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World Literature Today: An "extraordinary novel"

Date: May 7 2015

Arctic Summer is the title of an unfinished novel by E. M. Forster about the tension between marriage and friendship that results when a married man develops a close relationship with a male friend. One can only imagine what Forster would have done with such a theme. Damon Galgut makes no attempt to finish the novel but uses the title for a reconstruction of Forster’s life, culminating in the writing of his masterpiece, A Passage to India. His method recalls that of Mary Renault, who identified the sources for her extraordinary novels about ancient Greece in an author’s note. Galgut does the same, using Forster’s diaries, among other sources, to animate the names memorialized in them.

A Passage to India is dedicated to Syed Ross Masood, the Oxford-bound Indian whom Morgan (forget E. M.) once tutored in Latin. That was the beginning of a relationship which lasted for fourteen years, as mentorship yielded to friendship, and then to love. Masood became both Morgan’s lover and muse, reminding him that he has “an oriental sensibility” and inspiring him to write the “Indian novel” that Morgan resisted until he felt he could “connect” his world with Masood’s. (“Only connect,” to invoke Forster’s famous phrase.) But it was a disconnect, as A Passage to India proved. India and the Raj are not concentric; they are bipolar.

Arctic Summer does not require a knowledge of Forster’s works, but it helps if one is familiar with A Passage to India. When Morgan sees the Marabar Caves, he knows they will occupy a place in his novel. The centerpiece of A Passage to India is Adela Quested’s experience in the cave. Forster never explains what happened except that she was “insulted” by Dr. Aziz. The incident became a cause célèbre, perhaps the result of sexual hysteria brought about by a dark place known for illicit love (Aeneas and Dido in book 4 of the Aeneid). Forster never describes what Adela experienced, only that she associated the cave with the touch of a man who was non-Western.

In Arctic Summer, Morgan only considers the caves a plot point. A Passage to India goes further, suggesting that the episode in the cave represents a clash of cultures, one of which will always be unknowable to the other. The Indians have the upper hand; they know their colonizers, who have never bothered to know them. Morgan could play the colonial card, physically abusing his barber and lover and exercising the right of the dominant class over the underling. Yet Galgut’s Morgan is also capable of deep feeling. In the end, when he visits Masood’s grave, he does what relatives generally do: he pulls up weeds and meditates. And so should the reader at the end of this extraordinary novel.

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