Review: Arctic Summer

Arctic summer

Review: Karina Magdalena Szczurek

The publication of every new book by Damon Galgut is a literary event par excellence. Two of his latest three novels were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He is the recipient of many other accolades, including the local CNA Prize for The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book from the Africa Region for The Good Doctor (2003). Galgut’s beautifully supple prose, his mastery of narrative forms, and his feel for characterisation always offer a rewarding literary experience.Arctic Summeris no different.

Like Galgut’s last novel, In a Strange Room (2010), Arctic Summer is partly set in India. Galgut’s descriptions of the places his astutely drawn characters traverse are as always a feast for all senses. In many other respects, however, it is a great departure from Galgut’s previous work. Evoking the early life of the British novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970), Arctic Summer is a biographical novel, focused on its protagonist’s travels to India and Egypt as well ashis relationship with his mother and with the few men who stirred his love and desire.

It is the time after Oscar Wilde’s trial and exercising caution in the display of one’s sexual longings is paramount to one’s survival. For most of the novel, Morgan’s yearnings remain unfulfilled. The struggle to articulate what is one of the greatest taboos of his time and to put his desire into practice – whether in life or his work – takes centre stage in the novel.

Arctic Summer opens in 1912 with Morgan on board a ship heading for India where he intends tovisit Syed Ross Masood, a young Muslim man to whom he had been a tutor in England.The two men developed a deep, yetoften unsatisfying, relationship, which is clouded by Morgan’s love for Masood and his heterosexual friend’s inability to respond to his unwanted advances.The trip unfolds in unexpected ways. But it is Masood and the stay in his native country that eventually will inspire Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India (1924).

It is only in Egypt during the First World War when Morgan volunteers to work for the Red Cross that,at the age of thirty-seven,he is seduced by a recuperating soldier. Then he meets and falls in love with Mohammedel-Adl, a tram conductor, who despite being also heterosexual and later happily married, allows Morgan certain sexual liberties and appears to share his affections.

During Morgan’s later sojourn in India he becomes embroiled in a relationshipwith Kanaya, a barber at the court of the Maharajah Bapu Sahib to whom Morgan becomes Private Secretary. Devoid of feelings which he so desperately craves and blackmailed by Kanaya, Morgan feels lonelier than ever.

Galgut brilliantly describes not only the precarious situation in which gays, or “minorities” in Morgan’s terminology, found themselves at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also the pitfalls of power relations across race and class that accompany Morgan’s ventures into the land of mostly unreciprocated love. The subtlety with which Galgutimagines the shifts in Morgan’s psyche and the wayhis discoveries impact on his work, especially A Passage to India, the posthumously published Maurice and the unfinished Arctic Summer from which Galgut’s own title derives, is remarkable.

Even though with this novel Galgutenters the well-established fieldof fictional author biographies (locally, MichielHeyns’sThe Typewriter’s Taleor J.M. Coetzee’s Foespring to mind), there is a great risk with imagining the lives of real people, especially well-known historical figures. Reading Arctic Summer, I often had the feeling that it is a novel where it should have been a biography and a biography where it should have been an autobiography. It is specifically Galgut’s dedication of his novel which echoes Forster’s original dedication of A Passage to Indiato Masoodthat makes one question the real inspiration and background of Arctic Summer. The parallel suggests that at least some of the emotional and psychological texture which Galgut ascribes to Forster’s and Masood’srelationship in Arctic Summer might have an autobiographical source.

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Damon Galgut

Judging from the acknowledgements, Galgut’s research into E.M. Forster’s life must have been extensive. But like most readers, I’m neither a Galgut nor a Forster scholar, so it is impossible for me to judge where and to what extent the lines between Forster’s life andGalgut’simagination and own experiences blur. Even more difficult is to define why such “untidy borders”, in the words of critic Ellen Rees, trigger occasional twinges of unease when reading the novel.

And yet, there is no doubt that this meticulously crafted book is a tribute to an intriguing man and his work.A deeply felt, melancholic novel which charts the subliminal links between creativity and desire and brings to life a fascinating literary figure, it is another bright feather in Galgut’s literary cap.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2014

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