‘Arctic Summer,’ is the title of Forster’s one unfinished novel. Is this a metaphor for Forster’s wish to become his true self as opposed to his feeling of unfulfilment?: He could sink very deep at moments like these. Once he had seen tracts of scarlet, billowing in the swell, which he was told were fish spawn, waiting to hatch. Life that wasn’t human life, maturing and breaking out and expending itself, in a medium that wasn’t human either.
Some of us are currently reading Wendy Moffat’s ‘A New Life’ a biography of Forster (2010) which had access to Forster’s diaries and papers held by Kings College and also sought to explore the impact of his sexuality on his career. We feel that Arctic Summer didn’t offer any more than Moffat. The latter is a testament to the sensitivity of Moffat’s work.
However, this book works well as a fictionalised biography, though how much is fiction and how much is biography?
The book captures peoples’ internalised world, though to what extent can we know what they thought and felt?
We don’t get the smells and noises that assault the senses in India.
The description of the Malabar Caves is good but we wouldn’t have realised their importance in ‘A Passage to India’ unless we already knee that work.
Many of us believe the British Empire to be about plunder and subjugation rather than the bringing of so-called enlightenment. Note the racism and snobbery of the English: “And this young Indian man ‘who’s on hoard,” she added in a low voice. “Well, he’s a Mohammedan, isn’t he? Ile has been to public school in England, but has it improved him? He thinks he’s one of us, but of course he never will be.”.. If we’re pleasant to them, they only despise us.” Morgan had wanted to reply, but held off, and felt bad about it afterwards.
How things have changed have changed since then: “But in India there were a great many attractive legs. Legs were everywhere on display, as Morgan would see. Flesh was generally more visible in India than at home; that was how they did things out there.” – I know somebody who came back to the UK after a year in India who was overwhelmed by the amount of naked flesh that he’d not seen during that year and which now came flooding back in.
We see Forster’s internalised homophobia: That was the truly astonishing thing: Searight appeared to be almost proud of who and what he was.
He conforms to the classic ‘father deprivation’ theory: His father had died when Morgan was not yet two, and when he contemplated sex in any form it was the image of his mother, Lily widowed, middle-aged, perpetually unhappy — that rose before him, to intervene. As she did now.
When he says: “It was a leap of logic to assume that Searight was sharing a cabin with the Indian; such an arrangement was unlikely.” I am reminded of a book or film I have recently encountered where something similar happens – but I can’t remember which.
We get the suicide, obligatory for the period, as early as p.47
Morgan is disgusted by his lust. It must have been awful to have this sort of corrosive self-loathing. Of course, things were different back then but his inept forays and fumblings make him seem quite pathetic.
Morgan uses the term ‘minorite’ for homosexuals – though the word actually refers to a friar.
One member of the group said, ‘It was like a slow wank that didnm’t go anywhere’.
A collection of von Gloeden photographs, for example, well worn despite careful handling. Morgan had seen these images before, but in a context that had required sober, aesthetic appreciation. That wasn’t the case now. In Searight’s hand, the sullen Sicilian youths, lolling among ruins and statuary, took on a carnal frankness. His voice became husky with awe on the subject of youthful male beauty. Flesh and feathery moustaches and defiant yet vulnerable eyes… “And look at his sultry cock, angled to the left at about forty-five degrees. It’s a real beauty. To say nothing of the testicles, which are spectacular, especially the one on the right.” In his telling, even the most tawdry encounter became luminous, operatic.
“There were only certain intimacies one could hope to survive.”
“The only defence against raw, naked feeling was reason. Understanding made sadness easier to bear.”
“What he sensed more than anything else was kindness – a kindness of a human and immediate sort. It was surprising how very radical this simple emotion could be.”
“There was no reason why he should not lift the veil aside.
Well, there was Lily. He could imagine his mother’s face if he told her he was giving up meat and alcohol and going to live off the land and make sandals. Not to mention homogenic love. The veil might be thin, but in some cases it was insurmountable.”
