By Damon Galgut
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
This new novel from Damon Galgut is very different to his earlier contemporary books which were set in South Africa. Arctic Summer steps back in time to imaginatively explore the creative process of E.M. (Morgan) Forster as he comes to write his famous novel A Passage to India.
Forster’s travels to India are inspired by a charismatic young Indian man, Masood, who he meets when he is drafted to be his Latin tutor. Masood’s personality is so different to the typical Englishman – he is affectionate, enthusiastic and boisterous – and Forster is captivated. But when Masood returns to India, and Forster follows him sometime later with inflated romantic expectations, things begin to go awry. Masood is preoccupied with work, has little free time for his friend, and even admits to considering an arranged marriage. When Forster confides the ardour of his feelings, Masood does not respond in kind.
Arctic Summer is a fascinating exploration of the creative process and how various incidents or people provoke the author’s imagination and become melded into his book. For example, when Morgan is surreptitiously groped by Edward Carpenter’s boyfriend, he suddenly realises that sexual trespass is what should be at the heart of his Indian novel. This climatic scene had eluded him but this (not altogether unwelcome) incident sparks his inspiration.
The mid-section of the novel is set in Egypt where Morgan is posted during WWI. It is here that he finally experiences sex and then an ongoing relationship with Mohammed, a young bus conductor. Although the relationship with Mohammed is Morgan’s most satisfying, it is complicated by differences in class, age, race, and language. In the final section, Morgan returns to India and his experiences there (and also with Mohammed) finally unlock the writer’s block that has prevented him from finishing his stalled Indian novel.
Readers who are familiar with A Passage to India and E.M. Forster are undoubtedly going to get a lot more out of this novel than those who know very little. But this is a superb book and a fascinating account of the creative process with all of its inspirations but also frustrations. It is also embedded in very comprehensive research, but narrated with this novelist’s mastery of characterisation, setting, and atmosphere. It’s rather similar to Colm Toibin’s equally fine portrait of Henry James in his 2004 Booker Prize nominated novel The Master. Highly recommended.