The highly metaphorical title of Damon Galgut’s new novel refers to a project begun and abandoned by E.M. Forster immediately after the publication of “Howard’s End” in 1910: a time of outward serenity in its author’s life but one that turns out to have seethed with private demons. That the twice Man Booker-shortlisted Mr. Galgut should have chosen Forster as the hero of this scrupulously written chunk of biographical fiction is further testimony to how shares in the great man have kept up. An inspiration to Zadie Smith, the subject of a recent biography by Wendy Moffat (“A Great Unrecorded History,” 2010), regularly adapted for film and TV, Forster has survived into the 21st century in a way that might have surprised some of the critics of the 20th. A pat explanation for this might be his incontestable status as a bridge between several contending worlds: between the “straight society” of the post-Edwardian era and homosexuality; between the West and East; between that old kind of late-Victorian sensibility and some of the newer approaches to art that were beginning to take its place. Mr. Galgut, who, if nothing else, has undertaken a great deal of diligent research, is sensitive to all these aspects of Forster’s life and times. Yet even he would probably acknowledge that the writing of a biographical novel is rife with pitfalls.
The most obvious drawback is that the averagely intelligent reader will begin the book with a fairly good idea of what its conclusion will be. The writer can be as adept at his job as David Lodge in “Author, Author” (Henry James) or Julian Barnes in “Arthur and George” (Conan Doyle) and still struggle to create very much in the way of suspense. Worse, this awareness that the reader knows far more than he or she would if the author were simply making it up nearly always produces a kind of staginess, in which the bright and ominous future is not merely foreshadowed but gestured at in a series of knowing winks.
And so Forster, first seen as a nervous 30-something sexual novice heading east at the beginning of a journey that will eventually produce his great novel “A Passage to India” (1924), is constantly having prophecies visited upon his meek and uncomplaining head. “The book you write will be unique,” his knowledgeable friend Masood insists. “It will be written in English, it will seem to be from English eyes, but its secret view will be from inside.” Ninety pages later it is becoming clear to Forster that “his novel might turn on an incident of some kind, which would play itself out in a courtroom.” Top marks to both of them, but the effect is to close the pathway up rather than open it out.
It is the same with some of the loose ends, which Mr. Galgut sometimes can’t stop himself tidying up in advance. Thus of the army officer Kenneth Searight, whom Forster meets on the passage out and subsequently visits in India, he notes that the two men promise they will meet each other many times in the future “and some letters did pass back and forth over the years, but in fact they would never be true friends.” Accurate, no doubt, but a drag on Mr. Galgut’s narrative, which here, as elsewhere, declares itself as a piece of teleology, in which the known facts are tracked backward in time to establish the conditions in which they came to exist.
None of this is to question the consummate skill with which Mr. Galgut builds up his story or develops his characterizations. His Forster is a tantalizing creation, variously glimpsed on the decks of the SS Birmingham with his friends Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Bob Trevy, trying (literally) to get to grips with the ultimately unresponsive Masood, exploring the caves that will provide the setting for the decisive act of “A Passage to India,” and at large in Egypt—where some kind of emotional satisfaction is finally achieved. “Arctic Summer” is never less than entertaining. Yet, as ever with these mock-biographies, so near to life is so much of what is on offer that I found myself wondering what had happened to the footnotes.