Sunday, August 31, 2014

Arctic Summer

Arctic Summer is a fictionalised biography
of the novelist EM Forster
Arctic Summer – a fictionalised biography of the writer EM Forster – marks a significant departure for South African writer Damon Galgut. 

In prose that is rich and languid, with echoes of the early more formal twentieth century language that Forster himself used, Galgut sets this novel firmly in a milieu that is as far away from this country as his other novels weren’t. 

(Although his novellas, In A Strange Room, were partially set in India – that was in a more contemporary setting.) 

The novel opens in October of 1912 as the SS City of Birmingham steams toward India with the novelist EM Forster aboard. He’s 33, has four successful novels behind him. Travelling with friends, he soon meets up with a man, Kenneth Searight, who’s made his life and living in India, and who will open a small window on a world that Forster has been too timid to open himself.

EM Forster lives with his mother, an arrangement that will continue until her death in the 1940s. Independently wealthy from a small inheritance, this means he has no need to work, and can instead devote himself to his writing, as well as moving within the small circuit of society he finds himself in.

And, crucially, Forster is gay, or a “minorite” as he will term it in his own words. One of the reasons he’s off to India is to meet up with a friend of his, Masood, whom he met six years ago in England, while tutoring him in Latin for his law degree.  It will be Forster who will want to take this friendship beyond the borders of that relationship, and Forster who will remain forever disappointed by so many men in his life who, while leaning towards homosexuality, settle for the norms of heterosexuality, in a world where this is more than encouraged and in which the result of Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment loom large over the consciousness of those who come to maturity in the early years of the 20th century. Sexuality frames this book – with each section being named after the men in Forster’s life, whether these were requited or unrequited encounters.   

Running along this seam is the story of Forster, a fictionalised biography that stays close to the facts, detailing both his struggles with writing, his difficult relationship with his somewhat domineering mother, (his absent father, dead) and his continual reaching out to the men in his life, his continual grasp at his sexuality, and search for a companion to share and open up with. This difficulty informs his writing too, and perhaps leads in time to the fact that Forster stopped writing novels after the publication of A Passage to India: “The problem was that he was writing about men and women, about marriage, which were subjects he knew nothing about. It was an ongoing vexation to feel that his true subject was buried somewhere out of reach, and could perhaps never be spoken aloud.”

The book runs back through time – from when Forster first meets Masood, as well as his occasional flirtation with another friend of his, who will seek comfort within the confines of a heterosexual marriage. Or an evening spent with an acquaintance where he meets another man who hints at his suppressed sexuality, and then commits suicide. All along the warnings are there – transgress beyond the norm, let it be known, and, watch out, there be dragons beyond that horizon.

His six months in India remain with him – living on through memories, growing slowly towards the completion of “the Indian novel” which nonetheless takes years. India comes alive within this section – a colonial India of ever-present heat and poverty, as England’s hold on the sub-continent begins to loosen and sway, as the country agitates for independence.

The First World War intervenes, which finds Forster taking a job for the war effort in Egypt. It’s here that he finally unshackles himself of his burdensome sexuality at the age of 37; and then enters into an unequal relationship with an Egyptian tram driver, Mohammed. “His loneliness was now so big that it had become his life...” A loneliness that is only assuaged, and that only in small measure, by this coupling. But there too – time and love, if love is what passes between them in this unequal coupling – is rationed, parcelled out, as life intervenes. Yet, it’s painful reading of this affair – an affair that seems as doomed as any of the unrequited passions Forster must undergo.

And, yet, alongside this, life continues. The war ends, Forster returns home to England, his mother and the stultifying life he leads there, where desires must be subsumed, hidden. Only the writing of his secret erotic stories provide some kind of relief.

The text is sprinkled with the names of the members of the famous Bloomsbury group – Lytton Strachey, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell – and there’s a frisson of pleasure in encountering them within a novelistic setting.

Forster accepts a post a secretary to an Indian Maharajah, returning again to the sub-continent, older, yet, still struggling with his writing: “He’d brought the damned manuscript of his novel with him, thinking that being in India might wake the story up again. But the effect, strangely, was the opposite, the continent pressed on him so hugely that he could barely see it.” And, once more, he tries to find his way through his forbidden sexuality, this time enlisting the help of his boss and paying for it in a more visceral way than ever before. The barber, Kanaya, will serve. The couplings are passion-less; Forster gives vent to his frustration through violence, and for, the first time, one loses sympathy with the man, using his dominant position, subjugating the Indian man meant to please him in a way that is difficult to read about.     

The novel meanders to its conclusion – the publication of Forster’s last novel – which was a major success when he published it in 1924 and ends there. Forster of course lived on, dying in 1970 at the age of 91. There’s a sense of sadness that encloses you as you finish this read – Galgut’s writing is polished, yet crystal-sharp, effortlessly leading you on as the story continues its trajectory. A life unlived in so many instances – and yet who can say a life is truly unlived? Forster lived as he did – making what experiences he could, while caught within the bounds of his own timidity.

Galgut’s sensitively told novel reads as both monument to a man caught within his personality as well as the times he lived, while throwing a harsh spotlight on those times, the strictures and the fears, a time when practising anything but the norm of heterosexuality wasn’t always, sadly, worth the sacrifices.  

Arctic Summer illuminates the man, the writer and the sexual being behind the fame that came to accompany him, in a way that is both sadly enlightening while being compellingly readable.  

First published in the Pretoria News, June 17, 2014 

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