The Clouds of Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer – A Review

‘Fictional biography’ or ‘biographical fiction’ or the fictional account of a real person’s life, as in Damon Galgut’s account of the life of E.M. Forster in his latest book Arctic Summer, is perhaps one of the stranger literary genres. There is no shelf for it in any bookstore, it bears no library catalogue number, nor does it have a dedicated group of followers.  Those dedicated biography readers no doubt treat it with circumspect, while fiction readers, uninterested in the person whose life story it purports to tell, may too avert their gaze to it.

Certainly its fictive nature challenges its more popular non-fictional variant and at its root it attacks the rationalism and the empirical insistence of biographers. As Mario Vargas Llosa (perhaps the great master of the genre) suggested: fiction defies the notion of history, which is merely ‘a branch of fable-writing attempting to be science.’ (DC, 398) Vargas Llosa once surmised, that it is perhaps only fictional portrayal that can effectively sustain the depiction of a man, where as histories or biographies tend to get bogged down by ‘facts’ that are, more often than not, contestable.

This idea, that fiction contains a more insightful and revealing heuristic than non-fiction, was uttered by Anthony Powell’s character X Trapnel in the novel Hearing Secret Harmonies (Trapnel who was himself of course the re-imagining of the mid-twentieth century bohemian author Julian MacLaren-Ross). ‘People,’ Trapnel said, ‘think that because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that.’ (HSH, 84)

Like the many other authors who have tried their hand at ‘fictiography’, Galgut in Arctic Summer is essentially interested in Powell’s sense of ‘fictional veracity’ – which is something slightly different to our more usual sense of truth. In this pursuit fictions follow the Aristotelian notion in Poetics that art’s imitation does not represent what happened but rather represents ‘what could happen’. Narrative, Aristotle argued accordingly, must contain a coherence.  This coherence, which Vargas Llosa has pointed out, can never entirely be achieved by the imperfect information offered to biographers, who as a result often turn to a fictional praxis of imagining reasons for behaviour without necessary being able to prove them.

Certainly Galgut’s imagining of E.M. Forster, who starts the novel as a 32-year-old virgin on his passage to India to meet the man he is in love with, does achieve a coherence of character. Unlike so many novels that have been published in South Africa over the last few years[i], the character of Galgut’s Forster remains believably and reliably a man uncertain of his relationships with other men and is somebody unable to escape from out of the penumbra of his own complicated pathologies.

This uncertain character we have, of course, met before in Galgut’s books. There is certainly something of Forster’s fraught relationships with other men in the Damon of the ‘auto-fictiography’ of In a Strange Room. To be sure Galgut’s reimagining of Forster from the ‘aspects and shards and impressions’ of his research into Forster’s life has seemingly relied on a healthy dose of autobiography – and I say this not only as a critical surmise but also as a statement of fact. Galgut makes the submission of self-association right from the start with his dedication of the book and its striking similarity to Forster’s own dedication page in A Passage to India.

Arctic Summer begins with Forster’s first trip to India in 1912 where he goes to search out his sexuality away from England where ‘its name could not be spoken’. As Kenneth Searight, who he meets on the ship, says: ‘fortunately one doesn’t have to look far, not in India. More difficult in England, as you know.’ But if one is expecting a sexual revelation and free unfettered action then prepare for disappointment. Throughout the novel Forster’s inability to relate and confirm his sexual identity in a time when it was both illegal and considered ‘an unspeakable vice’ is the darkness that clouds the perfect light of the arctic summer’s sun. And these clouds never evaporate.

Forster we find out, after the description of his voyage to India, had fallen deeply in love, in 1906, with a 17-year-old under his tutelage, Syed Ross Masood. Masood had grown up in India but was ‘adopted’ by an Anglo-Indian family after his father committed suicide and had ended up at Forster’s door in need of some help with his Latin before going to study at Oxford. By the time he encountered Masood, Galgut’s Forster was a man whose recent literary success had not translated into a state of personal self-confidence. His clear disinterest in women, mixed with his timid and slightly paralyzed personality, had created a temperament almost entirely unaware of his own sexuality. And as such Forster is bewildered into a further state of inaction by Masood’s smiling irreverence, ‘luxuriant moustache and sad brown eyes’. Forster, caught between desire and fear, is only capable of a truly platonic friendship with the occasional fits of frustrated petulance.

