It is sometimes tempting to speculate about a future in which literary fiction becomes an entirely secondary activity: it will consist only of lightly fictionalised biographical novels by living novelists about dead ones. There’s certainly a lot of it about. It seemed to peak a few years ago, but still they come. The latest is Damon Galgut channelling EM Forster in his new novel Arctic Summer.
These novels are generally accorded a respectful reception – one fine writer on another will surely be doubly literary. But it’s worth considering that the effect might just as easily be not of concentration but of dilution. The question niggles: what are these books actually for? Are they acts of homage or appropriation? What does a novelist gain by being shackled to fact? Are they seeking – with a mixture of biographical fact and imaginative interpolation – to explain the “inspiration” behind the prior writer’s work? That, a fool’s errand for an academic, is an oddly reductive project for a writer of fiction.
Arctic Summer takes its title from an unfinished novel by Forster, and describes the long arc of Forster’s life between his first visit to India in 1912 and the publication of A Passage to India in 1924. The movement of the book is the development of Forster’s sexual self-knowledge through two great romantic friendships – with Indian nobleman Syed Ross Masood, eventual dedicatee of A Passage To India, and with an Egyptian tram conductor called Mohammed el-Adl. There are cameos from Constantine Cavafy and DH Lawrence (both of them cherishably awful), incidentally, as well as Virginia Woolf with her “long, lantern-shaped face”.
When we meet him Forster is virginal, mother-bothered, aware of his homosexuality (he thinks of himself a “minorite”) and tormented by thwarted longings for both sex and love. There’s a lot of Morgan not getting laid. And then there’s a bit of the opposite. In the course of the novel he comes to terms with himself – and experiences the complex waxing and waning, the renegotiation of love and sex in his relationships. Intertwined, as they are in Forster’s masterpiece, are equally complex feelings about civilisation and barbarism – and about the relationship between those on either side of imperialist rule:
“It was only now, he realised, that some form of equality had really opened up between them. They had only been playing at it before, shouting across a gulf that there was no gulf between them. But now he had begun to experience the Egyptian world through the skin of his friend, and it didn’t resemble the one he lived in. Distantly, imperfectly, he thought he grasped a little of how it might feel to be an Egyptian working under English control, and the flashes of humiliation and anger it might involve.”
Arctic Summer takes a while to get going. There’s a slightly paint-by-numbers quality (a corollary of Galgut’s intense fidelity to biographical fact) to the itinerary of Forster’s first Indian tour – and when Forster visits the Barabar caves the reader slightly groans. The scene can’t but feel overburdened with what we already know – the echoing mystery at the centre of Forster’s novel somewhat banalised by being re-presented as fictionalised biography.
The idea of being overburdened with what we already know is one of the prime pitfalls of this sort of exercise, and it occasionally slips through in Galgut’s prose. The third-person narration consistently adopts Forster’s point of view – until suddenly it leads to us knowing something that Morgan cannot: “Over the past three months India had already violently rearranged his life, but it wasn’t done with him yet; not by a long way.” “Morgan would never see her again in his life.” “Egypt had touched him more than he knew.” That (along with an oddly choppy chronology) cuts across the sense of a story unfolding naturally.
But by the end of the book Galgut has almost completely dug himself out of his hole. This is in large part down to holding his nerve, I think. He doesn’t try to compete with Forster, and the inspiration-signposting – the sense that Arctic Summer is trying to give us the formula for Forster’s book – falls away. The concern is Forster’s inner life, and Galgut inhabits him with such sympathetic completeness, and in prose of such modest excellence, that he starts to breathe on the page. Galgut’s effects are cumulative, and by the book’s moving closing pages, the Forster of Arctic Summer is not the Forster of biography but Galgut’s own creation.
I used the phrase “shackled to fact”. Perhaps, after all, that’s what this sort of book is trying to do: it’s an escape act. Galgut emerges from behind his red curtain, dangling those shackles jauntily from a single finger. To mix a spatial metaphor, only by getting right into EM Forster could Galgut get out from under him.