfilment and, in James’s words, ‘the madness of art’. Depending on which biography you read, it’s a life shaped either like an hourglass or a penny-farthing, with the publication of A Passage to India connecting the two parts. Forster was 45 when his last novel appeared, and though there were workaday factors behind his throwing in the towel – among them his private income and his feeling that the war had put an end to the world he knew – it’s clear that the life he’d come to see as the antithesis of art’s ‘conventionalities’ was predominately gay life. Publishability was one problem; another was that Forster’s fiction seemed to need the evasions he’d come to resent. (In order to show that the homosexual was a perfectly ordinary chap he ended up making Maurice rather stolid.) Admired and sought out by younger gay writers, he felt unable to claim such a role for himself in public and settled for spending the next 46 years as a patron saint of liberal muddle.

From a tragic-minded storyteller’s point of view, it might be helpful if Forster had been eaten up by bitterness or destroyed by his thwarted creative energies. Damon Galgut’s bio-fictional portrait of the novelist is too scrupulous to assign him either fate, but the book isn’t written in a comic spirit and brings the curtain down before the later years, not hinting that Forster actually went on to have a pretty good time. The novel’s coda, set in 1945, doesn’t mention Forster’s last great love, Bob Buckingham, a policeman he met in 1930, whose wife, May, not only agreed to share her husband but ended up nursing her rival on his deathbed (Forster died at the Buckinghams’ house in Coventry in 1970). Arctic Summer is largely concerned with dramatising the long gestation of A Passage to India, and it’s fair enough that these matters fall outside the scope of what’s, in many ways, a sensible choice of timeframe. For better or worse, though, ending the story where the book does – with the hero standing at his first Indian friend’s grave, finished as a novelist and apparently condemned to solitude – suggests a more neatly choreographed stalemate in the art v. life showdown than a devout Forsterian might wish.

Galgut, a white South African writer, isn’t the first person you’d think of in connection with Forster, but he’s well qualified for a complicated act of identification with him. Born in 1963, he finished his first novel, A Sinless Season (1982), at the age of 17, and his apartheid-era fiction often dwells on the horror of being a sensitive, usually gay young man in a culture of rough sports, red meat and white supremacism. ‘We’re men here, not girls,’ an officer snarls during the narrator’s military service in The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991), and the narrator, who can’t catch a ball, feels a deepening of his discomfort among ‘these men who played rugby with ease’. (His friend and sort of lover dies in a firefight, but might as well have been – in the words of Forster’s famous description of Gerald’s death in The Longest Journey – ‘broken up in the football match’.) Galgut’s first few books deal with politics best at a distance, as one ingredient of the characters’ estrangement from their parents or society; more explicit depictions of political struggle tend to give rise to overcooked symbolism. All the same, there’s a precocious assurance to his handling of the cold, controlled tones and ominous historic present associated with Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.

Early on, Galgut’s use of these tones could be too homageful. ‘My name is James. I can’t help that,’ the narrator says in one of the stories in Small Circle of Beings (1988). (Coetzee’s first novel begins: ‘My name is Eugene Dawn. I cannot help that.’) But while his reports on the post-apartheid state of the nation are clearly in dialogue with such novels as Disgrace, they project a more expansive world of Galgut’s own, using charged male friendships as well as sex with dark-skinned women to look at the individual’s stance towards history. Frank, the narrator of The Good Doctor (2003), is weighed down by the thought that the past is ‘not past yet’, and isn’t immediately persuaded otherwise by an idealistic, energetic new arrival at his workplace, a decaying clinic – set up as a piece of Potemkin infrastructure – in a former bantustan. Adam, the central figure in The Imposter (2008), tries to live outside history by moving to the Karoo to write nature poetry after losing his office job as a result of quota requirements. Instead he’s drawn into uncomfortable intimacy with Canning, a local bigshot who claims to remember him from boarding school, and starts an affair with Canning’s beautiful black wife.

Carefully written and dutifully plotted, these novels contain enough hot-country gloom to hint at larger worries than local politics, and borrow enough from such models as Graham Greene to make non-South African readers feel at home. The Good Doctor starts out efficiently and resonantly and The Imposter has a memorable foil in Canning, a creepily insinuating figure, powerful and pathetic by turns. Yet both novels are marred – a Forsterian might not agree – by sudden outbreaks of melodrama conveyed with studied flatness, and by plots that need the central characters to be simple-minded from time to time. Frank, a cartoon cynic but not foolish or insensitive, takes many pages to see that using a village woman as a concubine might not be morally unproblematic. Adam, a dreamier figure, manages to blunder obliviously into heavily signposted plot developments even when he’s overheard them being discussed beforehand. The Good Doctor also draws on a repertoire of African images that’s heavy on sinister men in fatigues and buildings being swallowed by the landscape’s alarming fecundity.

