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The Rumpus: " He takes a special pleasure in thoroughly and minutely examining, as Proust did, that delicate cusp where sexuality is revealed."

Date: Sep 4 2014

In all honesty, I do not even remember how I came across Damon Galgut’s name. Perhaps it was when The Paris Review published the three novellas that made up In a Strange Room—I am sure I saw his name on the magazine’s cover then. Or maybe it was when I saw a copy of The Good Doctor in a used-book store, with an enigmatic face looking back at me, and bought it without much thought. Had I known how deeply his words would affect me, I would not have been so thoughtless. Damon Galgut almost feels like a secret too good to share with other people—as if giving someone else one of his books would somehow diminish the joy I feel when I take in his finely wrought sentences. “Happy and unhappy, he falls asleep in the end, and dreams about, no, I don’t remember his dreams,” for example. This was the special conceit of In a Strange Room: Galgut was so sure of his control over language that he could shift seamlessly between third and first person, between a distantly remembered Damon Galgut and his own self.


In reading his novels—slowly, I remind myself, because once I finish them all I will have to wait years and years for another book by this author I love so much—it has been a pleasure to trace out particular trajectories or obsessions. He cares very deeply about his homeland of South Africa. He takes a special pleasure in thoroughly and minutely examining, as Proust did, that delicate cusp where sexuality is revealed. And, increasingly, he has been attracted to the idea of traveling, to the experience of new places and the feeling of becoming someone else.


When I first heard that his next book would be a fictional take on E. M. Forster’s time in India and his work on several novels, I paused. Up until then Galgut had written books centering around wholly fictional (if sometimes semi-autobiographical) men in a very recent past. Where did this impulse to imitate history come from? At first, reading the book, I couldn’t make sense of it.


Then, about halfway through Galgut’s latest novel, Arctic Summer, a particular analogy came to mind: historical fiction is to its subject as a dance is to two people crossing on the sidewalk.


Which is not to say that either form of art is false. Rather, in this case, art is an expansion, a refinement, a perfection of what was originally small or impure or chaotic. Even the slight inconsistencies or false notes are intentional; they serve to further underscore the honesty of the piece in full. And in Galgut’s hands, the source material of E. M. Forster’s time in India becomes a fully fleshed-out story that strongly echoes the trajectories of the “Follower” and “Lover” chapters of In a Strange Room. So Arctic Summer is not a departure from, but a continuation of, the passions and interests that Galgut has evinced throughout his oeuvre.


And Arctic Summer sets its narrator in the unheimlich atmosphere so conducive to Galgut’s brilliant insights. “He could never live here, [Forster] thought . . . Of what earthly use were novels? How did they help anybody? No one had actually put the questions to him, but they had let him know, in their tone and their turn of phrase, that they found him not quite pukka.” Over the course of the novel, Morgan Forster (who rarely if ever went by the given name, Edward, that his father hadn’t meant to give him) travels to India, composes “Arctic Summer,” writes Maurice suddenly and furiously, becomes a secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas, and finally turns “Arctic Summer” into A Passage to India. There are trips back to England, and many meetings with other established writers, from C. P. Cavafy in Alexandria to Virginia Woolf in London (and a failed encounter with D. H. Lawrence), but Arctic Summer’s true trajectory is defined by Forster’s relationship to India—a relationship that is mitigated by the men he falls in love with.


“Minorite” is a word that readers will have to accommodate themselves to. It is a word that subtly alludes to Forster’s homosexuality without naming it, but its careful restraint is deeply British. It takes many pages and changes in direction before Morgan Forster can fully realize that he is “left with his longings, which sometimes threatened to undo him.”


These men that he longs for—first a man from Cambridge named Hom, then an emigrant named Masood, then a man in Alexandria named Mohammed—possess more strength and self-awareness than Morgan does. Arctic Summer is a novel of furtive and abortive desires, where cultural mores and personal fears hamper Morgan from fully expressing his “minorite” desires.


It would be easy to trace a storyline of repressed desires finding full expression in the written word. But life is complicated, and Damon Galgut’s keen sensibility guides him toward messy biography rather than neat story. Morgan writes erotic stories, but they offend rather than intrigue the people he nervously shares them with. Then the electric shock of a man’s hand touching his back unlocks such a succession of emotions and thoughts that Morgan ends up abandoning the hard work of “Arctic Summer”—which he will come to see as a stilted perspective on India—and writing Maurice in a blaze of passion. Even then, true to life, the act of writing does not wholly sublimate these urges. They only spur him forward, toward a greater consciousness of himself, his needs, and his ability to accommodate those to the era in which he lives.


Because Galgut hews to Forster’s diaries and notebooks—to reality and not to the convenience of stylization and choreography—the book sags at moments. “At the start of 1915, his spirits were briefly lifted by a new acquaintanceship” is an all-too-frequent sort of sentence that struggles to intrigue readers; much more successful, although equally as distant, is “He had brought his Indian novel with him, and every now and then he would take it out and pick over it, moving a few stray words around.”


Galgut’s decision to locate in a historical subject the particular themes that he cherishes is mirrored in his descriptions of Morgan’s writing process. As Morgan sits down to finally rewrite and finish A Passage to India, he worries at first that “Fiction was too artificial and self-conscious . . . ever to convey anything real.” But Galgut’s beautiful writing carefully traces an arc within a single sentence from the real world into the realm of Morgan’s thoughts:


The words gradually became his again. Fire did spark occasionally between the bits of dead coal. He had bought an ornamental toy in India, a little wooden bird, green with patches of red on its wings and sticklike yellow legs, which he set up on the edge of his writing desk, and it looked impartially on as he struggled with himself . . .


Galgut’s writing is strongest as he delves into Morgan’s thoughts, as he creates parallels that perhaps were not quite so neat in reality. He does this sparingly but brilliantly; this is the dexterous manipulation that, in my mind, drew a comparison to choreographed dance and everyday movement. For, in the end, what is art if it does not instill within us a greater appreciation, whether for its subject, for its author’s interests, or for the world around us?