The story opens in 1912, as the SS Birmingham approaches British India. English writer Edward Morgan Forster is aboard, mired in a hopeless romantic quest and about to receive the inspiration for what will become his celebrated novel, A Passage to India. Damon Galgut’s biographical novel follows E.M. Forster as he struggles to write Passage and to come to terms with his sexuality.
Biographers have long tried to pick apart the gridlock of personal repression that Forster explored in his novels: class and caste, empire and humanism; his conflation of orientalism with sexuality, the way he lived vicariously through his literary creations, especially in matters of love, when his own timidity prevented him doing so in person. By approaching the tale as a novel, Galgut is free to twist fact and fancy at will. While he sticks closely to recorded history, and the liberally sprinkled autobiographical details and snippets of conversation that resurfaced in Forster’s fiction will be a treat for trainspotting devotees, it’s the way Galgut shades around the facts that makes this book more than a lyrical biography.
Forster’s great unrequited love, the Indian noble Masood, is raffish, charming and indifferent to his friend’s affections, driving the Englishman to bury his feelings in his new novel. Leonard and Virginia Woolf, his companions from Bloomsbury, are at hand to give the plot a nudge when it needs it, or relieve the sometimes turgid prose with a perfect, sparkling witticism.
Elsewhere, his mother is an omnipresent smothering force, and his travels are as much to find inspiration in escapism as to procure clandestine sex. The latter encounters – at first nourishing, later coldly predatory – explore the imbalance of power in the British Empire: for Galgut’s Forster, India serves as both an overarching metaphor for human plurality and as a beat.
Although Galgut is clearly a fan, few writers can convey the vicissitudes of loneliness and longing as he does, and his Forster is a mope, uninspired and uncertain, lustful and paralysed by that lust.
Arctic Summer, named after the autobiographical novel that Forster tried and failed to write, is unashamedly Booker-bait, but it is still a touching exploration of both repressed sexuality and the transcendent scavenger work of the creative process behind a great canonical work. ZC
Allen & Unwin, 368pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Arctic Summer, Damon Galgut". Subscribe here.