Masood is all too willing to reciprocate the deep and trusting companionship that is at first on offer. To begin with Masood seems unaware of, and then perhaps plays off, the seriousness of Forster’s sexual desire for him. It is only after several weeks in India, some six years after their first meeting, that Forster, the night before going to the Barabar Caves[ii], reveals rather clumsily his true physical interests in Masood. And these advances Masood strenuously and embarrassingly rebuffs. This leaves Forster in a state of unrequited impotent frustration as he views the caves that would be the inspiration for the main incident of his greatest work, A Passage to India (here there is an intimation that Forster’s sexual confusion while viewing the caves is the inspiration for what occurs with Miss Quested in his novel).

Although there is something understandable about Forster’s inhibitions and his fumblings, there is also something about them that remains juvenile and school-boyish. He is of the class of people, as Cyril Connolly said of certain English men, who could ‘never quite lose their adolescence’. And this failure, in part created by his slightly overbearing and judgmental mother, is both subtly and sympathetically handled by Galgut.  Forster is described as a man constantly reaching for a sexual maturity, finding that his ‘lust was both humiliating and boring, but couldn’t easily be quenched – not even by masturbation, rigorously applied.’  This becomes the motivation for his escapades in Egypt, where Forster served during the First World War helping to track down missing servicemen. The first of which is with an unknown soldier on the beach and then with a young tram conductor by the name of Mohammed el-Adl.  But despite what seems like a promising beginning, his sexual relationship with Mohammed amounts to little more than one sexual act, which manages to be something that resembles more an act of prostitution than any act of mature love.

Throughout the novel Forster’s state of emotional frustration is never fully sated. By the end there is only one person with whom he has had anything like an on-going sexual relationship. And even this is only the almost palliative acts he performs with Kanaya (the court barber of the Indian state of Dewas Senior where Forster worked after the war).  Certainly this liaison is one of out and out prostitution, as Kanaya has been ordered to submit by the maharaja and is said by Forster ‘to have the soul of a slave.’  Trying to mimic something like a mature sexual experience Forster ‘always kissed Kanaya, and often stroked and caressed him. Although he found him too willowy to be attractive’.

This relationship in India is purely based on sex and Forster, much like the Damon of first story of In a Strange Room, continues with a helpless desire to reach out physically to a person, in the case of Masood, and a world which remains forbidden, incomprehensible and unyielding. His failure to understand the difference between, what Imraan Coovadia refers to as, ‘homosocial’ and ‘homosexual’  – or in more simple terms the difference between warm friendship and love – is what turns Foster, in Galgut’s hands, into a rather distasteful sexual opportunist.

Of course Arctic Summer is not merely concerned with Forster’s search for sexual liberation or what at times is simply a desperate urge for sexual relief. There is also the strong undercurrent of the colonial problem running through the novel. This too seems to have an almost autobiographical ring to it. Early on an incident, so familiar to a South African register, occurs when Forster’s mother says of Masood: ‘I do hope he won’t steal the spoons.’ To which Forster is reported to laugh politely ‘although he didn’t feel like laughing.’

Forster, in India, is privately shocked by the Raj’s interactions with the local population. No matter how well educated and genteel the British person might be, Forster still observes within them unsettling prejudices. We are told that Foster, at first, suffered a deep discomfort with regards to they way the Indians and the British seemed to consider one another. Of course this is the premise of A Passage to India, but there is something else that Galgut conveys through Forster’s relationships with India. It is something that is both honest and deeply unsettling and goes a little further than what Edward Said wrote about Forster’s novel, that ‘we are left at the end with a sense of the pathetic distance still separating ‘us’ from the Orient’. (O, 244). Instead, as Galgut portrays it, there is always something distinctively disturbing to Forster about India; something childish, exotic, dark and entirely abstruse which is contained in the Indian culture and psyche. This, after all, would inform the central incident in A Passage to India where an ‘echo’, of something ‘not entirely European’, causes Miss Quested to accuse Dr Aziz of sexual assault.

