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The SF Chronicle: ““Arctic Summer” will take you deeper into the work of two powerful novelists, both of whom reveal a great deal.”

Date: Mar 27 2015

“Have you any idea,” John Cleese asks Jamie Lee Curtis in “A Fish Called Wanda,” “what it’s like being English?” He laments the rigidity, the inevitable embarrassment, the threat inherent in opening one’s mouth to reveal something authentic. Cleese plays his anguish for comedy, an absurd plea to be rescued by this vivacious American, but the tragic burden of his conflict is unmistakable.

Damon Galgut is South African, and his novel “Arctic Summer” employs the life of the English novelist E.M. Forster to plumb twin oppressive anxieties: “what it’s like being English” and what it’s like being a writer. In turn, each of these is a camouflaging layer before another issue can be explored: what it’s like being gay. Forster wrote, among others, “Howards End” and “A Room With a View,” novels that grapple with that essential quandary of Englishness: how to be real. Galgut, pushing further, wants to investigate all of Forster’s grappling.

When the novel opens in 1912, Forster, known to his friends as Morgan, is on a boat to India, surrounded by the English who fascinate and repel him with their narrow-minded class distinctions and racism. Already a published author of some success, he’s ambivalent about his profession: “[T]he idea of being a writer felt like an ill-fitting suit on him, which he kept trying to shrug into, or out of.” He is on his way to see his Indian friend Masood. He’s in love with Masood, but Galgut doesn’t make this explicit at first, and this sort of restrained muffling serves the novel beautifully, ebbing and flowing, as its protagonist struggles with his burdens of “ill-fitting” false selves.

In writing a novel titled the same as Forster’s final, unfinished work, Galgut pulls off the neat trick of trying on another writer with precision. Galgut is an absolute master of vivid, direct prose. In “The Good Doctor” and “In a Strange Room,” both candidates for the Man Booker Prize, he shows a genius for forceful interior intimacy. Now, self-consciously, he adopts for “Arctic Summer” an outmoded literary formality of dependent clauses and passive construction in an attempt to channel Forster, whose letters and diaries served as a foundation for Galgut.

Our modern novelist manages to imitate, echo and renew the writer of a distant age, the quiet man who “only knew that he wanted to be happy, but wasn’t.” Yet Galgut has been preoccupied with these themes all along: Galgut loves the disconnected man, the man who struggles to place himself in an inhospitable landscape, who is caught between his exploration and his loneliness.

Forster’s was an age of hiding, the age of not confessing anything, sometimes not even to oneself. He understood he was attracted to men but had almost no one to whom he could reveal the knowledge, and certainly nowhere to act upon the desires. For most of his life he lived with his mother, and, although he traveled widely and had good friends, his erotic life was beset by false starts, fear and unrequited longing, bound inevitably by the provincialism of his society. He didn’t have a sexual encounter until age 37.
But he wrote. “There was a whole aspect of his character that was an unmentioned half-brother to his civilised side: drunk and disorderly and primitive. ... He even wrote a scene for this side of himself in which he capered, naked and goat-like, through a landscape that accepted him utterly. Then thought better of it later and struck out the pages.”

With this last sentence, as he imagines Forster’s process, Galgut displays such sensitivity to the threat of betraying the self. He is, throughout “Arctic Summer,” exceptionally good at capturing the push and uncertainties of writing, the tiny triumphs and the plaguing setbacks, which he weaves together with the parallel struggle of sexuality.

“Writing,” Forster knows, “revealed one to oneself, of course, more damningly than any confession.” “Arctic Summer” will take you deeper into the work of two powerful novelists, both of whom reveal a great deal.

Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of “She Matters: A Life in Friendships.”