“Arctic Summer” by Damon Galgut— A Fictionalized Biography of E.M. Forster

arctic summer

Galgut, Damon. “Arctic Summer”, Europa Editions, 2014.

A Fictionalized Biography of E.M. Forster

Amos Lassen

“Arctic Summer” focuses on the many years that Forster spent in India as well as the process he used to write, “A Passage to India”. It also goes back in time to look at Forster’s childhood and his fear and repression of his sexuality. We get a look at some of his relationships which author Damon Galgut gives us with style and compassion.

“Arctic Summer” is actually the name of an incomplete novel written by E.M. Forster in 1912/13 and later published in 2003– Galgut borrows the title for his novel about the author. As soon as we begin reading, we realize that much of this novel is about Forster’s tormented homosexuality— hw realized that he had homosexual feelings and how he was such an inhibited and proper Englishman who depended on his mother and how his feelings for other men were sometimes filled with lust and sometimes filled with love. We learn about loving relationships that went unconsummated (Cambridge friend, Hugh Owen Meredith and continued with young Indian, Syed Ross Masood whom he was to coach in Latin for his entrance exams to Oxford. When Masood returned to India, Forster went to visit him there, and this novel begins on shipboard during that journey in 1912.

This is a read filled with emotion and is universal. So many of us have experienced similar feelings to what we read here. For me, I felt at times that I was reading my own story. The story basically takes place sometime between 1910 and 1924, between the publication of “Howard’s End” and “A Passage to India”. Morgan (the name that Forster is called) has

fallen in love with Syed Ross Masood and experiences first hand the strained racial relations and the way imperialism was transforming at that time. The two men met in England when Morgan was tutoring Masood and the two became close friends. Masood stopped Morgan’s advances so the two were never lovers. Morgan returns to England and lives with his mother who is both enemy and friend. With the war, Morgan goes to Egypt and meets the second great love of his life Mohammed. Writer Galgut carefully reconstructs these relationships which are indeed tentative and shows Morgan’s suppressed sexuality of Morgan and the complexity of racial politics.  We must remember that what we read here is speculation and not fact. The events and emotions of this book prepare us for reading Forster’s writing which was published after his death.

Galgut shows how an intensely intimate relationship can transform over time to something distant and unknown. What was once burning passion, there is later just ashes. We get an excellent look at how Morgan felt about himself and other people. He was sociable, well liked and distant. He seemed to want to hide himself from others. Even when he was with others, he remained alone.

Galgut writes about the characteristics of being proper, not expressing intense emotion and being locked in a class system and these show us how Morgan felt so removed from others. Although it’s a culture he was raised in he doesn’t feel it’s inherent to him. His encounters with men from other cultures tended to be more expressive and forthright with emotion—he allowed his own true personality to emerge.

Morgan’s sense of isolation also had a lot to do with his sexuality. He had to hide his attraction to men as a necessity as he was very aware of Oscar Wilde’s persecution and he was afraid of being scorned by his mother and the people close to him. Some of his similarly closeted companions speak of this desire with carefully modulated language, but it can never be fully acknowledged. Even though Morgan was in his thirties when the novel begins he’s never had a full sexual experience. His tentative approach to initiating sexual contact is masterfully handled by Galgut and when he finally did experience sensual relations it is described sensitively. Even if some people close to Morgan accepted his sexuality it could never be publicly acknowledged and this also added to Morgan’s feelings that no one knows his true self. When Morgan lost a man he loved he was unable to acknowledge how he really felt. Since his love for a man was never publicly declared he had to suppress grief. This pushed him even further inside himself, guarding his emotions and transforming them into the art of writing.

 Galgut explores is the way Morgan didn’t really feel like a writer. He didn’t take his writing entirely seriously and was a bit bemused when his novels begin to be received so well. Morgan did not feel that novels are entirely suitable for encapsulating reality and although he was highly aware of the shortcomings of literature it’s something he continuously returned to. It is as if Galgut is proposing in this novel that Morgan does so because he had no other outlet for expressing how he truly felt.

 Galgut has a strong voice and the homosexual love and aspect of it is not in hush tones and at the same time it does not jump at you from the pages. Galgut brings us life of E.M. Forster with brilliance and knack. The writing is subtle, emotional (well not too much) and also overwhelming to a large extent. “Arctic Summer” is one of those unconventional books that deserves and will merit a reread.