The longest journey

Nakul Krishna | Updated on May 22, 2014

Spectres and spirits: Damon Galgut has an inspired reconstruction of the creative churnings behind the cave scene in A Passage to India

Arctic SummerDamon GalgutFictionAleph₹595

A poignant fictional reimagining of EM Forster’s fallow years, where he is transmuted into the alienated, unhappy young Morgan

In A Room with a View (1908), the most charming of EM Forster’s early novels, it takes the warmth of an Italian summer to liberate his English characters from their Englishness. England for Forster was snobbery, xenophobia and physical gaucheness; Italy was warmth, fellowship and healthy carnality. His first serious critical success Howards End (1910) saw him playing with a new set of oppositions, between the worlds of art and business, rural life and industrial civilisation, hierarchy and egalitarianism. These themes were expertly translated from abstraction into plot in a prose both wise and lyrical, punctuated by attempts to resolve the oppositions with that famously innocent slogan: “Only connect!”

A long silence followed, interrupted by two long stays in India and civilian war work in Alexandria. Forster published little in these years, but he had several projects on the go. One of them was the uncompleted novel whose title, ‘Arctic Summer’, has lately been borrowed by the South African writer Damon Galgut for his poignant fictional reimagining of the fallow years. Another, whose conception and long gestation are the main thread of Galgut’s plot, would come to be titled A Passage to India (1924).

All this would make for a solid literary biography, but Galgut bravely turns these materials to the purposes of fiction. So, the distinguished novelist ‘EM Forster’ of the conventional biographies becomes the unhappy, alienated young ‘Morgan’.

Forster’s alienation, at its simplest, was the inevitable consequence of what he thought of in the argot of his generation as his ‘homogenic’ inclinations. Galgut’s vocabulary of sexual identity is limited to Morgan’s own: ‘homogenic’, ‘Uranian’, ‘minorite’. The central tension of Arctic Summer is Morgan’s long friendship with and unrequited romantic passion for the Indian aristocrat Syed Ross Masood. Galgut’s Masood is a superb fictional creation and ages convincingly over the course of the book, from the passionate adolescent bound for Oxford who first befriends Morgan to the stout middle-aged man who fades, gently and brutally, from Morgan’s life. Through him, Morgan finds another alternative to English ways:

“You are saying goodbye like an Englishman.”

“I am an Englishman.”

“Yes, I wish I could forget it for just a moment, I wish you could forget it! Are emotions a sack of potatoes, to be measured out, so much the pound?... Can you not speak from the heart, just one time? Oh Morgan, you bloody fool,” he cried fiercely, flinging his powerful arms around him and lifting him off the floor, “don’t you understand, we’re friends!”

Galgut’s Morgan is no hero. His self-pity, his moments of cruelty and self-abasement are rendered with detachment and historical sensitivity, but Galgut does not explain away his flaws. His Morgan is wholly out of sympathy with the British imperial project but he is not insulated from the temptations of power. Like so many English travellers, Forster finds in India’s alienness a backdrop for his self-discovery.

Galgut is steeped in his primary sources and his novel conjectures intelligently about what elements of Forster’s fiction might have had their imaginative origins in which events of his life. It is evidence of Galgut’s success that it is next to impossible to distinguish what is directly attested to in Forster’s journals and correspondence from Galgut’s speculations. He has an inspired reconstruction of the creative churning that turned an uninspiring day trip to the Barabar caves of Bihar into the central episode of A Passage to India, the alleged sexual assault in the “Marabar” caves that becomes emblematic of British colonialism, India, and perhaps the human condition itself.

As psychobiography and literary history, this is riveting stuff, but Galgut’s prose has a fatal unevenness that somewhat undermines its novelistic claims. There is a surfeit of adverbs: his characters are forever saying things ‘primly’ or ‘firmly’ or ‘casually’. He is a hyperactive explainer, unwilling to leave much unsaid.

Forster’s fiction, ever a negotiation between what he wanted to say and what society and law allowed him to say, acquired a wonderful internal diversity of moods, styles and voices. In Galgut’s telling, Forster’s multitudes are simplified into a monochromatic pathos.

There is little in Galgut’s Morgan of Forster’s celebrated irony, and only a hint of the healthy sense of the absurd that left him untouched by the 20th century’s more flatulent ideologies. Something of Forster is lost in the transaction, but his life’s pathos is convincingly evoked and the atmosphere of an Arctic summer adroitly sustained: “nothing moving, nothing alive”. For those overwhelmed by the gloom, there is always Forster’s own early fiction to return to, where, for once, the head and the heart speak in one voice.

(Nakul Krishna is doing a doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Oxford)

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Published on May 09, 2014
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