“under the elaborate filigree of language, hadn’t it always been about this deferment, this selfishness, this veil drawn over the obvious truth, which was that Masood simply did not care enough? Morgan could not look at the possibility for long, but at least he could look at it, and over the coming days he took it out and hurt himself with it at particular moments when he was alone. He had always been slow to comprehend his own feelings, and it came only gradually to him how disappointed he was.”
“What did love mean if it was doled out so carelessly, with no thought of consequence?”
“There was something humiliating, too, in a display of grief when the relationship had been unwitnessed. No, this was to be a private suffering, like lust or literature, lived out mostly in his dreams.”
“There were some, naturally, who would understand, and he wrote for them, or for himself. Anyhow, some idealised reader who would accept everything, and forgive.”
“He didn’t depend so much on the good opinion of others to feel complete. Nor did he expect happiness as his right any longer; he knew it was only for the strong.”
“What I don’t understand about your type is that you want to emulate the other side. You kick up such a commotion about being different, and all you want is to be the same.”
“To be honest and to be fair were not always the same thing.”
“It is always an attractive moment when curiosity takes hold.”
“He feared at certain moments that the only new knowledge he would take away from this country was learning how to swim and use the telephone.”
“Why did people believe it was only the flesh that binds?”
“Even in one’s most physical moments, the real craving was for love.”
“All of them would understand, as he did now, that he had crossed a line in himself, he had left their world behind, the decent world of tea parties and suburban witticisms.”
“I blame it on the heat. And Morgan had gone to India, and the heat had not undone him. He had remained respectable.”
“Other people might have to confess their sins, but he, Morgan, could only confess their absence.”
“No emotion was supposed to cross the great divide of class. Affection could erase all hierarchy; in this was the danger, and the delight.”
“All have their foolishness, and this is mine.”
“Race and class were a kind of destiny; very little could dent them. Morgan himself had been decanted back into the vessel that had made him.”
It was unsettling and comforting to know that he was the only white man in a radius of twenty miles.
“My dear, he talked of peering into catamites’ anuses, if you can conceive of anything more wonderful.”
“I am happy to see you, Masood.”
“Happy? Happy? What a pale, pathetic English word. You must not be ‘happy’ to see me. No, you must be enraptured, transported! You must be overjoyed. I have no use for ‘happy’.”
“The Indians were inside their bodies, he decided, in a way that the British were not. His own flesh impeded his spirit.”
“Fire and water and smoke and incense and chanting and bells and butter and blood: this was a language whose syllables were translated into physical terms; a language of the elements. It was a language that he hoped might speak to him one day.”
“A mixture of rapture and cowardice. No action, but all that quivering!”
“Of what earthly use were novels? How did they help anybody?”
“That echo. It played in his head at unexpected moments, repeating certain sounds and making nonsense of them. But could you remember an echo? Memory itself was like another kind of echo, everything duplicating endlessly, in shadow versions of itself.”
“He had it now, he thought. What he had been searching for till now: the heart of it, the central, engendering event.”
“A silence followed, while the two men contemplated dying for love.”
There was a chaplain from the military cantonment, a foolish bounder who bullied the Maharajah tirelessly, shouting at him that he should be eating beef, that it would do him good. Whenever he left, the Personal Secretary would murmur to them that, “The Padre Sahib is a very nice man, he has no interest in religion, and that is very suitable for a clergyman.”
Saeed was wholly his friend again when he came to the station to see him off. The Station Manager had to delay the train by ten minutes while they went, through their farewells.
He found himself behaving in ways that were potentially dangerous, without quite knowing what he was up to. On one or two occasions he loitered in public lavatories, hoping for some offer to present itself. Open spaces, especially those in Hyde Park, excited him with possibility. But there was only ever a glance, an accidental collision, which left him turbulent with fantasies. To act out of lust, even without any tender accompanying feeling, would be less damaging, he felt, than these corrosive bursts of desire that went nowhere. He took himself to see Nijinsky dancing almost naked in L’apres-midi d’un faune and the utter abandonment of that human body alarmed and delighted him, like an enactment of everything which roiled invisibly inside. Afterwards he longed to miss his train home and give himself up wholly to adventures in the foliage somewhere, though he wouldn’t have known where to go.
