Ruling over a global empire brings with it many benefits, the chief perk being unlimited access to illicit sex. When Britannia dominated the waves, the English were famous for being prudes at home and lechers abroad. Men who were models of self-control in the mother country kept harems in the hinterland. Queen Victoria, Empress of India, reigned over a planet-encompassing booty call.
Yet if lust was a motive for seeking domination, it could also be a solvent of oppression. In his eye-opening monograph The Rise of Gay Rights and the Fall of the British Empire (2013), the human rights scholar David A. J. Richards called attention to the curious fact that gay men and women were at the forefront of anti-imperialist agitation, Roger Casement, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf being prime examples. Casement and Forster both took native lovers but the dynamic of these relationships was subtly different than the more common heterosexual unions that flourished under imperial aegis. Straight sex was often coercive: simply colonization and plantation carried out by other means. Gay sex, by contrast, always involved the bringing together of at least two oppressed groups. Second-class citizens in their own home, British gays felt an affinity for peoples struggling for independence.
Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, a lightly fictionalized biography of E.M. Forster, offers a textured and convincing account of how queer desire fed into empathy for those dispossessed by the Union Jack. Born in 1879, Morgan Forster (as he was known to his friends) was in his native land as prim a gentleman as one could dread meeting. He was a Cambridge graduate who lived with his mother, his days taken up with a succession of suburban tea-parties with dotty and doting aunts. Mirroring his life, he wrote social novels about failed communication and unrequited love that made him a worthy, if minor, successor to Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and George Eliot.
Yet behind Forster’s trim mustache and languid manners, there hid yearnings that he could never publicly acknowledge (his one novel about same-sex love, Maurice, was published in 1971, a year after he died). In Galgut’s novel, Forster says that gay love “wasn’t possible at home.” As presented in the novel, it appears that Forster’s family were too nearby, psychologically as well as physically, for him to act out his passions. But when Forster travelled to tropical climes, he developed a severe case of jungle fever, falling in love with an Egyptian tram conductor named Mohammed el Adl and later having a more domineeringly sadistic relationship with an Indian barber named Kanaya. Forster’s brand of sexual tourism was inherently ambiguous. What he experienced as liberation, others might view as exploitation, especially his relationship with Kanaya. One of the strengths of Galgut’s novel is that it leaves open the possibility of multiple interpretations of Forster’s behavior.
By Galgut’s account, Forster’s sexual awakening paralleled his flowering as a novelist, his erotic adventures opening up for him a wider social expanse that allowed him to write his masterpiece, A Passage to India (1924). Arctic Summer is, therefore, not just a novel about a novelist but also a novel about the novel-writing process: the real heart of Galgut’s book is the story of how A Passage to India first germinated in Forster mind, the long writer’s block he suffered during the writing of the novel, and the way his experiences in India gave him answers to storytelling problems.
A novel about novel-writing might seem too meta or parasitic to be tolerable. “Who cares what it’s like to be a writer?” John Updike asked in frustration at Philip Roth’s habit about focusing on the dilemmas of his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman. Yet Galgut is not alone in thinking that the writer’s life is a fit subject for fiction. Indeed, novels about real-life writers are a flourishing genre, as witness David Lodge writing about Henry James and H.G. Wells, Colm Tóibín writing about Henry James (again), Moacyr Scliar writing about Kafka, among others.
Since writing is a supremely sedentary activity, involving much internal dialogue about the choice of words, it seems a guaranteed recipe for a boring book. Yet the impulse to novelize about novelists is surely born of a desire to recuperate energies from admired models. On his much-delayed return home, Odysseus found it useful to seek guidance from the dead. On the same principle, novelists living in a time where the realistic novel seems, if not quite dead, at the very least exhausted, find comfort and reassurance in calling on the spirits of long-departed writers.
Arctic Summer is a deeply Forsterian novel on multiple levels. The very title of the book is from an abortive novel that Forster attempted and set aside. Galgut is not only telling Forster’s story but appropriating the older’s novels voice and method of attack, down to minute details. A Passage to India is dedicated “to Syed Ross Masood and the seventeen years of our friendship” (Masood being one of Forster’s unrequited loves). Arctic Summer is dedicated “To Riyaz Ahmad Mire and to the fourteen years of our friendship.” In Arctic Summer, a character refers to “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” – a phrase to be found in Forster’s Maurice.
In hemming so close to Forster, Galgut is playing a risky game. Forster was no great stylist and had a disabling tendency towards sententious over-explicitness and mawkishness. Writing a Forster pastiche, Galgut at times copies some of his subject’s worst tendencies.
Here are some sentences from Arctic Summer describing Forster’s fear that his sexuality has been found out: “It was terrible, terrible; everything he most feared was about to happen; he had drawn it down on himself.… The shame was, literally, indescribable; there were no words for a sensation one had never fully experienced until now.… His mother would hear of it! The horror made him lame. How he wished he could spool time backward; how he wished he had never spoken.” In any other book, these bathetic sentences would constitute quite terrible prose indeed. Yet because we know Galgut is mimicking Forster and because the novel is elsewhere much more tactful, they are forgivable.
A novel featuring real people is open to criticism about accuracy that would be impertinent in wholly imagined fictions. Galgut’s Forster is a mild misogynist; at the very least, uncomfortable around women. What is barely hinted at in the book is that the real-life Forster had a very close female friend, Florence Barger. “She loves me and I her,” Forster once wrote.
Bedazzled by the superstition of chronology, we foolishly believe that our parents created us. The reverse is the truth: we create our parents, by turning the raw facts of their existence into stories. The present always changes the past. Throughout history, poets and novelists have created their ancestors, by acts of criticism, appropriation and reinvention. T.S. Eliot’s poetry helped conjured into being John Donne, whose sudden metaphysical leaps now seem very modern and not a quaint curiosity. Kafka’s fiction helped birth a Charles Dickens that didn’t previously exist, a dark chronicler of urban despair. E.M. Forster took part in this tradition of generating ancestors: Forster’s libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd helps us see Herman Melville’s concealed homoeroticism.
In Arctic Summer, Damon Galgut does for Morgan Forster what so many of us do to our parents: try to imagine what he was like when young and uncover the riddle of his existence. In Forster’s time, homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name.” In this novel, Galgut gives voice to that love and tells the story Forster was not allowed to. Because Galgut is bringing together the threads of empire, love and novel-writing in a new way, he can be forgiven for writing a novel about a novelist.
Jeet Heer’s new collection of essays, Sweet Lechery, will be published later this year.