The term “literary historical fiction” might be used for noncommercial novels set in the past and full of thoughtful allegorical implication. Or one could employ it for a highly specific subgenre, that portion of “fictional biography” consisting of novels about real-life writers. This territory seems to be expanding of late, with Colm Toibin’s re-creation of Henry James (“The Master”), Jay Parini’s incarnation of Melville (“The Passages of H. M.”) and David Lodge’s imagining of H. G. Wells’s energetic sex and writing lives (“A Man of Parts”).
“Arctic Summer,” by the South African novelist Damon Galgut, now joins this shelf. A judicious, well-proportioned look at the personal life of E. M. Forster, it’s a solid contribution to a literary niche, though a relatively unadventurous extension of Galgut’s own oeuvre, which includes a splendid short novel about post-apartheid life in one of South Africa’s former “homelands” (“The Good Doctor”) and a series of three linked novellas called “In a Strange Room.” In that work, Galgut sometimes alternated the first and third person in a single sentence, a point-of-view experiment that may have proved more remarkable than interesting, but was certainly bold.
Readers of Forster’s own letters and P. N. Furbank’s biography will come to Galgut’s novel knowing the story of Forster’s fitful liberation, both on and off the page, into greater sexual freedom and frankness. In “Arctic Summer,” they will find a narrative voice reminiscent of Forster’s own calm, percipient one. Galgut depicts the novelist participating in “buttoned-down conversation about books and travel and opera and architecture” all the while unable to “keep his gaze from sliding sideways, to the figure of the servant who bent in to clear the plates.”
Dominated by his widowed mother, Morgan Forster experiences a cripplingly prolonged adolescence inside “the old, powdery, frangible halo of women who encircled him.” He manages to produce several youthful novels of increasing depth — most notably “Howards End” — while remaining aware that he probably lacks the experience to create something unfettered and truly authentic: “He was 34 and virginal and would perhaps be virginal all his life.”
Forster confesses his attraction to Syed Ross Masood, his Indian tutee, to a “locked journal” and begins furtively to write gay-themed stories that he shows only to particular friends. The longest and most important of these, the novel “Maurice,” will not be published until 1971, a year after his death. Its subject matter makes it unfit for bookshops, and its happy ending seems forbidden by life itself. The fate of Ernest Merz, an acquaintance of Forster who hangs himself in 1909, perhaps in a moment of sexual despair, seems more socially acceptable.
Confident, fast-talking young Masood displays, at least on the surface, an emotional forthrightness, upbraiding Forster for his own stiffness and reserve. But when they are together during Forster’s first trip to India, shortly before the Great War, Masood sharply rebuffs the writer’s attempted kiss, leaving Forster to conceal an angry shame during one more well-practiced retreat into the “willed cheerfulness” of “his usual life, mild and diligent.”
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A kind of love, incomplete but transforming, finally arrives during the war, when Forster serves in Egypt as a “searcher,” charged with “interviewing the wounded in hospitals for information about those who might have gone missing or untraced.” His real discovery proves to be Mohammed el-Adl, a tram conductor in Alexandria, with whom he achieves a measure of actual intimacy. The class divide remains enormous, and Mohammed may view Forster’s lust as “a pity for you and a disgrace,” but the two men kiss and caress and engage in some emancipating, childlike horseplay: “This kind of companionship had far more value to Morgan than their few, fumbling physical encounters.” Forster is well aware that he idealizes the relationship, but however haltingly and amid whatever upheavals — Mohammed marries, has a child, is imprisoned during anticolonial violence and at last becomes fatally ill — the two do obey Forster’s most famous dictate: Only connect.
Forster’s second stay in India has him serving as secretary to the maharajah of Dewas, a semiautonomous kingdom that Galgut describes as something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Still in search of tenderness and affection, Forster remains burdened by a “humiliating and boring” lust. The rajah disapproves of homosexuality but is realistic enough to see that some regular “relief” be provided Forster by a local barber. On his first trip to the subcontinent, the writer had concluded that “all human interaction was power.” In his new sexual arrangement, this believer in gentle intimacy experiences a sadistic thrill that fills him with “all the force of the Empire.” Forster struggles with both self-disgust (“Degradation had its own sensual power”) and the effort to keep believing in his work-in-progress, the clash-of-cultures novel that will become “A Passage to India.” He begins to fear that fiction is “too artificial and self-conscious . . . ever to convey anything real.”
Back in England he gets on with the job, but his colleague Virginia Woolf sees the long-term problem. When Forster says “I don’t think I am a novelist,” she objectively agrees, perhaps aware before he is of how “the world that interested him was disappearing, or already gone, buried under motorcars and machinery and the smoke of war.” After “A Passage to India,” for the almost half-century left to him, Forster would publish stories and nonfiction, but no novels.
Galgut’s renditions are always convincing if sometimes a bit programmatic. He can be overly emphatic in announcing themes and conflicts already sharply delineated in Forster’s work: “The Indians were inside their bodies, he decided, in a way that the British were not.” There are striking lines here and there (“His loneliness was now so big that it had become his life”), but also occasional confusions. We’re told that India brings out “a capable other Morgan, who traversed great distances and made decisive choices,” but two pages later learn that without his servant “India would have fallen in on Morgan, burying him in confusion.” These waverings extend to tone and diction. Two uses of the word “lifestyle” do a lot to undo whatever period feeling comes from deploying antique sexual terms like “Uranian” and Forster’s own “minorite.”
“Arctic Summer” (Forster’s title for a novel he never completed) does tend in places to read more like biography than fiction: “At the start of 1915, his spirits were briefly lifted by a new acquaintanceship.” This is not entirely avoidable in a subgenre that depends, like all historical fiction, on documentary evidence and pastiche. But the use of what Galgut calls “seeded quotes” and “adapted excerpts” from his long list of sources may signify almost too much adherence to fact and reality, a conscientiousness that inhibits daring. This is a dignified and absorbing novel, but one feels inclined to urge its author, as one might have the young Forster, to break loose and let go.