The veil might be thin, but in certain cases it was insurmountable.
“A transfiguration takes place,” she told him, “when a man picks up a gun. A spiritual renewal, very mysterious. It is almost like a light, shining from within. Do you not agree?”
So surprising was this idea that he believed, for an instant, she was being ironic. Then he saw that her face had its own shining light, and set down his teacup.
“No, I’m afraid I do not,” he said firmly.
“You must have observed it. Surely.”
“I have observed a base instinct take charge,” he said. “I have observed European civilisation being set back by thirty years. That is all.”
Although shed his religion early on, it was only the Church of England he’d dropped, with its safe morning prayers and Sunday services. He had never ceased to yearn for something rawer and rougher, something closer to the earth, or perhaps the sky, of which the brain could not partake…. 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.
And this says it all: “That is it, my dear. He is a timid soul. They say he hasn’t really lived at all, except in his mind.”
“He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term; he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority.”
“His mood, which seldom left him, was like being under the sea, in aquamarine light. However bright or loud your surroundings, you were somehow always alone.”
“Although he was English all the way through, a great many English attitudes felt foreign to him.”
“The world of Eros remained a flickering internal pageant, always with him, yet always out of reach.”
There was something humiliating, too, in a display of grief when the relationship had been unwitnessed.”
“Fiction was too artificial and self-conscious, he thought, ever to convey anything real.”
“there were days when all passion seemed to be frozen in marble.”
Morgan expresses his hesitancy about engaging with the Woolfs and Bloomsbury Group: “They were all so interwoven and intimate, changing relationships and sexual tastes the way other people changed hats. To say nothing of their cleverness, which was sometimes cruel, and used against friend and enemy indiscriminately.”
“He had learned, with his earlier novels, that if you screwed up your inner eye when looking at somebody familiar, you could glimpse a new personality, both like and unlike the original. Once this outline had taken shape, you could fill it with traits that in turn had been borrowed elsewhere.”
Galgut first went to India 14 years ago. Back then it was cheap – he could eek his rands out for longer than at home while he wrote in silence, a universe away from his “interrupted” life in Cape Town.
He has been going back periodically ever since. This was why he re-read EM Forster’s A Passage to India (the last time he had done so was as a teen). He became interested in Forster’s life story “and I realised that the process that he went through to produce that novel was unusual”. It had taken Forster 11 years to write it: he had begun a draft and then abandoned it for nine years. Why had he been stuck for so long? No one had really explored this “really rich material” in fiction: Arctic Summer would be his attempt to do so.
The purpose of Forster’s first visit to India (in 1912) was to spend time with Syed Ross Masood – an Indian man he had taught Latin to in England, and who had subsequently returned home. Masood was ebullient and loving – but straight and unable to reciprocate Forster’s infatuation.
“What Forster was going through didn’t seem that peculiar to me – I could get my head around it. And, rightly or wrongly, I felt as if I had some kind of insight into the stuff that was blocking him and that he was wrestling with – which is really the crux of the book,” he says.
“I’m pretty close to a particular Indian man and we said goodbye to each other at one point in India,” he says. He was facing three months alone: his friend was returning to south Africa, while Galgut was going to explore the Barabar caves and various other places that Forster had visited decades before.
“It suddenly dawned on me that the feeling of being alone in a strange country must have been really present for Forster,” he says.
A cryptic reference in Forster’s diary suggested that he had made some kind of a move on Masood the night before he was due to continue his travels. Forster was spurned – a rejection so hurtful that Galgut believes it created a powerful frame of mind in which the writer visited Barabar. The caves would ultimately inspire the setting of A Passage to India’s pivotal scene – when a prim English schoolmistress, Adela Quested, imagines being assaulted by a young Indian doctor.
