A South African Novel about E.M. Forster
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Arctic Summer
author: Damon Galgut
publisher: Europa
pub date: 10.02.2014
pp: 352
tags: Fiction

Imraan Coovadia on Arctic Summer

A South African Novel about E.M. Forster

July 21st, 2014 reset - +

IN NOVEMBER 1911 E. M. Forster began a novel organized around the opposition between the heroic personality, longing to fight and die, and the cultured man who hopes for a time when “all is light,” the Arctic Summer of the title. The fragment breaks off with the suicide of a Cambridge student, disgraced on account of an unspecified sexual offense.

Damon Galgut takes the title for his re-creation of the years, between 1912 and 1924, when Forster searched for a way to complete A Passage to India, composed Maurice along the way, fell in love, and served as private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas. Galgut’s treatment stays close to the evidence of the letters and diaries. It opens on the literal passage to India, onboard ship, when “two men found themselves together on the forward deck.” One is an army officer, Kenneth Searight, returning to his frontier station. The other is Forster, identified by Searight as a fellow “minorite” and simultaneously discomforted and thrilled by the other man’s confidences: “Well, I can tell you, the Pathans are a breed of young savages, and I intend to make friends with many of them.”

The comedy is muted elsewhere, but similar: a writer uncertain of his footing among larger-than-life companions. Searight has vast sexual experience; Forster, by 1912, had hardly touched another man. In the course of Arctic Summer he will be altered by connection (and disconnection) with two men, an Indian and an Egyptian, who fall under imperial supervision. First is a frustrated attachment to Syed Ross Masood, an upper-class Indian whom Forster tutors in Latin and who was, in fact, the dedicatee of Passage to India, for “the seventeen years of our friendship.” Masood, Galgut writes, “looked, and sounded, and smelled like a prince. Morgan, on the other hand, had a crumpled, second-hand appearance, which made him seem like a tradesman of some kind.” Masood’s confidence seems to reverse the imperial force field: “The English are a tragic race. […] I would like to help them, but they are too numerous.”

Forster’s local disadvantages forestall his story from becoming a mere matter of sexual exploitation. He questions himself and, on occasion, uncovers the feelings of empire there: “Who could have known that it was in him, too, this racial arrogance, this contemptible contempt?” Like Passage to India’s Fielding, Forster incarnates the spirit of liberalism. Neither colonialist nor anticolonialist, incapable of perfect conformity to India or to England, he is “never exactly sure where his loyalties lay; he experienced a complicated inner conflict which pulled him one way or the other.” To Masood he disavows responsibility: “it is not my empire.” And his evasion is accepted: “Friendship is your Empire, Morgan.” The nature of these friendships, and of Forster’s empire in them, is Galgut’s principal theme.

As a book concerning the production of another book, Arctic Summer is unexceptional. It focuses, like Passage to India, on the blank experience of Adela Quested: what happened at the caves? In his sketches Forster centers his novel around a sexual assault, and progressively removes the certainties around Quested’s experience, much as Shakespeare blurred Hamlet’s motivations. Drawing on his observation of Indian “opacity,” Galgut represents Forster as refusing to settle on whether India is better described as a “mystery” or, more plainly, as a “muddle,” and he underlines the aesthetic disappointments Forster felt in the East. Galgut is at his best when his lines, like Forster’s, are accelerated by backhanded comedy: “he had been disappointed by Port Said […] it had none of the smell and vibrancy and colour he’d been expecting […] [S]ome of the Arabs were beautiful, but they had spoiled it by trying to sell him smutty postcards.”

Galgut neatens the autobiographical data into a more novelistic form, affording Masood, and later the Egyptian, Mohammed el Adl, starring roles in the reinvention of the Passage to India manuscript. Where Forster remains reticent about his vocation Masood is clear: “You are a writer. You have published a book.” On Masood’s invitation Forster visits India and the Barabar Caves. Masood insists to Forster that “you will write a novel about it” and, with his customary sense of centrality, demands “to be a character in your novel! Or are the English the only worthy subjects? Oh, I wish I had lived at the time of the great Oriental despotisms — I would have ordered you to write me endless books, with no English characters in them.” Beyond his grandness Masood offers Forster the bewitching closeness of Indian friendship between men. The writer is “terribly excited, in the daytime, by the way young Indian men strolled about, hand in hand, or hung onto each other like vines.” Forster is constantly misunderstanding or trying to blur the line between homosocial and homosexual, and is just as constantly disappointed when his friends, like Masood, get married. (In el Adl’s case, Forster simply goes along on the honeymoon.)

Forster (and not only for Galgut, but in his life) was a dedicated sexual opportunist. In the novel, when he returns to Egypt, only to discover that his lover el Adl is ill, his first thought is about his own sexual disappointment. While serving the Maharaja of Dewas he waits anxiously for the young man he had been promised as a royal favor to arrive. Galgut has clarified and highlighted but not invented this angle on the life. As Forster’s biographer Wendy Moffat puts it, “His Highness [Bapu Sahib] […] promptly arranged to find a sexual partner from among the palace servants. For this kindness, among others, Morgan [Forster] came to think of the maharajah as a ‘kind of saint.’”