Galgut, however, doesn’t seem entirely happy shuffling around tropes from the ‘novel of Africa’, and both books gesture at resistance to the meaning-making process. ‘If this was an allegory I would be learning humility,’ Frank writes, ‘but it was only real life, unsettling and tacky and strange.’ Later, he pictures various resolutions to his story. ‘But it wasn’t going to be like that. This was a story without a resolution – maybe even without a theme.’ Adam feels embarrassed by his youthful poetry, which ‘had attracted some attention, mostly because of his age’, and as the story’s symbolic overtones get increasingly baroque, the writing develops scruples about other kinds of artifice. ‘He remembers this as one seamless event,’ we’re told after a routinely dramatised scene. ‘But in fact it’s made of little pieces from various afternoons.’ The Imposter is packed with emblematic characters – dodgy property developers, corrupt officials, an apartheid-era government killer – but they aren’t deployed in the way you’d expect. The killer, for instance, comes out with a long confession that’s ostentatiously withheld from the reader: we’re only given Adam’s reaction to the man’s speech.

In a Strange Room (2010), Galgut’s best book to date, gives the impression of discarding fictive scaffolding altogether. First published in instalments in the Paris Review, and labelled ‘fiction’ there after some discussion, it details three journeys made by a figure called Damon, a diffident South African writer. Moving around the globe sometimes to distract himself from a break-up, sometimes from a feeling of rootlessness and sometimes through plain inertia, he’s more interested in people’s emotional lives than in the politics that press in on him back home; at one point he rents a house a few hours’ drive from Cape Town and distracts himself by clearing the garden, much as Adam does in The Imposter. Failed efforts to forge connections are the master theme of his journeys, the first of which is made with a straight man called Reiner whose indifference and bossiness, ostensibly over practical matters, start to carry a well-caught note of sexual sadism. Damon’s melancholia peaks in the middle section, about the death of a young man he meets in Zimbabwe, after which the focus of sympathy moves gradually outwards from the central character in an account of his efforts to steer a suicidal friend through the Indian hospital system.

In outline, the book sounds histrionically morose, and it’s written in an idiom that’s a hard sell too. There’s lots of white space between the paragraphs, no quotation or question marks, and the language moves constantly between the third and first person. ‘Most of this information reaches him through Anna’s girlfriend, with whom I have long tearful conversations almost every day’: ‘him’ and ‘I’ here both refer to Damon in the narrative present. The reader soon gets used to this, however, and the effect is somehow near pretentious but not phony. You get a sense that there’s an enormous effort going on to keep relations between the narrating and narrated selves honest, and to nail down, at whatever cost to the floorboards, the slippery feeling of stuffing experience into words. Plotting isn’t Galgut’s strong suit but he knows how to tell a story and autofiction turns out to be a good form for him. The interlocking rhythms of travel and memory supply all the pattern he needs, and the nods to Kafka, Faulkner and Beckett don’t look stiff. In the caustic accounts of hikers’ self-indulgent inwardness, and of the way backpackers float their idylls on a sea of poverty, he gets at themes dramatised in his earlier novels with, this time, no stagey debates.

Arctic Summer is, in many ways, a rewrite of In a Strange Room: the story of a frequently unhappy gay writer moving through African and Indian settings while nursing unreciprocated passions, feeling constrained by the novel as a form, absorbing news of deaths and worrying about the place of a comfy liberal in a sharply stratified society. But it’s also a painstaking effort to create a persuasive version of a historical writer. (The acknowledgments credit an intimidating range of sources in addition to Forster’s letters, journals and diaries, P.N. Furbank’s ‘superb’ two-volume Life and the biographies by Wendy Moffat, Nicola Beauman and Francis King.) As such, it joins distinguished portraits of Novalis (Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower), Dostoevsky (Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg) and Henry James (Colm Tóibín, The Master), plus recentish likenesses of H.G. Wells, Byron, Woolf, Keats, Tolstoy, Conan Doyle, John Clare and others. Of these it has most in common thematically with The Master – James makes a fleeting appearance, getting Forster’s name wrong – but Galgut doesn’t seek to inhabit his subject’s inner life or to assimilate him into his own stylistic universe in the way Tóibín does.

