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Book Review: Arctic Summer

By (May 17, 2014) No Comment

High Arcticarctic summer cover

by Damon Galgut

Europa Editions, 2014


South African author Damon Galgut has been writing novels for thirty years, but he first reached a substantial international audience in 2003 with his novel The Good Doctor, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize. His 2010 novel In a Strange Room was likewise shortlisted, firmly establishing him on the world stage of literature.

It’s a bit unclear where his latest book, Arctic Summer, newly issued from Europa Editions, fits on that literary timeline. It has none of the pointed modernism of In a Strange Room, and it has none of the worldly sadness of The Good Doctor. In fact it feels like an entirely earlier work rather than a new release. And that isn’t the limit of its strangeness.

The novel tells the story of the trip E. M. Forster took to India in 1912 in order to visit his friend and objet du desir Syed Masood, so although Galgut gives his book the same title as Forster’s aborted 1912 novel, the work consciously evoked in these pages is of course Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India. It’s self-evidently rich material for a novelist, and that’s where the added strangeness of Galgut’s Arctic Summer comes in, not only because so much of this material was used by a novelist – Forster – but also because it’s been eloquently dramatized in more recent times, forty years ago, when P. N. Furbank published his definitive biography of Forster and covered this same period in a masterful chapter called “Adrift in India,” in which he displays all the power and insight that made his book one of the great 20th century literary biographies, fit to stand alongside Ellman’s Joyce or Edel’s James. This is Furbank on Forster in India:

Forster came in a very different spirit: less political, more tentative, more exploratory. He had been drawn there by friendship and imagination, and he was ready for whatever the country might offer, with no very fixed idea as to what this might be. He kept an open mind, for instance, as to whether the spectacle of poverty in India would distress him intolerably. And, as things turned out, it did not do – for which he was grateful, since (so he put it himself) what he wanted was to get to know Indians, not to think about them as a problem. Coming in this mood, he quickly found himself at home in India and led the life he led anywhere, a life of mild human contacts and awakened imagination. To stake so much as he did on private life and private virtues won its reward; by means of his courtesy, his inconspicuousness, his desire to be liked, and his willingness to be bored, he did, as we shall wee, break, or slip, through national barriers with remarkable success. He was a kind of Englishman unfamiliar to Indians, and they greatly appreciated him.

Galgut’s novel virtually never strays from Furbank’s biography in its details. A reader encountering a passage like this would be hard-pressed to tell which author it came from:

That evening, Morgan managed to lose his collar stud and was ten minutes late for dinner. He imagined that everything would have continued without him, but only when he arrived did the band strike up “The Roast Beef of Old England” and the evening properly begin.

This is not to denigrate Galgut but to praise Furbank, who was a friend of Forster’s and took pains to infuse his biography with a great deal of literary merit. Galgut’s book possesses a great deal of literary merit as well – it’s not the “literary masterpiece” its publisher is so stoutly claiming, but it’s a solid, often lovely bit of Forsterian pastiche, dutifully laden with inside jokes and adumbration, as when Masood assures Forster (called “Morgan” in this book, as he was in life) that “You don’t realise it, but you have an Oriental sensibility. That is why the book you’ll write will be unique. It will be written in English, it will seem to be from English eyes, but its secret view will be from inside.”

But the most remarkable thing about Galgut’s Arctic Summer is how faithful it is to Forster’s biography, mainly deviating in order to include the more salacious bits Forster was unlikely to mention in the letters he wrote home to his mother:

It had become part of his daily routine to take a drive, once the heat of the day had gone, to a quiet garden about two miles away, where he could sit under enormous trees at the end of a cistern to think … On this particular afternoon his thoughts had all been physical in nature, a performance in his mind of what he couldn’t accomplish with his body, and by the time he climbed back into the carriage for the drive home he had worked himself up into a feverish state. The bleached, bare landscape was like a thin sail, stretched to its limit by an unseen wind. Morgan’s arm lay extended across the top of the seat, and the idea came to him that the sais was about the touch his hand. They were close to each other; they both contained the same idea; only an inch divided them. The notion of the tiny gap closing, of the touch that was about to happen, was too much, and the stretched sail tore and broke. With a little cry, quickly stifled, Morgan ejaculated in his trousers, a visible embarrassment he had to conceal when he climbed down.

Such moments are comparatively rare; far more often, the novel’s curiously timid approach to its own novelhood renders it a mildly inert reading experience. “He had been given a glimpse of other Morgans that he might have been,” we’re told, “and then they were whisked away again.” But there’s precious little whisking going on here – instead, there’s a fairly dutiful plod through Furbank and the relevant Forster correspondence. He eats what we know he ate; he sight-sees where we know he sight-saw; he tortures his own lusting heart with the homoerotic musk of the Indian demimonde in just the ways he he himself confessed that he did – and to as little effect.

“The thinnest of veils seemed to separate his own life, as it was now, from this alternative vision of how to approach everything,” Galgut writes, “There was no reason why he should not lift the veil aside.” But in the end, in this Arctic Summer, reasons are found – and reason prevails. The result is a novel that can very profitably be read alongside Furbank’s Forster biography and Forster’s own A Passage to India but that must strike any reader as a very odd thing if read independent of its two great templates – like listening to a ventriloquist’s dummy attempting a Verdi aria.