This desire for physical connection is, in fact, the keynote of Galgut’s novelization and what accounts for its unexpected sincerity and freshness — “To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong sometimes that it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken.” Arctic Summer is consumed by feeling and sexual need, yearning, and desire in many guises and disguises, in a way that separates it from an otherwise similar treatment of the same epoch and milieu, such as David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk. It reads more like The Great Gatsby, with its emphasis on the gaze pregnant with longing. Desire is far more important than culture, a point underlined by an indistinct dinner with Henry James followed by a far more memorable reverie, a vision of one of

the working-class men who had stirred him in his life […] [He] remembered too a glimpse he’d had from a train window of two naked brown bodies sunning themselves in a warehouse. He had understood then what drew him […]. Not just the lean outline propped against the wall, but the larger world he belonged to — the darkness, the evening under the sky, the smell of smoke and fields.

In the background of this desire, keeping it fresh and illicit, is the panorama of male gay life, from Searight who “appeared to be almost proud of who and what he was,” to conservative men who “came from a generation where discretion was the first line of defense and any dropping of one’s guard could lead to catastrophe.” Edward Carpenter, nudist and sexual liberationist, puts in an appearance along with D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and, in Alexandria, C. P. Cavafy. Galgut’s versions of these men are minor characters that steer just this or that side of caricature:

Cavafy had a half-cigarette in his holder, unlit, and he was waving it about as he talked in a long-suffering tone about his employment in the Ministry of Public Works. […] [H]e was pained by the stupidity of his colleagues. “I have to check their grammar […] in every memorandum, every letter. And no matter how many times I explain the correct use of the comma, they simply repeat their mistakes. And let us say nothing of the apostrophe!”

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Galgut, a resident of Cape Town, doesn’t encourage any discussion of J. M. Coetzee’s influence on his writing — unlike the rural hospital of Galgut’s The Good Doctor or the postcolonial real estate business in The Impostor, and their clipped and unhappy prose style, this wistful and yearning book will discourage such connections. In two novels, however, Coetzee depicted canonical writers. His Dostoyevsky, The Master of Petersburg, reacted to a spiral of Russian revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence echoing contemporary South African life. Coetzee’s Defoe, or Foe, followed the swirl of empire and otherness in a way that matched postcolonial theory more exactly than the original. Where Coetzee is apocalyptic, Wagnerian, theoretical, always near to what Forster would have called “mystery,” Galgut is local, emotional, and, perhaps, closer to “muddle.” If Forster’s novels can be read as an alternative to a stylized modernism, Galgut’s homage is an alternative to self-conscious postcolonial postmodernism. Even his dedication of Arctic Summer to a friend, which matches Forster’s dedication to Syed Ross Masood word for word, strikes me as sincere rather than self-conscious.

Instances of a mid-career writer making an imaginative leap as significant as this novelization are rare. The temptation is to see Galgut as finally finding the way to imaginatively exploit his experience. Forster feels his “remoteness from his white kin as almost a physical difference. This was a vigorous, outdoor world, full of sports and guns,” and Galgut seems to feel that same estrangement. It may be that Galgut’s previous collection, In a Strange Room, allowed him to replace any alienation with the cooler but also more dreamlike manner of a travel writer. India, Egypt, London, Cambridge, and many of the sexual episodes in Arctic Summer, come and go here as briskly as in a dream. But when Forster’s desires run darker with the Maharaja’s servant it strikes one as a dream on the point of turning bad:

He began to wail theatrically, knowing that Morgan would beat him. Morgan beat him. The blows and slaps were real, but they didn’t hurt him...When he had boxed the boy’s ears for a while, Morgan went to a chair and sat down. He felt coldly satisfied, though the surge of power had been exciting. He was breathing heavily, not only from exertion, as Kanaya crawled over the floor to him and began kissing his feet. “Now shave me,” he said.

Forster summarizes his own conduct with Kanaya and others with a certain queasy tolerance: “Buggery in the colonies: it wasn’t noble.”

Galgut presents Forster finishing the revisions on Passage to India while expecting news to come of the death of the Egyptian man he has loved. It is, in fact, Mohammed el Adl’s voice that rises from the pages of this strange, sincere, and beautiful book of dedications. “I find a certain amount of lies necessary to life,” he tells Forster, “all is exceptions in men as in English grammar.” Through el Adl, Forster sees empire from the other side of the bayonet: “When he read about Egyptians being arrested, Egyptians being shot or jailed, he saw only Mohammed’s face.” Galgut’s Forster desires to reproduce himself not only through books but in physical form. He doesn’t like that Masood’s sons have Muslim names, but with el Adl Forster gets it right. El Adl’s wife, Gamila, is graceful enough not to question Forster’s friendship with her husband. Soon enough, whatever contraceptive affects Forster may have generated by joining their honeymoon, she is “already pregnant with a son they would name Morgan.”

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Imraan Coovadia is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and the author of The Institute for Taxi Poetry (2012).

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