Narrative Literary Review

No man’s land

Arctic Summer is literary fiction at its most distilled. Side-stepping the heavy, over-determined nature of plots that draw on biographical research, Damon Galgut serves up a haunting tribute to E.M. Forster.

A lot happens in this book, most of it inside the mind of Edward Morgan Forster. The novel’s interiority, of course, is inevitable and mirrors the fact that homoerotic love cannot, must not, be spoken of. Not in the England of the early 20th century where colonial rule is premised on masculinism. Galgut’s characters are hyper-aware of this fact and they play with euphemisms that gesture indirectly to their homosexuality. What must remain unspoken becomes the novel’s foundation. On his first sea voyage to India, Forster meets Searight, a fellow “minorite” or homosexual, who speaks of seeking “consolation”.

And what of Forster himself?

“He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term; he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority… At Cambridge, among his own circle, the question was discussed, though from an angle, and safely abstracted… As long as it remained in the realm of words, no crime had been committed. But even words could be dangerous.”

This is echoed in the strategy used by the Greek poet Cavafy whom Forster meets in Egypt. Cavafy’s poems about men hide “coyly behind an absence of pronouns”. But homophobia and repression can result in much worse. The chilling suicide of the gay man Merz whom Forster meets briefly is one instance.

Indeed, it is this sense of danger and terrible stigma that drives Forster, at least in the beginning. But his travels to India and Egypt, his relationships with Masood, a young educated Indian, and Mohammad, an Egyptian tram conductor, alter his emotional landscape. Forster finds love and dares to act on the unspoken. This brings with it the burden of guilt. Forster’s mother and “respectable” English society must not know of his transgressions. Repulsed by his own lust, yet driven by it, Forster seeks “a place of warmth and sensual appetites that couldn’t be England.” In India, he finds that he has nothing in common with his fellow-English who inhabit a “vigorous, outdoor world, full of sports and guns”. He is a writer of novels and novels are of no earthly use. Forster must cross over or live for ever in a strange and hidden no man’s land.

Not surprisingly, what is on Forster’s mind must spill over onto the white page and it does. Forster begins to write, tentatively at first, stories about homoeroticism. He has always been aware of not knowing enough about the worlds of work and marriage, a handicap when it comes to writing. To evolve as a writer, he must step out of his silence and away from his comfort zone. And this choice he makes, crossing both class and race boundaries in his quest for love, experiencing the “Egyptian world through the skin of his friend”. What follows is a moving account of love and loss, pure and simple. There is a parallel track too that Galgut pursues — of lust and the ugliness of race and class power, as in Forster’s relationship with Kanaya, a servant boy of the Maharajah of Dewas.

Galgut’s remarkable story brings to life a Forster who was unafraid to seek love and to live it, whose writing explored and embraced the uncertain islands in his life.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 8:15:32 AM |

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