Thursday, October 9, 2014

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

South African writer Damon Galgut takes readers on a journey into E.M. Forster's interior life in the novel Arctic Summer. It covers the dozen or so years that Forster spent writing (and mentally stuck, not writing) A Passage to India.

During that time, Forster travelled extensively, but movement did not dispel his inner inertia. Repressing his desire for the love and companionship of other men forced him to control all emotions equally. Returning home, Forster felt at odds with his own life, as one does after spending extended time away. There is a sense of waiting, slowly building towards readiness to move forward; it requires patience on the part of the reader.

It's not for someone looking for a propulsive plot. The pace is stately -- I want to say 'glacial' because of the title, but that would sound pejorative. I admire Galgut's eloquent, introspective style. Arctic Summer makes a close examination of the complicated contradictions that form a unique individual.

"Was he a conscientious objector? The description didn't fit comfortably. The principle of abstaining didn't ennoble him, any more than bloodshed would. Both sides had their idealism, which he heard everywhere he went, till he felt that he might choke. What was most distressing was the ability to understand both viewpoints while being able to follow neither."

Homosexuality was discussed in couched terms in the early twentieth century. Forster refers to 'minorites' and 'homogenic love.' He calls Maurice "my Uranian romance:"

"The feeling of release was huge. An enormous pressure had built up behind the words, years and years of silence, which now pushed into the open. Few things are more powerful than confession, and he told it all to the page. The uncertainty, the doubt, the slowly dawning realisation: he could let it spill."

"Of course, he could never publish it."

Maurice is the only one of E.M. Forster's novels that I have read so far. (My blog comments are here.)  

The following passages from Arctic Summer have given me wonderful insights into the mental work that a writer does: 

"Though he couldn't let go of himself enough to worship, he had never lost a sense of an ultimate cause, a Thing at the back of things, which propelled events without actually shaping them. Whatever the ruptures and ructions of human life, he felt, the universe operated according to some vast, unfolding principle, and to abandon oneself to its rhythms wasn't a senseless undertaking.

  It came to him now that his book might express something of this unity through its structure. It was always a useful moment when a story revealed its deeper nature to him -- told him, as it were, why he was writing it -- and he experienced such a realisation now. He had a sense of a gathering shape, of an underlying architecture to his narrative."

"So his characters, he felt, weren't likeable. No, they had been forged in angry gloom, scored and scratched by their maker."

The title, A Passage to India, comes from a line in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, adding another layer of queer context to Forster's writing.

"Everybody had finally given up on expecting anything new, and then he had slipped it out. He had written a great book, apparently, a masterpiece: the best of his career. And the timing, with the questions of Indian independence so much in the air, couldn't have been better."

Damon Galgut has inspired me to read A Passage to India and I feel quite excited about that! I also look forward to hearing Galgut at the Vancouver Writers Fest later this month.

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