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A Fictionalised biography (the colour of India beautifully evoked)

11th September 2014

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut – novel set in India and Alexandria.

IMG_2513Arctic Summer, a fictionalised biography, takes its title from an unfinished novel by E M Forster and describes the period of his life between his first visit to India in 1912 and the publication of his most famous work A Passage to India in 1924.

The novel begins with Morgan (as Forster was known to family and friends) on board the SS City of Birmingham on his way to India to visit his friend and former pupil, Syed Ross Masood, with whom he is in love. He has published several novels by this time and is on his way to becoming successful, but the young Morgan is far from confident. He is aware of his homosexuality, but has not come to terms with being a “minorite”. Virginal and inhibited, profoundly middle class and under the thumb of his overbearing mother, it is a very unsure young man who embarks on his first trip to India in search of love and inspiration for his Indian novel. This shame about his sexuality bedevils Morgan throughout the novel and it is the exploration of this inner conflict that makes the book so interesting. Galgut takes the reader under the skin of the central character and poignantly describes Morgan’s largely futile search for love and/or sex; he is destined to find the trip to India ultimately frustrating, as he discovers that Masood is firmly heterosexual.

The novel, however, also concerns itself with the writing process. Morgan describes for us his struggles to find a pivotal moment for his novel. His time in India seems to have constituted nothing more than the gathering of “loose strands” and “momentary impressions”. As Forster, in an interview with the Paris Review, said, “The novelist should, I think, always settle … what his major event is to be.” It is not until much later and after a second trip to India that Morgan manages to bring the ideas together into the famous novel.

Galgut’s novel intriguingly captures the colour, the noise and confusion of India. He shows us Morgan working hard to understand the Gokul Ashtami festival, celebrating the birth of Krishna, but becoming increasingly confused. Finally, he reaches the conclusion that “it was best, perhaps, simply to be carried by the current of events, and let understanding follow in their wake”, a feeling shared by many a foreign traveller, surely.

There are wonderful and very amusing little cameo appearances – Forster’s appalling visit with the Lawrences (D H and Frieda) when Lawrence lambasts Forster, condemning everything about his lifestyle and his life’s work. “He should find a female counterpart and dig down to this volcanic base material, instead of fossicking about with love stories set in Italy, in-between his knitting and visits to the opera.” Poor Morgan, horrified, can only reply primly, “I don’t knit.” It’s wonderful writing.

In fact, the whole novel is beautifully and sensitively written. The characterisation is masterful and yet, ultimately, as a novel, it is a frustrating read because at its heart, there is no pivotal moment, no major event. “The novelist is free, the biographer is tied,” as Virginia Woolf said in her 1939 essay “The Art of Biography” and Artic Summer suffers from the restriction that Forster’s life did not provide that wonderful major event that he so longed for and that the reader so wishes for him. But don’t let that stop you from reading this. As a fictionalised biography, it’s a great read.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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