E.M. Forster was a virgin at 37, and his tortuous path toward sexual maturity is a main plotline of “Arctic Summer,” Damon Galgut’s brilliant biographical novel. Its epigraph quotes Forster at age 74: “Orgies are so important, and they are things one knows nothing about.”
We know a lot about Forster, who died in 1970. In addition to his novels, stories and nonfiction books, we have his copious letters and journals and several biographies, including, most recently, Wendy Moffat’s “A Great Unrecorded History” (2010). Galgut seems to have absorbed it all, and he relies on this detailed information as the basis for his novel. He particularly is focused on the years from 1906, when Forster met and fell in love with his 17-year-old Indian student Syed Ross Masood, to 1924, when “A Passage to India,” his first novel in 14 years, was published to wide acclaim.
Galgut’s abiding theme in his previous novels (all of them excellent), and again here, is the persistence of loneliness. His characters tend to travel — and feel — alone, and when they approach connection with a stranger, or even with a friend, the result is a new kind of loneliness, one fraught with mixed feelings and regret and the mysteries of otherness. His protagonists are hungry for love, but they’re hampered by fear and apprehension. Galgut’s Forster behaves as if he’ll never have — never could have — a companionship as deep and loving as the one he has with his mother. In real life, Forster lived with his mother until she died at 90.
“Arctic Summer” — the title comes from a novel Forster never finished — centers on Forster’s long travels abroad. He first went to India in 1912, flush with the success of “Howard’s End.” Galgut’s novel opens on board the SS City of Birmingham, where Forster meets Kenneth Searight, a handsome young gay military man who shocks the uptight writer with his planned exploits in India. Forster, then 33, was traveling to see his 23-year-old friend Masood . They had met in England, where Forster tutored Masood in Latin before he went to Oxford. But in India, Forster is disappointed to find Masood busy and preoccupied and not at all in love with him, at least not in the way Forster loves him. Masood, as it happens, is not gay. But their lifelong friendship deepens.
Back in England, Forster meets Edward Carpenter, an intellectual who was a friend of Walt Whitman and known for, among other things, his openness about homosexuality. His directness, Galgut writes, strikes Forster as “both unnerving and uplifting.” Forster also encounters Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Leonard and Virginia Woolf and the gay poet C.P. Cavafy. These scenes — lightly fictionalized anecdotes of real events — give Galgut’s narrative fresh perspectives on Forster’s unrelaxed but friendly personality. He secretly writes “Maurice,” a gay novel that will be published only after his death. And then World War I takes him to Egypt, where he works for the Red Cross and spends much of his time unhappily alone. “His loneliness was now so big that it had become his life,” Galgut writes. Eventually, he meets Mohammed el-Adl, a young Egyptian train conductor, and they form a complex, illicit relationship.
During his travels, Forster gradually gathers material for “A Passage to India,” his intricate final novel. Composition of that work was protracted and took place mostly in an English attic. But the heart of that book’s mystery — central to the British colonialism Forster witnessed first-hand — had come to Forster during his time “on location” in India, which Galgut portrays powerfully.
Though Galgut’s novel stays meticulously close to the biographical record, the shape and feel of “Arctic Summer” is not at all that of a scholarly document but of a remarkable story beautifully told. Galgut’s formidable talent as a novelist transforms the facts of Forster’s life into art, which is poetic justice given Forster’s efforts to make stories and novels more meaningful and satisfactory than life itself.