This ‘otherness’ is made palpable in Arctic Summer by both Forster’s actions and thoughts. One such example is when he beats his Indian ‘catamite’ Kanaya later in the novel after an insubordination. Here in particular Foster’s actions, as he understands them, have been generated by something other than his ‘British-self’, that is to say there is something Indian in their genesis. He is described, after he has administered the beating, as ‘somebody that he didn’t recognise.’  It is then noted that ‘[h]e had not struck anyone before and the sensation wasn’t displeasing.’  Elsewhere he notes that the effect that India has had on his ‘white kin’ had created an ‘almost physical difference’.  What is more Foster is not unprejudiced enough not to succumb to other people’s prejudices and when, in Egypt, his landlady complains of Mohammed’s presence he realizes that it is ‘best not’ to bring him to the house again.

Although Galgut’s Forster is, by and large, against the continuation of colonial rule he never quite reaches the Orwellian moment of ‘Shooting an Elephant’ – where Orwell understood unequivocally the implications of his own actions and participation in colonialism. Nor does Forster entirely reject colonialism and he quite often seems happy to have power over native Indians or Egyptians so long as it serves his purposes – as in his relationship with Mohammed and Kanaya. Certainly it is Galgut’s portrayal of what Orwell referred to as the British people’s ‘schizophrenic manner of thinking’ ­– a manner of thinking it should be said closely replicated in South Africa – that is the real emotional centre of the novel and which forms part of Forster’s cognitive dissonance that infects both his social and sexual life.

It would, however, certainly be reductive and facile to suggest that just because the character of Forster is at times prejudiced, hypocritical, even unlikable, that it makes Arctic Summer a bad novel. Certainly one can dislike Forster, even loathe him, for his inability to master at least some of his pathologies and prejudices. What is more his beating of a man who he treats as his sexual slave is deeply disturbing. But this is, as has Vargas Llosa has suggested, fiction’s great strength in that it can convey an understanding of a complete human being: likeable and clever, vulnerable and honest and yet capable of questionable and abhorrent habits and actions.  What is more it should be noted that despite all of these inconsistent actions Forster remains, throughout the novel, entirely psychologically coherent.

Galgut’s Forster is a man whose true sexuality and feelings for justice are compromised by the fact that he can’t entirely throw off the urge to conform to, and at times use to his advantage, his own society’s wishes and demands. Despite many people’s view, particularly in certain South African reading circles[iii], that the novel is a conduit for the expression of uplifting tales of human decency Galgut thankfully has never been under this delusion. Arctic Summer’s strength is its honesty in the portrayal of a man conflicted by his desires and emotions and his affiliation to certain social mores.

However the novel does suffer certain weaknesses.  For one Galgut remains almost too true to the biography. The endless encounters with historically accurate characters[iv] becomes a hindrance to the novel’s flow. Too often the rhythm of reading is stunted by the fact that one is uncertain of the importance of a new character and whether one needs to remember them or know more about them in order to understand their significance to the story. His meetings with Kenneth Searight, Cavafy, Edward Carpenter – perhaps even D.H. Lawrence – are important to the text, the inclusion of an incident with Henry James is less so. And the almost endless others become a distinct distraction.

It is here where Galgut seems to confuse the form of biography and fiction. As Peter Lemarque has suggested, with regards the fabrication of fictional characters, novels are literary creations, which we are meant to engage with imaginatively. This engagement is something quite different from how we engage with the quasi-factual focus of non-fiction[v]. At times Galgut seems to forget entirely that he is creating a fiction and instead starts the retelling of a life based on primary and secondary evidence.  But as Lemarque has put it, fictional characters originate ‘in a narrative of a certain kind’ that is quite distinct from biography.

