Has any major novelist had a career as lopsided as E. M. Forster’s? Between 1905 and 1910, the year that his masterful study of manners “Howards End” became a best-seller, Forster—who was known to friends as Morgan—produced four highly successful novels and was acclaimed as one of the brightest young literary lights in Britain. He seemed completely in command of his milieu, middle- and upper-middle-class England at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he gently picked apart its sympathies with wit and penetrating insight. Yet by the following year, when he was all of thirty-two years old, he confessed to his diary frustration with his work and a growing sense of impotence. He had grown weary of “the only subject I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa,” and found that he couldn’t write his way out of his unease. He started but abandoned a novel, “Arctic Summer,” about a suitor who commits suicide over a scandalous love affair, and wrote another, “Maurice,” whose frank treatment of a homosexual relationship impelled him to withhold publication until after his death, in 1970.
It was not until fourteen years later, in 1924, that Forster published another novel, one he’d worked on in fits and starts and revised again and again in the course of the difficult decade. In “A Passage to India,” whose title is borrowed from Whitman, a British schoolmistress’s unsettling encounter with an Indian doctor sparks a criminal case that lays bare the gap between the English imagination and colonial realities. It was Forster’s final novel, his greatest study of the ambiguities of intimacy—and, given its difficult birth, a minor miracle.
Forster’s biographers have long been interested in his long period of novelistic silence and its unexpected climax. He suffered from a sense of isolation, living with his mother until her death in 1945, when Forster was sixty-six, and he sought relief through travel and through friendships that often involved unrequited romantic feelings. He first went to India early in the nineteen-tens, journeying there to see one of his love objects, a suave but fickle lawyer named Syed Ross Masood, whom he’d once tutored in Latin during Masood’s English school days. (“A Passage to India” was dedicated to Masood, even though he’d disappointed Forster, not for the first time, by failing to point out that he’d bungled technical details about India’s legal system.)
It wasn’t until Forster travelled to Alexandria, where he spent time interviewing the wounded during the First World War, that he lost his virginity and entered into his first long-term relationship with another man, a trolley conductor named Mohammed el-Adl. It was the affectionate and intense relationship that the novelist had yearned for, and despite their differences in background the two men remained in close contact even after Forster left Egypt and el-Adl settled down with a wife and a child. When el-Adl died of tuberculosis in 1922, Forster’s grief was severe, though its source was known only to a few. Passing him on the street in March of that year, Virginia Woolf described him as “depressed to the verge of inanition. To come back to Weybridge, to come back to an ugly house a mile from the station, an old fussy exacting mother … without a novel, & with no power to write one—this is dismal, I expect, at the age of 43. The middle age of buggers is not to be contemplated without horror.”
This period in Forster’s life—which will be familiar to anyone who has read his biography—now forms the basis of a novel by the South African writer Damon Galgut, who has borrowed the title of Forster’s aborted work, “Arctic Summer,” for his own fictional account of the author’s struggle to write “A Passage to India.” It was a dismally trying time, although Forster is far from the beaten-down hack Woolf depicts. (Years ago, the critic John Sutherland wryly observed that, despite her judgment, it was she and not Morgan who chose suicide.) Galgut’s Morgan is a sensitive and funny Englishman abroad, who is willing to let his own beliefs be tested and amended. Forster liked to speak of himself as an anachronism, the sole survivor of—to use one of his favorite words—a “civilization” that was already disappearing by the time he immortalized it in the first decade of the twentieth century. In his fictional treatment, Galgut shows the toll that view took on Forster’s output—and how, paradoxically, it was in fleeing his life as a novelist in England that Forster came to grips with both his desires and the realities of colonial rule, and solved the riddle that had stumped him in his work on “A Passage to India.”
But can a novel about Forster give us more insight into the writer’s process than his biographers—from P. N. Furbank to Wendy Moffat—already have? There’s been a trend, in recent years, of novels based on the biographies of novelists. If some readers might recoil from the genre, the success of writers such as Colm Tóibín (who novelized the life of Henry James) and David Lodge (who also wrote a fictional account of James, as well as of H. G. Wells) suggest that a fictionalized life can revivify even the most heavily biographized writers—or at least those from the turn of the nineteenth century. One key to such novels’ appeal might be that writers like James lived in a time period just on the other side of Pound and Eliot and Joyce (and Faulkner and Stein); they are near enough to admire, but distant enough to be fodder for fiction. What is surprising is just how well they actually do provide the stuff of a novel. As Galgut’s book shows, the constraints on form when a novelist is obliged to be true to life can be weirdly liberating.
Take the ugly event that occurred during Forster’s second extended trip to India, when he served as a secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas Senior, a small princely state in the colonial subcontinent, whom he called Bapu Sahib. Arriving in 1921, lonely and desperate, Morgan began a sexual relationship with a barber named Kanaya. The romance was encouraged by the eccentric Maharajah himself, who disapproved of homosexuality but hated to see the writer unhappy. Yet he reminded Forster that Kayana was an inferior and must be treated that way. When the barber started to boast in public about their relationship and attempted to use it to advance his position in the court, Bapu Sahib advised Forster to beat his lover—violence, he argued, was the only form of communication subalterns could understand—and Forster obediently did so. He even made sure to wear English clothes for the occasion.
So much for the sloganeering Edwardian of “only connect.” In much of “Arctic Summer,” Galgut’s Forster is a sexual naïf plaintively pursuing affection, but he discovered in Dewas a cultural disconnect that is shocking to see on the page. In “A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster” (2010), the biography that made a powerful case that homosexuality was formative for Forster, Wendy Moffat relates the beating episode but exonerates Forster: his experience of his own savagery, she argues, became an opportunity to reflect on power, racism, and empire. In Moffat’s telling, Forster had permitted himself to imagine that his partner was incapable of emotion, but immediately corrected himself. Galgut’s Morgan is no less disquieted by the episode, but his reaction is that of a man who is tempted by cruelty before turning it away. Galgut writes: “Although no serious damage was inflicted, the desire was a dark one and it made Morgan unhappy…. It would be easy, he thought, to continue like this: to allow one weakness to unlock the next, so that he toppled slowly headlong into his basest elements. Moral decay, if it increased your power, had its own logic, its own rewards. Once begun, the fall might be hard to arrest.” Galgut’s Morgan finds himself in an all too human, Forsterian muddle.
Galgut has taken a few liberties with Forster’s life in “Arctic Summer.” The most severe is that he almost completely excised Forster’s close friend, confidant, and correspondent Florence Barger, to whom Forster confessed his homosexuality before departing for his first trip to India, in 1912. (The book begins with Morgan crossing the Red Sea aboard the SS City of Birmingham with a trio of louche Cambridge worthies and a colonial army officer well versed in sexual debauchery; women like Barger seem already to have been left behind.) “A Passage to India” is so paramount in Galgut’s mind that Forster’s literary journalism and political advocacy get little play in “Arctic Summer.” But Galgut’s book is most urgent and moving when it burnishes the gems offered up by Forster’s biographers—particularly Moffat, whose heavily researched book provides a portrait of Forster that any subsequent critic or biographer will have to reckon with. In fact, you could say that “Arctic Summer” is the first great flowering of the post-Moffat Forster, an image of the novelist that wouldn’t have been nearly as credible a decade ago. What better homage can a novelist pay to a biographer than that?