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Polari Magazine: An Interview with Damon Galgut

Date: Aug 15 2014

“It is the function of the novelist,” EM Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, “to reveal the hidden life at its source.” Such revelation is impossible in our day-to-day lives, he continues, and that is precisely why the novel can be such a powerful force. “We cannot understand each other, but in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion.” Fiction, in the other hand, “is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence.”

Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer opens in 1912, with EM Forster on this first trip to India, a journey made possible by the financial success of his fourth novel, Howards End. Galgut skilfully reimagines Forster’s life in the following years as he struggles to write his last, great novel, A Passage to India. Forster’s conflicts with himself, his popularity as a writer and his sexuality are at the heart of this struggle, and Galgut explores that story in a way that biography cannot. The struggle to articulate the hidden life, to give it form, to render it fiction – that is the struggle of these years for Forster, and that is what Galgut reveals in Arctic Summer.

Arctic Summer is Damon Galgut’s ninth novel. Although it is in many ways like nothing he has written before, there is under the a clear and logical progression from his previous books. He has always been interested in what is not spoken, in the voice behind the silence. In the Booker nominated In A Strange Room, the quiet character Damon travels through Greece, India and Africa, drifting with events, longing to find direction and meaning yet unable to do either. The book explores Damon’s yearning for answers, for stability, and the inner conflict that makes such yearnings all but impossible to realise. It is such a conflict that is at the core of Artic Summer.

I met Damon Galgut on the UK book tour for Arctic Summer, and I started by asking him what drew him to Forster and the idea of writing a novel about his life.

“India did. I travel quite a lot, but usually I go somewhere, dip into it, and feel like it’s satisfied my curiosity. But India has called me back and back and back. It’s been an ongoing, kind of obsessive relationship, and that led me to thinking around the topic, and reading around the topic. An obvious touchstone is A Passage to India.” That touchstone led Galgut to P.N. Furbank’s masterly biography of Forster – “one of the few instances of biography as literature,” he remarks – and the many years that Forster spent trying to write A Passage to India.


“It was quite epic and took in a big historical sweep of time, which included the First World War, his stay in Alexandria, and his two visits to India. This was an especially interesting story because he struggled so much. He took eleven years to write the book and he was stuck for nine years. The story of being stuck is in many ways more interesting than the story of the writing. All of this, along with his own desperate battle with his sexuality, just made for material I couldn’t resist. That’s what comes it down to.”

Galgut has sidled up the subject of homosexuality in his fiction, in particular in the preceding book, In A Strange Room, but he has not written about it head-on. I wondered if that also felt like a departure for him.

“Although I, as the writer, had to face it head-on, Forster himself never met the issue head-on. He would’ve liked to, I think, but he was always evading. I was more interested in the fact that Forster couldn’t take on that identity – in a contemporary, defiant sort of way – than I would have been had he lived it out. His struggles with it, and his inability to really be who he was, made for interesting material. I don’t think it’s that far removed from In A Strange Room, where the main character is an outsider, but he’s also searching for moments of intimacy and also deflecting them when they become available. I think Forster did a lot of the same.”

I wondered if that sense of conflict, of the struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, was part of Galgut’s own experience, and how that fed in to the writing of Arctic Summer.

“At the time I grew up in South Africa it was illegal to be gay. The whole system of apartheid was extremely patriarchal; all its values were skewed in that direction. To be gay growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s – it would be hard to overstate what a terribly suffocating oppressive place it was. I learned, like quite a lot of gay men do, to hide and to assume fake personas. That sense of concealment has stayed with me, even now. I suppose I’ve internalised a lot of self-dislike – self-doubt, maybe, is a better way to put it. Whether that’s got to do with my past or whether it’s just my nature, it’s impossible to answer. That part of myself is what relates to Forster most deeply. I give expression to it in In a Strange Room, and also in the other books. There’s a buried sexual tension between the two main characters in The Good Doctor. Likewise in The Impostor. I’m fascinated, in a literary sense, by that: what happens if you don’t express what you’re feeling? I’m interested in what’s not said, what’s not acted upon, and the kind of plot that might arise from inaction.”


In Forster’s life, and in particular throughout the time Galgut recreates in Arctic Summer, inaction produced a great deal of material. Forster finished the novel Maurice, a story of male homosexuality that was not published until after his death, as well as the guidebook Alexandria and a great deal of reviews. I wondered what Galgut made of this work, and how it fits into his understanding of Forster’s writer’s block.

