Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer As someone who has only read one novel by E.M. Forster – A Room with a View – I wasn’t sure whether reading Arctic Summer would be a good idea. It’s a fictional biography of Forster, concentrating on the period during which he was working on his novel A Passage to India, so I thought it might be more sensible to wait until I had read that book first. Arctic Summer is on the list of books I need to read for my Walter Scott Prize Project, though, so when I saw it in the library I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking it home.

I should start by saying that as well as not having read much of Forster’s work, I also – before reading this novel – knew almost nothing about the man himself. The first thing I discovered was that Galgut refers to his main character not as Forster or Edward but as Morgan, which was his middle name. Forster went by this name to distinguish himself from his father, another Edward (and apparently he was originally supposed to be called Henry anyway – there was some confusion over names at the baptism).

We first meet Forster in 1912 as he sets sail on his first trip to India at the age of thirty-three. He is planning to visit his friend Syed Ross Masood, whom he had tutored in Latin several years earlier while Masood was a student in England. Forster is becoming increasingly aware that what he feels for Masood is not just friendship but also love. However, he is not entirely comfortable with his feelings yet and is plagued by doubts and frustrations; this was a time when homosexuality was neither legal nor seen as socially acceptable and we are reminded that fewer than twenty years have passed since Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’.

Later, during World War I, Forster travels to Egypt to work for the Red Cross, and here he falls in love again, this time with Mohammed el-Adl. His love for Masood and Mohammed forms the main focus of Arctic Summer – and this, to me, was slightly disappointing. Obviously his relationships with these two men (and others) were very important to Forster and had an influence on his writing, but I would have preferred to read a more balanced novel that also explored other aspects of his life, rather than just page after page describing his sexual experiences and desires.

I did enjoy reading about Egypt and India (the visit to the Barabar Caves was particularly memorable) and I was also pleased to see brief appearances from other writers of the period such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The writing was of a high quality too and Galgut tells Forster’s story with sensitivity and understanding. Too much of the book bored me, though, and it failed to move me as much as I would have liked and expected. I had difficulty relating the story of Morgan’s love affairs to what little I know of Forster’s writing and I think I should definitely have waited to read this until I’d at least read A Passage to India and possibly Maurice as well.

This was one of the few disappointments I’ve had during my reading from the Walter Scott Prize shortlists, but don’t let me put you off. Looking at other reviews it seems that a lot of people have read it and loved it. As I’ve mentioned, my own lack of familiarity with Forster’s life and work could have been part of my problem. If nothing else, reading Arctic Summer has made me want to read more of E.M. Forster’s novels sooner rather than later.

14 thoughts on “Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

  1. whatmeread says:

    I think you had a similar reaction to mine, although I wouldn’t say that I was bored, exactly, just that the novel was not my cup of tea. I am more familiar with Forster’s work and have read A Passage to India, but I can’t say that helped much. I’ve posted a link to your review on my site!

    • Helen says:

      No, not my cup of tea either. I do still want to read more of Forster’s own work, though, as I remember really enjoying A Room with a View. Thanks for posting my link. 🙂

      • whatmeread says:

        It has been some time since I read any Forster, but I think that was my favorite. I liked Howard’s End, too. A Passage to India is so inexplicable that I think I didn’t enjoy it as much, but here is where reading about his reaction to it in Arctic Summer might help. All three movies have lovely film adaptations, too, by Merchant and Ivory. I think I liked the movie A Passage to India better than the book.

  2. daniellecobbaertbe says:

    I have bought Artic Summer and read quite some reviews and also read an interview with Damon Galgut on this book. Regarding Forster, I only read Maurice and due to this and what I read about Foster, I’m rather familiar with his personal life. So I’m looking forward to reading this book later on this year.

    I also like Galgut’s style of writing and have read that he is a big fan of Forster. Like Forster, Galgut is also gay and there are always men to men relationships in his stories. Galgut grew up in South-Africa in a time when being gay wasn’t socially accepted, so on this point he can relate very stongly to Forster.

    Forster’s sexuality had a profound influence on his writing. He didn’t like the idea that he had to write about men to women relationships, as he wasn’t familar with it. He became very depressed about it and it took him a very long time before he finished A Passage to India. In the meanwhile he had written Maurice. Maurice, however was never published during his life time. It was only known to a small circles of friends, mostly writers, like for example D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence actually took the idea for ‘Lady’s Chatterley’s lover’ from Maurice, when he depicted a relationship between two people of different standing/class (a lady and a working class man) which was a taboo, just like homosexuality. Besides the homosexuality in Maurice there is also the difference in class between Maurice and his lover, Alec, who is a game keeper.

    Forster knew very well that Maurice wasn’t for publication. This was due to the happy ending of Maurice. Homosexuality was legal, so when Maurice and/or Alec were punished for their crime either by prison, suicide, accidental death…it would have been acceptable for the norms of that time, and the book could have been published. But Forster wanted a happy ending for Maurice and Alec; he wanted that at least in literature two men could fall in love, love each other, have sex and live happily ever after. Besides Maurice Forster also wrote short erotic gay stories for himself.

    According to some there are references to homosexuality in all of Forster’s books. The problem is though that writers back then used symbols which are unknown to us today and which refer to homosexuality. They used code only known to those who were gay themselves.

    Sorry about the rant. Any way, just like you Helen, I’m also looking forward to reading A Passage to India as well as Artic Summer. I have planned to read it at the same time.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Danielle. I wasn’t aware that Damon Galgut was gay when I first started to read this book, but I quickly guessed that he was because he seemed to have such a good understanding of Forster’s emotions. My problem with Arctic Summer was just that I don’t find books which focus almost solely on someone’s sexual desires and frustrations particularly interesting (and I would feel the same whether that person was homosexual or heterosexual – I should probably have clarified that in my review). I like there to be a little bit more to the story than that. It’s just a matter of personal taste, though, and I’m sure that as you know more about both Forster and Galgut than I do, and as you have read and enjoyed Maurice, you’ll probably appreciate Arctic Summer a lot more than I did.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    What spoke to me the most in your review is the question of how much of an author’s work does one need to have read to enjoy a story about that author’s life. In recent years I have been reading biographies of authors in sections as I read the novels they have written. I did that very successfully with John Steinbeck. I am going to do so again with Joyce Carol Oates. As a reader of novels, my interest in an author’s life is completely bound up with their writing so that is what works for me.

    • Helen says:

      I think it would definitely have helped if I’d been more familiar with Forster’s work before reading about his life. Your method of reading biographies in sections as you work through the novels sounds good to me. 🙂

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve read quite a lot of Forster’s books and I would have felt the same as you about this one I think. There seems to be a huge temptation for modern gay writers to harp on about it and I find it boring and annoying. Nowadays it’s almost as if some people expect a medal for being gay, and as a gay friend said to me, until they take their sexuality for granted – as heterosexual people do – then they will be seen as being different and not ‘normal’.

    • Helen says:

      I wouldn’t have minded if Forster’s sexuality had been only one aspect of this book, but I did feel that Galgut harped on about it until it became repetitive and boring. I’ll read more of Forster’s novels but probably not Galgut’s.

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