Instead he opens the book in a style pitched somewhere between a 19th-century novel and the drier end of ‘creative nonfiction’: ‘In October of 1912, the SS City of Birmingham was travelling through the Red Sea, midway on her journey to India, when two men found themselves together on the forward deck … The first man, Morgan Forster, was 33 years of age.’ This modulates quickly into free indirect style, which Galgut does well. At least some of the time, though, he seems not to want the reader to be lulled by illusionistic effects. An essayistic tone jumps out of stretches of straight narrative: ‘In Simla, for example, he lived through the following …’ Here and there the writing dips into pure biographese: ‘As the boat entered the Suez Canal, Morgan was in an excellent mood’ or ‘At this Durbar, Morgan knew, George V had announced sweeping changes to the political system of India.’ It looks like clumsiness and perhaps sometimes is, but also seems to be aimed at disrupting novelistic proprieties in a more interesting way than announcing ‘I’m not making this stuff up.’

Considered only as fiction, Arctic Summer tends to flag when it’s reduced to breaking down the central character’s itinerary. (‘In Lahore he was also reunited with Bob Trevy and Goldie, who had meanwhile been to Ellora.’) The hero’s mother has too limited a range of behaviours – being demanding, sulking – to come fully to life, and though Forster’s beatings of a man he’s provided with for sex in Dewas complicate him nicely as a character, he’s given uncharacteristic language to think about the episode in (‘Buggery in the colonies: it wasn’t noble’) and seems rather slow on the uptake (‘The memory of these indulgences, he suspected, wouldn’t make him proud’). Yet Galgut does a good job of muffling the clanging sound a reader might anticipate at already well-known moments – the famous touch on the backside at Edward Carpenter’s house, a disappointing visit to the Barabar Caves – and of judging the amount of irony to let in by way of plummy Edwardian locutions. In the chapter set in Alexandria during the First World War, he more or less drops the essayistic touches and lets himself write a moving account of Forster’s romance with Mohammed el-Adl, a tram conductor.

The book stresses insights of the kind you’d expect from a good biographer: the part played by class in Forster’s thinking about sex, for instance. Some of the imaginative leaps aren’t spectacular (Forster kept his writing projects secret, ‘exactly like a certain kind of relationship’); others, such as a guarded conversation with an acquaintance who went home and killed himself, are taken from Galgut’s more speculative secondary sources. As a portrait it isn’t unconvincing but it emphasises the put-upon, awkward, benign figure who lived with his mum and takes too long to hint at buried reserves of determination and coldness. Nor do we get much sense of Forster as someone able to get his way using charm and humour, though the book is at its best when it lets the great-souled hero be absurd as well:

He had heard the noble justifications for Empire, not only from British politicians, but from high-minded friends like Goldie, and it was hard to give them up entirely. It could all have happened so differently, if it had simply been carried out with civility and politeness … Ill-breeding had undermined the whole edifice. He couldn’t help believing that on a certain level this great dream was dying because of petty rudeness in railway carriages.

This could almost be straight biography – the last two sentences are adapted from an article Forster published in 1922 – but it isn’t quite that, just as the book doesn’t quite transform Forster into a spokesman for Galgut’s worldview in spite of such lines as: ‘He liked it afterwards, this lack of a solution, because it was the truth.’

Towards the end of Arctic Summer, there’s one scene marked as fiction: we’re told that Forster ‘mentioned it to nobody. Not even to the pages of his diary.’ It’s a bit stagey – ‘I have loved … That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way,’ he tells two ladies he’s overheard discussing his ‘timid soul’ in a Lyons Corner House – and mostly serves as a reminder of the quietly tasteful way in which much of the action seems to unfold without obvious help from novelistic, as opposed to essayistic machinery. Making it seem as though there’s minimal fictionalising going on is an impressive technical feat, but the jolt of quasi-voyeuristic interest that true-ish stories thrive on doesn’t wholly come through, maybe because Galgut’s personal investment in the story is so firmly barricaded behind biographical investigation, or maybe because Forster just didn’t have the ‘self-fabulising nature’, in Janet Malcolm’s words, that non-imaginary people need to function as characters. Lots of bio-novels are disguised spiritual autobiographies and some are disguised cultural histories. This one scrambles the two types more thoroughly than most, yet ends up a little flavourless.

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