“What’s very clear when you look at the early novels, which he wrote in a flurry, is that there was a real fluency. They came thick and fast. There was no sense of the deep internal wrestling there was in this later period, when the writing he did was almost a substitute for the writing he really wanted to do on the Indian book. Maurice was a book he needed to write to clear his way. He’d been desperate so long to write a book about relationships between men. He’d been constrained to write about men and women – which he did really well – but when he reached the point that he had a gay story he could write, setting it down was liberating for him. It’s perhaps not as admirable as a work of literature, not now. I believe it was a great struggle, I believe that he was blocked, that his main preoccupation was with the Indian book and that was really battling to make it move forward. Everything else was a temporary solution.”

This blocked time really started when Forster began writing a novel called Arctic Summer. The opening chapters came in fits and starts, which led to many revisions, and from that experience concluded he was “dried up” as a writer. By February 1913, he’d reached the conclusion that the material “isn’t good enough. I want something beyond the field of action and behaviour: the waters of the river that rises from the middle of the earth to join the Ganges and the Juma where they join.” He also complained of a sense of “weariness of the only subject that I both can treat and may – the love of men for women and vice versa”. It was then that he set Arctic Summer aside.

“It’s covering the same territory he had cover before. It moves back to England, in the existing fragment, but it starts out with a muddle on the continent, and he’d done that. It’s not my feeling, and I don’t think it was his feeling, that he’d got hold of something that was original and potentially unique. He did feel that about the Indian book. I think his writerly instincts knew. He said in a very interesting interview in the Paris Review that he needed a solid mass ahead through which the story had to go. There’s no sense of that in the Arctic Summer fragment. There was no sense of a knot to be unpicked or mountain to be negotiated.”

I wondered why, then, Galgut decided to call his novel Arctic Summer, considering that he didn’t think that much of it, and even if he resisted using that title.

“It suggested itself to me as the title early on. It has a slight awkwardness to it, and it summed up so perfectly Forster’s internal condition, of being on the one hand frozen and unable to move and on the other hand not unhappy and open to summer, warmth, light and human interaction. It’s very easy to see Forster as an unhappy tormented figure, and of course he had his moments of torment. He had a lot of very fine friendships and he didn’t have his way with Masood but instead had a lifelong connection with another human being that he placed great value on. Affairs tend to nosedive, but friendships tend to last. Like Forster I place a lot of store in friendship.”


It was the relationship between Forster and Syed Ross Masood on which the writing of A Passage to India hinged. That is why Galgut’s Arctic Summer opens in 1912 with Forster on a journey to visit Masood – on his first passage to India. The two men first met in 1907, with Forster tutoring Masood in Latin, and they developed a close friendship. Forster fell in love, and Masood, as PN Furbank wrote, “woke him up out of his suburban and academic life, and showed him new horizons and a new civilization.” Yet on the trip to India, the thirty-three year old Forster, who was still a virgin, went through a sexual crisis that for Galgut is at the centre of why he ran into such difficulties writing A Passage to India.

“Forster had made his trip to India to see Masood. That was his primary motive. He had at the back of his mind this idea that he was going to write a novel, but it was not an essential part of the plan. He saw Masood for a week when he first arrived, then for another two weeks halfway through his trip. And he knew it was going to be years, if ever, before he saw Masood again. On that day Masood organised an outing to the caves as a kind of consolation prize.”

The trip to the Barabar caves – which in A Passage to India would become the Marabar caves – brought on a crisis in Forster’s life that would be reflected in the writing of the book. In A Passage to India, something happens to Adela Quested in the caves, and she accuses Dr Aziz, the man who organised the trip, of attacking her. A Passage to India turns on the resulting conflict, and in Galgut’s reckoning there is a biographical source to this.

“The caves episode is at the centre of Forster’s book but it’s also at the centre of mine. The night before they went to the caves, something happened between the two men and in his diary, in typical Forsterian language, it’s absolutely cryptic. But it’s pretty clear to me he made some sort of advance on Masood that was rejected. It must have come out the feeling that he was about to lose his friend, and he went to the caves in that state of mind. It occurred to me that the germ of the scene in the caves has to do with what did or didn’t happen between him and Masood that night. Forster’s fantasy, his longing to be touched in a loving way, gets turned upside down to this other fantasy of being attacked.

“I also think that it was the episode he got stuck on. In the early drafts he writes the scene as an attack. He had to go through a whole personal process himself – of letting his own emotions go, having his first sexual experience and a relationship in Egypt, then having another of a more sordid and exploitative kind when he went back to India.

“I’ve been in Forster’s position – but I don’t want to get too specific – of having gone to India to see someone, and being left adrift in the middle of the country in the middle of a journey. I know that the sense of abandonment, of being in a strange place with nothing to moor you. In a sense that’s what I wanted my book to body forth. I’ve been steeped to some extent in the same longings and frustrations that Forster was, as well as my involvement with India, and it made this moment come clear to me. Although I can’t prove that’s what happened I do strongly believe it.”