As such the people around the Forster of Arctic Summer need not be fully developed characters in themselves, instead they are merely there to, in the words of Vladimir Propp, ‘disturb the peace’. That is to say they act as motivation and reasons for the main character(s) to act and are only there at the author’s service to reveal certain pathologies and actions within the protagonists.  Certainly this is something that Galgut understands well with characters like Kanaya, Mohammed and Searight but the constant incursions of characters that form part of the minutia of Forster’s everyday life break the fiction rather than add to it.

Friends from Cambridge, friends of Forster’s mother, passengers on board the ship, people both Indian and British in India – although many of them are clearly the husks for certain characters in A Passage to India – so clog up the early chapters of the novel as to make it hard and confusing reading for those unfamiliar with Forster’s life. Much easier is the period when Forster worked in Egypt during the World War I, where his fraught affair with Mohammed so fills the pages as to make any other characters unnecessary.

Another issue with the text is that it seems to be caught in a tensile struggle between Galgut’s usual starkly penetrative style and Forster’s own more florid Edwardian indulgences.

He had brought gifts for his mother, mostly bolts of expensive and gorgeous cloth, which on his first morning he laid out in the dinning room amidst the burning sticks of incense.

Seems at odds with the beginning of the next paragraph which starts:

He felt lost for a while. The old rituals and habits were insufficient.

And too much of the former stylistic embellishments when mixed with the latter’s more direct, at times simple monosyllabic, prose leaves one with the feeling that one is in a car that is just about to seize.

Furthermore this feeling that there is a contrariety within the text is amplified by the use of both Edwardian euphemisms and a more contemporary openness of language and words.  Words like ‘minorite’ for homosexual, although it might be in keeping with Forster’s furtive and closeted personality, is peculiar considering the use of more direct words like ‘masturbation’ (although at times it is referred to as his ‘dirty trick’) and the open and lengthy descriptions of sexual encounters.

This dichotomy of styles and attitudes, which is partly understandable as the result of the novel’s depiction of Foster’s epoch, is something that needed a finer tuning. A decision should have been taken; either the novel is one that allowed for open honest sexual descriptions and words, or it is one where the style and language refused this freedom. The presence of both these strategies reveals Forster’s authorial interference in Galgut’s project – one that should have either been eliminated or embraced.

Certainly Damon Galgut is one of South Africa’s most talented writers – The Good Doctor and In a Strange Room showed us that. But like The Imposter, Arctic Summer, despite its voluminous research and its clear and coherent handling of character, is a book that is not quite finished and whose rhythm and cadences are out of sync. This is unusual for Galgut whose style normally contains a perfect crystalline stillness – a style that is greatly at odds with Forster’s. The fictional craft within Arctic Summer of the Aristotelian coherence or what ‘could have happened’ (what Coleridge called ‘the suspension of disbelief’) is there but what it lacks is that other of Aristotle’s concerns in Poetics, the rhythm and the harmony.

[i] Here I am referring to several novels that I have reviewed over the last few years including Joonie by Ryda Jacobs, The Year of the Gherkin by John Dobson and Rosemund Handler’s Us and Them. All of these contained characters who became progressively inconsistent to the point that the fiction was no longer believable.

[ii] The analogue for the Marabar Caves of A Passage to India

[iii] I recently had a rather long and depressing discussion while I was at a wedding sitting next to one of South Africa’s biggest publishers of literary fiction. She said to me: ‘people in South Africa just don’t want it. It is not that they don’t read but they just don’t like literary fiction because they don’t like books that seem negative and depressing.’ She quite earnestly and honestly stated that they were now more interested in unearthing and publishing ‘chick lit’.

[iv] By less than halfway through the novel one has been introduced to 28 characters, after this I stopped counting.

[v] Although as we have noted above, Vargas Llosa suggested even non-fiction can and does resort to fictionalization.



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