“The fantasy of being touched by Masood turned into the inverted fantasy of being attacked,” Galgut says. He believes Adela Quested was a projection of Forster who “was such a spinsterish old aunty, actually”.
Arctic Summer follows a disappointed Forster back to England and then on to Alexandria in Egypt where he served as an ambulance driver during the First World War. It reveals the tentative steps towards sexual consummation – a hurried blowjob from a soldier, and then the unfurling of an affair with Mohammed el Adl, an Egyptian tram conductor. This turbulent bond reverberates well beyond Forster’s time in Egypt. It is perhaps this connection, as well as a second visit to India, that results in his creative block crumbling: the power of Masood’s rejection weakens as the writer’s sexuality gains greater expression. When Forster serves as the private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas senior and unhappily but lustily couples with a court barber, he gains a better, darker understanding of empire and power – and their personal implications for both conqueror and conquered.
He was ready to finish the novel.
“Forster’s life, in certain key respects, overlaps with mine,” Galgut confesses. Arctic Summer was “a way of being able to write about someone else but also more covertly about myself at the same time. Writers are all narcissistic; I think on some level they’re always writing about themselves.”
I ask what the two have in common.
“Well, obviously we’re both gay, we’re both writers, we both have this ongoing fascination with India, we share just a general sensibility to some extent. I relate to the way Forster thinks and feels, and I don’t relate to the way many writers feel,” he says.
Galgut believes one reason for this shared sensibility is their homosexuality: many gay men (though particularly so in Forster’s time) have “really wanted to be with a particular person and couldn’t have that” and so great emphasis has been placed on connections with friends instead.
“My friends are probably the most important element of my emotional life,” Galgut says. “Forster very famously said that if he had to choose between betraying his country or betraying his friend, he hopes he’d have the guts to betray his country. I admire that view a lot. I think if all of us placed affection for other people before national loyalties, the world would be a much better place.”
Galgut felt that it was important to show that while Forster might have been timid about his sexuality (he was terrified of his mother finding out he was gay), he was a courageous man, too, having – in a fiercely patriotic milieu – “absolutely unyielding objections” to the First World War. Galgut wanted to illustrate that Forster “could see both sides of a question and be paralysed as a result” – a quandary he can relate to.
“Forster was not a man of action; he lived constantly inside his head,” he says. “It’s good for the world that there are such people, but it doesn’t drive history forward.”
Throughout Arctic Summer, Forster is preoccupied as to whether he deserves (or even wants) the label of “novelist”.
“I don’t think his uncertainty around that question is unusual; I think a lot of writers that I know are prey to the same kinds of doubts. I certainly am,” Galgut says. “There’s many times I’ve felt I’m actually an impostor – other people are the real deal. And I don’t know what that’s based on. The perception that actually for some people writing comes far more easily, maybe,” he muses.
But then again, “writing’s just not easy,” he says. “Everybody struggles, and if it comes too easily I think there’s something wrong.”
“I’ve got a line in the book about the writing feeling like grinding craft rather than lofty art and, basically, I think that’s how writing feels most of the time,” he says. “The inspiration you see in Hollywood movies where people just have this breakthrough I think is really a fantasy. Mostly it’s a grind. If you force yourself to sit down to it and you do it every day, day after day, you will get to the end, eventually. It’s a series of problems that you have to solve. Invariably you don’t really know the answers when you start and the process of writing the book is actually a way of finding out why you’re writing the book.”
I ask him how he would define a novelist.
“A real novelist is somebody who would need to do this regardless of how much money or attention they got; they would still feel the compulsion,” he says. “You can feel it in the way they use language – what they’re in love with is not the idea of themselves as a writer; it’s the language… and the pleasure of using language well,” he replies.
Galgut believes the books that really matter convey the sense that “there was something that that person really needed to say; there’s a need that’s personal” – “a problem that needs to be solved”. “Writing has often felt to me like a form of therapy – that there’s a psychological knot that has to be unpicked.”
