E.M. Forster in India
A master novelist recreates the formative years of E.M. Forster
Mar 1st 2014 | From the print edition
THERE have been several biographies of E.M. Forster, one of the most delicate British novelists of the 20th century. He was a middle-class intellectual, a peripheral member of the Bloomsbury group, an honorary Cambridge fellow and a spinsterish bachelor. He was awarded the prestigious Order of Merit (there are only 24 at any one time), but his public life shrouded his secret homosexuality and, with it, a longing for the exotic East. In “Arctic Summer” Damon Galgut, an openly gay South African novelist, has fictionalised Forster’s most fruitful period as a writer and his years of sexual discovery.
Mr Galgut’s Forster tells the story of his own life, tracing the arc of a journey that began with a first visit to India when he was an impressionable 33-year-old in 1912 and ended when he finished his masterpiece, “A Passage to India”, just over a decade later. “It was an ongoing vexation that his true subject was buried somewhere out of reach, and could perhaps never be spoken aloud,” Forster says of himself. With wisdom and sentience Mr Galgut has managed to craft a version of Forster that penetrates his inner life better than any conventional biography ever has.
“Arctic Summer”, which is framed around the men Forster encounters, places his homosexuality front and centre. There are memorable cameos of liberal “minorites” in England, as Forster himself called gay men (a tempestuous D.H. Lawrence was one), and lingering portraits of friendships with younger, beautiful men abroad. During the first world war Forster (not built for soldiering) was posted to Alexandria as a researcher for the Red Cross. There he had his first physical romance—with a young Muslim tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl. Mr Galgut (pictured) delicately weaves into his account of this relationship Forster’s belief in humanism—why did the social mores of the time mean he should not love a lowly Egyptian Muslim?
But it is the Indian sections of this novel that really dazzle. Syed Ross Masood, a debonair Indian Muslim to whom Forster had taught Latin in England, was the object of his unrequited love and became central to his Indian experience. In the book Masood tells Forster that he sees in him an “Oriental sensibility”. Forster, meanwhile, is clearly rapt by Masood’s elaborate and overwrought style, which he feels speaks to his true self.
Forster’s affection for India was coupled with a quiet distaste for colonial Britons. These feelings pervade “A Passage to India”, a novel about racial divides which turns on an accusation by an English woman that her Indian guide attacked her in a cave. Forster liked to sketch his novels from life, his characters being made up of aspects of different people he met. The incident in “A Passage to India”, based on a visit to the famous Barabar caves, is recast with the same mood by Mr Galgut.
Forster managed to finish the novel only after he left India, following a second sojourn there. Like others before and since, shedding the clarity and order of his English life enabled him to embrace India’s mysticism more fully. In India, Mr Galgut has Forster say: “Things were not rounded off and resolved; rather, they expanded outwards, perhaps for ever.”
Forster turned to writing to help solve his personal problems, yet he came to see that not everything in life had to make sense. He was an intriguing and complex man. With insight and seemingly effortless fluidity, Mr Galgut has written a beautiful, and at times funny, novel that movingly captures the duality of one of Britain’s most thoughtful authors.