Loving – living in his way

This is my review of Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut.

E.M.Forster, known as Morgan, hates the stuffy conventions and snobbish prejudices of middle-class Edwardian society, yet is unable to break away from living with his mother who reaches the ripe old age of ninety. He recognises his sexuality, but for years is only able to express it abroad, in Egypt or India, by forming risky unequal relationships with young men from the other side of the race and class divides. In similar vein to Colm Tóibín's novel, "The Master", based on Henry James, Damon Galgut has chosen to fictionalise Forster's life rather than produce a biography, no doubt because this gives free rein for his creative imagination to get inside the author's head and embroider facts to suit his interpretation. He is at liberty to pick and choose what he wishes to include and emphasise.

Although I often found Morgan's furtive fumblings quite tedious, it is undeniable that Galgut's subtle prose has the power to enable heterosexual readers to understand the complex, shifting feelings of a sensitive and introspective gay man seeking fulfilment at a time when this was against the law, or the topic of mocking gossip. In one telling scene, an English official in Egypt is prepared to help get one of Morgan's young native friends out of a scrape, but is desperate to counsel him against the liaison, without ever managing to overcome his reticence to speak plainly. "Tall and dry, composed of jointed segments like a large, untidy bird, Robin seemed always uncomfortable, but more than usually so at this moment".

The title "Arctic Summer", re-using that of a novel which Forster was unable to complete, conveys the concept of being "blocked" in two senses – as a writer, and a man. In the kind of profound insight in which Damon Galgut excels, it is only in the final pages that he uses the term "Arctic summer" to describe how Morgan catches sight of himself in a café mirror, in which the angle of the light makes him seem to "stand alone in the middle of an immense whiteness – nothing moving, nothing alive". This coincides with his pain at overhearing the gossip of two strangers who have recognised him as a famous author, "He's a timid soul. They say he hasn't really lived at all, except in his mind."

Another important thread is the often painful process of writing, in particular Morgan's struggle to complete what came to be regarded as his masterpiece, "A Passage to India". Inspired by his first visit to that land, he knows that he must write about it, but for years cannot see how to bring it to fruition. Impressed by the "spiritual hostility" of the Kailasa cave, he is convinced he has found what he has been searching for, "a terrible incident, a crime of some kind. But when he tried to focus on what it was, it became unclear, all of it retreated from him".

Galgut also conveys the strong sense of place that makes Morgan a successful travel writer: walking back from an evening with a poet who has described the history of Alexandria, Morgan realises for the first time how old the city is although there is little trace of its history beneath the "ordinary and banal" modern buildings – this highlights, of course, the tragedy of the recent loss of ancient buildings and carvings in countries like Syria.

My only criticism of the book is that some of characters, like Morgan's English male friends, seem undeveloped and two-dimensional, but this may be intentional to show how little they really impinge on Forster's introspective world – plus they all seem to let him down by getting married as a way out of their dilemma.

With his well-crafted, expressive prose, full of insight, flashes of humour (I enjoyed the one-sided row with the combative D.H. Lawrence) and poignancy, Damon Galgut is an unusual writer who deserves to be more widely read and praised.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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