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Leader Post: An Interview With Damon Galgut

Date: Aug 30 2014

You know you're venturing into difficult waters with your latest novel. That's because you want to create a compelling work of fiction about the elusive, often indefinable processes involved in the act of writing itself.


Yet, this was Booker nominated novelist Damon Galgut's goal. And before he was done, it had immersed him in one of the 20th Century's most tantalizing literary mysteries.


Arctic Summer, published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, is haunted by the ghost of E.M. Forster, a literary giant whom Galgut reveres and whose own creative agonies provided the portal through which Galgut's book could take shape. And it did take a toll on its South African-born author.


"It offered me perhaps the most interesting book I've ever written and possibly that I'll ever write," Galgut says. "But I'm not sure I'd attempt a project like this again."


Edward Morgan Forster continues to be read today, with outstanding film versions of Howard's End and A Passage To India bringing him an even wider audience. Yet, Forster only published five novels within a life span of 91 years. A sixth novel, the gay-oriented Maurice, did not appear until after his death in 1970 and it had been written decades before.


So why these long silences? Were they due to crises in Forster's inner life? Was he drying up creatively? And how much of this had to do with the fact he was a shy and timid homosexual who remained a virgin until he was 37?


Galgut was especially intrigued by the 14-year gap between the 1910 publication of Howard's End, which established Forster as a major literary figure, and the 1924 arrival of A Passage To India, a modern masterpiece. Why did it take Forster so long to finish what is widely considered to be one of the greatest novels of the last century?


"It was clear that he was struggling," Galgut says. "It's unusual for a book to be bogged down for so very long." The 50-year-old author's research shows there was a nine-year-period when Forster was simply unable to get on with A Passage To India. "It's that block that I find most interesting."


When Arctic Summer, with a supporting cast that includes such familiar names as Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, was published in Britain in March, the Daily Telegraph hailed Galgut for his skill in conveying "the pain of unequal love and the desolating gulf between desire and fulfilment." For Galgut, much of the truth lies in aspects of Forster's troubled sexuality; the failure of this psychologically-repressed man to come to terms with who he really was, his private struggles between the carnal and the emotional and most of all his unrequited love for a former student who became Forster's closest friend but never the lover he yearned for.


Galgut published his first novel at the age of 17 and has twice been nominated for the Man Booker prize. But this new book is a departure - beginning with the fact that it has no connection to his homeland. "One of its attractions is that the words 'South Africa' don't occur," he says by phone from his home in Cape Town. "But it's also a departure in the sense that I think I've managed to give it a fullness of voice that my other books don't have."


His natural tendency as a writer is to offer the kind of lean stripped-down prose present in the Booker-nominated In A Strange Room and The Good Doctor. "But working here, trying to create some echo of Forster's voice behind my own, I had to give it a much fuller tone and fill it up with irony, a certain amount of humour, a particularly wry attitude toward life.


"All this was new for me and kind of anxiety-provoking."


The centrepiece of Forster's novel A Passage To India is the mysterious incident in the Marabar caves and English school mistress Adela Quested's claim to have been sexually assaulted there.


Galgut now believes the caves episode stopped the writing of the novel in its tracks and kept Forster in a holding pattern for more than a decade.