An Edinburgh International Book Festival session with Damon Galgut: Arctic Summer (Umuzi/Atlantic, 2014).
Part of the Book Festival’s ‘Voices from South Africa’ theme.
Chaired by Claire Armitstead (Books Editor at the Guardian and the Observer).
Arctic Summer is South African writer Damon Galgut’s latest novel, a fictionalised account of the eleven year period in which E. M. – ‘Morgan’ – Forster wrote his highly acclaimed A Passage to India (originally published in 1924), a text straddling new concerns for Forster and the last novel he was to write.
By way of introduction to Arctic Summer, “perhaps quite different” from Galgut’s previous work, Claire Armitstead identifies its Galgut-like themes – “travel, the search for identity, particularly sexual identity”. Later in the session, Galgut reveals that “bringing what would otherwise have been a dry fact on the page”, writing Forster’s life from its “dead past” through fiction, has also been a way of writing his own life, giving voice in a “coded way” to some “overlapping” aspects he and Forster may have shared.
Galgut travels to India often – “for various reasons India has become quite important for me for the last fourteen years or so” (India is the setting of the final part of his haunting 2010 novel In a Strange Room, writing that often seems to encode impossibility, acute, painful privacy and the contingent in print); it was India that led Galgut back to re-reading Forster and A Passage to India – “I really, really love it – and have grown to feel much more passionate about it in the writing of this book”; he has “Indian friendships”, he says, that “echo” Forster’s.
Galgut is also interested in writers’ stories. A considerable strength of this novel is the consistency of its voice and the fidelity with which Galgut weaves Forster’s biographical materials into its fictional reimagining: “even those parts where I have imagined things for Forster, I haven’t done it in the spirit that some people would have liked me to do – that is, departed from what’s known and established and to create events in Forster’s life that probably wouldn’t have happened”. For Galgut, the “real” story of A Passage to India is Forster’s great friendship with and unrequited desire for Syed Ross Masood, the handsome (and relentlessly exoticised) young Indian who Forster taught Latin in England. It is this story that Galgut is clear is at the heart of his book, as he believes it to be at the heart of Forster’s and its echoing ‘unsaids’ and unknowns in the ‘Marabar’ Caves (actually the Barabar caves, north of Gaya, caves that Galgut visited as part of his research process and found relatively unchanged from Forster’s accounts).
Galgut’s Forster is, and as a self-termed ‘minorite’, a certain kind of English man of a certain kind of class structure of his time – bourgeois, certainly; also timid, repressed, fussy, frustrated, ambivalent as a dominant colonial presence abroad. He is also a gentle, compassionate, ambitious, loving individual, desiring connection. And peculiarly anachronistic, even in his own time. Perhaps this is because he occupies a strange place, both firmly inside and secretly out of normative, dominant positions; or perhaps it is because of the tumult of this particular period in his life as he travels, which Galgut evokes persuasively, coupled with the simultaneous gravity of changing world politics. But perhaps, and particularly having heard Galgut speak about the processes of writing Forster’s life and words, it is due to Galgut’s fidelity to Forster as written from Galgut’s own position – an openly gay, white South African, ‘global’/globally travelled writer – postcolonial, postapartheid.
According to Galgut, what Forster was not was “a politically aware person… this comes through in everything”. Armitstead points out that the strange colonial society Forster moves in is informed in Arctic Summer by two locations, two colonial possessions, India and Egypt. Forster worked in Egypt for the Red Cross during the Great War, between his visits to India. (His first trip was in 1913 and he returned to see Masood in 1921.) That Forster felt differently about his own status in each place is clearly written in the novel. In the Book Fest session, Galgut responds to this question about location by saying that it’s no accident that Forster “lived out his emotional life to the extent that he did when he was far from home” – in India with Masood, and in Egypt, with Mohammed el-Adl, an Alexandrian tram conductor with whom Forster had his first sexual relationship and love affair.
Galgut talks about the context of growing up in apartheid South Africa in relation to Forster’s writings about the “racial clash between England and India”, something that is present in Forster’s letters and diaries, as well as available in the provocative absences at the heart of A Passage to India: “some of the dialogue could have come straight out of my South African past”. Talking about the period when Forster was employed as private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas, a small kingdom in central India in 1921, and the bizarre arrangement that saw the Maharaja procure sexual encounters for Forster – a kind of royal pimp – Galgut mentions the “descent and disintegration of the Raj”, comparing its political organisation and means of structural domination to the South African Bantustan system.
Questions from the Edinburgh audience tended to be about Forster’s writing and life-story, at least primarily, and Anglo-Indian political relations. The political ‘responsibilities’ of the South African writer, usually ubiquitous in these sessions, seem to shift in favour of those of the biographical novelist, or of the queer writer – with both of those categories notably emptied of ‘local’ South African literary or bookish concerns (such as the significance of ‘creative non-fiction’ in South African writing today; the discrepancies between the South African constitution and the prevalence of violent anti-homosexual hate crimes; even the potential and looming question – why, for a South African writer, this focus on a repressed, early twentieth-century Englishman, why now?). One questioner wonders how Galgut dealt with Forster investing himself politically and morally in the different characters of Passage to India; another whether Forster could have been writing for an Indian audience, as well as a British one. One question brought together the relationships between Forster’s explicitly homosexual and posthumously published novel, Maurice, which the audience member had read as he was coming out as a gay man and found disappointing, and Galgut’s treatment of A Passage to India throughout Arctic Summer, as well as with Galgut’s earlier writing and the ‘coded’ nature of Galgut’s The Good Doctor (a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, also winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book from the Africa Region).
Galgut’s responses are thoughtful and expansive, answering questions directly, bringing his clear wealth of knowledge of Forster and his biography to bear on each point. In response to a question about writing the specificities of place – England, Egypt and India – at this particularly unstable point in history, Galgut shares the bareness of the factual archival record before refocusing on the personal: “if you make the people live, the places will live through them, and I hope I’ve managed to make that happen”.
Buy Arctic Summer from the Guardian bookshop.