Was the research for the book, then, an act of detective work, of reaching conclusions about events that are hidden beneath the tricky language that Forster typically employed to navigate the complex world of the individual’s inner life?

“It was laborious. It involved a tonne of reading, and also thinking around the reading, of putting fragments together from different sources. Forster was quite obsessive about noting things in his diary. At certain times in his life he wrote a full account, but not for publication. For example, the sexual interactions during his time as the Maharaja’s secretary in India were documented in a quite remarkable memoir. It was finally printed in the Abinger edition of Forster’s Indian writings. It’s totally revealing. He shows himself in a not very flattering light, and looks at his own behaviour without trying to cover it up. But that only happens at very particular moments. His affair with Mohammed el Adl in Alexandria was another such moment. And those kind of documents are irreplaceable source material because you get how he felt and how he behaved. Yet because they apply to particular episodes, you have to think laterally and try to understand how that sort of thinking, and that sort of behaviour, would have worked in different situations. So there’s been a fair amount of detective work involved.”

The Abinger editions of Forster’s work are, I note, an incredible resource that trace Forster’s evolution as a writer. They detail both the work published in his lifetime and the manuscripts he left behind. It is such material, and the exhaustive scholarship that goes into them, that makes the research Galgut describes possible. Yet in the age of computers the process of writing – of written manuscripts, revisions, and copious drafts – is less transparent and perhaps even lost. I was curious to know if Galgut worked on paper or on the screen.

“I usually work longhand on paper, but this particular book was a complete departure from me in almost every respect. I started out working longhand and then I realised it wasn’t going to work because so much information has to be covered, and continuous inserts had to take place, so I turned to the computer. It made it possible, but I’m going back to my old habits.”

Does he keep his drafts for the archives?

“I don’t know who would be interested in them, but I’ve got them piled up in drawers in my flat. It’s not just one draft it’s often three or four. There are big stacks of notebooks. The computer is not a messy map of all your changes of heart and changes of mind, which is what the written document is.”

Arctic Summer is a very stylised book. I wondered how he thought his style changed over the years, and at what point in his writing career he started to think, “this is my voice”.

“I don’t know if I have reached the point, actually. Style is always something that rises to meet the book in question rather than the book coming out of the style, if I can put it that way. It’s possibly a result of the many different defensive personas I developed in growing up that at different points in my life I’ve had a different interior voice narrating my existence to me. The books seem to have required different voices. The Quarry required voice that isn’t synonymous with the voice of The Good Doctor, which again is out of sync with this current book. For me, part of the struggle writing a book is finding out what that voice might be. I’d like to think there is something consistent that carries over, which is perhaps the authentic innermost call of my own voice. Arctic Summer required a voice that was shaped by Forster’s own voice, but the voice in In A Strange Room is shaped by the way which memory functions.

The Good Doctor is narrated in the first person by someone who is quite burnt out and cynical about South African life, and that voice had to come from somewhere authentic. All kinds of things feed into voice. In the case of this book it was about wanting to convey the sense that this is a time long ago and the voice should have some of the richness of that time.”

As well as being a stylistic departure, Arctic Summer shows that Galgut has an outstanding ability to reimagine history through fiction. Had writing this novel, I asked, led him to consider writing a historical novel about South Africa?

“I have to say that temperamentally I am resistant to the idea of the historical novel. This one took me a bit by surprise. The history was not what drew me to the subject, it’s what Forster was struggling with that mattered to me. And it mattered to me in a way that is in keeping with my own self and my own life. If I didn’t feel that Forster could speak for me, even in a coded way, I don’t think I would have been drawn to this material at all. Although South African history offers a lot of scope for that kind of work I think others do it better than I can.”

I add that it is not a question I would have imagined asking of him before I had read Arctic Summer. It is certainly a medium that I think a writer of Galgut’s skill would enrich.

“There would have to be a compelling reason for me to go back in time. I have always avoided it before. I’m not sure I’ll go back there too rapidly again. I am open to the possibilities that the historical model might open up. I am receptive to that. But for the moment I am done. This was an exhausting business. It took me a year of reading and research before I could even start the writing. That’s not counting the research I had to do as I went along. It’s not something I’d willingly inflict upon myself again not without a very good reason.”

I leave the interview with the hope that, in the future, this is an avenue Galgut will consider exploring. He is a serious writer, and an exceptional one. In Arctic Summer he has written a book about EM Forster that is true to the man, to the legend, to the work. It is a remarkable achievement.

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