“I would say that 90% of the books that get published are not written in that spirit at all.” he blames the “endless creative writing courses that are being offered all over the place now” for this. “Someone who’s not a real writer is not ever going to be more than competent – they’re never going to have those moments of inspiration or desperation, really, that elevate writing from the merely competent to the sublime.” http://aerodrome.co.za/novel-questions/
Decoding Forster – MEENAKSHI KUMAR
How did you come to write a fictionalised account of E.M. Forster’s life with a special focus on his unrequited love for an Indian, Syed Ross Masood?
I’ve been wanting to write a book about what goes into creating a novel, and the story behind A Passage to India is especially interesting. It took Forster 11 years to write his book — and for nine of those years he was stuck, unable to move forward. It’s a period that covers two long visits to India (one as a Private Secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas); a long stay in Egypt during World War I; cameo appearances from various other famous writers, and Forster’s desperate struggle with his own sexuality. All of it very rich and fascinating material, too tempting to ignore.
Why Forster and not any other gay British writer?
Forster’s gayness isn’t what’s most important. It’s that he was a strange mixture of timidity and courage. He lived with his mother his whole life and was afraid that she would find out his true nature. But, at the same time, his longings made him undertake several journeys far from England where he engaged in behaviour that was actually quite dangerous, given the times he lived in. This combination of fear and bravery made him fascinating. He was a truly complex, contradictory personality. Besides which, I really admire A Passage to India.
Did you get any interesting information about Forster during the course of your research?
He was very secretive about two things: his intimate life and his writing. Most of the time, in his journals, these subjects are mentioned cryptically, sometimes even in code. Yet, they are closely connected. As I have tried to explore in my book, it was Forster’s deep love for Masood that led him to several key aspects of his novel. Without Masood, there would be no A Passage to India. Unrequited affection is very painful for the lover, but it can have unexpected, creative consequences.
India seems to be central in not just your books but in your life too. You wrote a large part of The Good Doctor on the beaches of Goa. When and why did this fascination with India begin?
I’ve visited India 12 times over the past 14 years, on several occasions for six months at a time. It seems to have become my ‘other place’, for better or worse. Yet, I would really struggle to tell you why. There are many aspects of India that I love and miss when I’m not there, but there are many others that horrify me, which I don’t miss at all. Perhaps it’s best to leave it a mystery. Real obsession needs an unconscious motivation behind it.
Has growing up in a nation that has gone through much political upheaval affected your writing? Do the tensions unconsciously creep up in your work?
Probably, but only in the sense that tension and upheaval are more interesting than blandness and predictability. Something in a writer’s brain needs to watch everything with a detached, amoral eye. Seen in that way, South Africa, especially now, is full of very compelling possibilities. For a writer, I mean.
How robust is the literary scene in South Africa? Who are the prominent young writers today?
It’s perhaps like India in the sense that a lot is being published, not all of it is necessarily very good. Out of quantity, quality may eventually emerge. Meanwhile, there are some solid names emerging. Zakes Mda; Henrietta Rose-Innes; Thando Mgqolozana; Imraan Coovadia; Marlene van Niekerk; Niq Mhlongo — these names come quickly to mind. On the non-fiction front, I especially admire the work of Mark Gevisser and Jonny Steinberg.
You have been shortlisted for Man Booker Prize twice. What does a prestigious prize such as this mean to you?
I’d be lying if I said my shortlistings have made no difference to my life. They have changed everything, and mostly for the better. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware of how arbitrary and random these prize-lists are. It’s good luck or bad luck whether your book suits the tastes of the jurors.
What drives you to write? How do you like to write: long hand or on the computer?
I am very undisciplined and have to become really obsessed by a project, or will happily abandon it. For what it’s worth, I write long-hand, in hand-bound notebooks that I buy in India. http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/decoding-forster/article5969684.ece