Rapture and cowardice: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer. Atlantic Books paperback, 2015; first published, 2014. 352 pp.

 South African writer Damon Galgut uses this title for several reasons: first, it’s the title of a novel that E.M. Forster – of whom this is a novelised biography – started in 1911, tinkered with for the next years, but left unfinished. He said this about it:

‘I had got my antithesis all right, the antithesis between the civilized man, who hopes for an Arctic Summer, and the heroic man who rides into the sea. But I had not settled what was going to happen, and that is why the novel remains a fragment. The novelist should I think always settle when he starts what is going to happen, what his major event is to be.’ (From Nicola Beauman’s biography, Morgan, pp. 248-49)

What does he mean by that? Well, I think it’s to do with a long, empty, bright space of time in which things could but maybe don’t get done.

So that’s perhaps the second reason for the title of Galgut’s novel: it deals mostly with the writer’s block Forster experienced between about this time, around 1912, when he embarked on his first passage to India, and 1924, when he finally published his ‘Indian novel’ – A Passage to India [APTI]; it had taken him some eleven years. It was only towards the end of that period that he was able to pick up the MS and finish it – largely, according to Galgut’s version, at the instigation of his Indian friend, Masood, to whom A Passage to India was dedicated, and of Leonard Woolf.

Galgut Arctic SummerThe other possible significance is in the emotional blankness of Forster’s life for much of this period. Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals in meticulous detail (sometimes I felt a little too much detail) with the conflicting impulses he was feeling sexually and emotionally. He longed to lose his virginity, but felt ashamed of his lustful thoughts and impulses; he also longed for intimacy, romance – love.

Galgut excels in his depiction of the ‘hateful self-righteousness’ and hypocrisy of the English middle classes; as early as page 3 Morgan (Forster was always known by his middle name) is fuming (silently) at the behaviour of his fellow passengers on board the ship that was taking them in 1912 to India – their intolerance of anyone who didn’t conform to their narrow, smug circle’s mores, which he likens to the suburban snobberies of Tunbridge Wells:

But it was the casual vilenesses, flung out in airy asides at the dining table, that upset him most…On one occasion a matronly woman, who had been a nurse in the Bhopal Purdahs, had lectured him between courses on how deplorable Mohammedan home life was. And if English children stopped in India, they learned to speak like half-castes, which was such a stigma. “And this young Indian man who’s on board,” she added in a low voice. “Well, he’s a Mohammedan, isn’t he? He 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.”

Anyone familiar with APTI will have fun recognising these references from the Indian novel – that malicious racism, laced with complacency, homophobia and suspicion.

It was only 17 years before this voyage that Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexual activity, and much of this narrative deals with the ways in which gay men at that time had to act with extreme caution. Morgan is shocked when a fellow passenger, a young English officer named Searight, talks openly about his sexual conquests, mostly of boys or young men, in India, and shows him the long, explicit epic poem he’d written about them:

To have spoken in that way to a near-stranger, to have exposed oneself so recklessly! It hadn’t been a confession – there was no shame behind it.

Shame is something with which Morgan is intimately acquainted, and his ambivalence about his sexual inclinations conflicts with his sense of decorum and…well, constrained Englishness:

…he was not nearly so afraid of the State as he was of his mother. 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. He himself was a solitary. At Cambridge, among his own circle, the question was discussed, though from an angle, and safely abstracted. One could be forgiven for believing it was a matter of talking, not doing. As long as it remained in the realm of words, no crime had been committed. But even words could be dangerous.

‘English attitudes felt foreign to him’, he feels when he hears exponents of Empire and colonialism holding forth, jingoistically.

This ambivalence, a sort of splitting of the self into a public and a private persona, is a central theme of the novel. Morgan observes Searight, for example, and sees ‘his life was broken in two: the ‘vigorous and masculine’, back-slapping hearty, ‘popular and well respected’; ‘that was one half of him – but of course there was another secret side, which Morgan had already seen.’

Later, when he’s serving with the Red Cross in Cavafy’s Alexandria during World War I, he sees a similar duality in men: ‘Night selves and day selves’: an Egyptian acquaintance who takes him to a hashish den does so as ‘a private gentleman in the evening’, but then as ‘a member of the administration by day’ he reports the proprietor to the authorities and he is deported, the ‘haunt of vice’ closed down.

Morgan spends much of the novel struggling to bridge such gaps, and to find true connection across gulfs of class, race and sexual orientation, embodied most brutally in bigoted outposts of Empire like India and Egypt.

He almost succeeds with the two loves of his life: the Indian Masood, and the young Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. He’s doomed, however, to fall for men who don’t fully reciprocate his feelings.

There are frequent references in such relationships to ‘the distance’ between them being ‘closed’, but usually it’s never completely realised, and Morgan spends (rather too much time) frustrated at his inability to find requited love, satisfy his sexual urges, and quell the feelings of shame and guilt:

To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong sometimes that it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken. Not even – not really – to Hom.

(Hom is a Cambridge friend with whom he experienced his first kiss and intimacy – but not sex. As Hom says, they can flirt with ‘the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’, but had stopped short of anything ‘carnal’ or, at that time, illegal.)

It’s a well-wrought novel, but the long sections in India and Egypt I found became repetitive and turgid, though there are some fine passages of description of place: palaces and cities, rivers and forest, and there are some colour characters and lively incident. There’s not enough humour, though, which is a shame, because Galgut shows he can be very funny (as could Forster). Here are my favourite such moments.

The first is when, shortly after that homoerotic romp, his friend Hom ‘casually’ tells Morgan he had become engaged. “To a woman?” Morgan asked stupidly.

On his first visit to India Morgan watches a Miracle Play performed by a Maharajah’s acting troupe, portraying scenes from the life of Krishna. Another friend with whom he’s travelling, Goldie (Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a Cambridge don whose biography Forster would later write), is unimpressed:

“You see,” he told Morgan. “It’s as I said. Everything comes down to religion, and it’s dull, dull, dull.”

“Religion is perhaps not the only element at work here.”

“What do you mean? Oh, yes, I see…but even that part of it is dull. A mixture of rapture and cowardice. No action, but all that quivering!

This comic scene has a sharp edge: this is Morgan’s central dilemma in the novel; like the poor cat i’ the adage in Macbeth, he spends much of his life aching to act upon his impulses and live life fully (as DH Lawrence imperiously urges him to, in another fine comic scene), but ‘he didn’t dare’, and lacked the confidence to do so. And when he does finally screw up the courage to make a sexual advance, he’s usually humiliated and rejected. Hom, Masood and Mohammed all married (that ignoble, ‘silly business’, as the hypocritical Hom bitterly calls it after some years of it) and settled into marital conformity, leaving him feeling bereft, solitary, marginalised. His life is largely one of emotional torment.

His life, and his writing by the end of this period of his life, is largely ‘sterile’, he’s a Prufrockian figure; near the end he overhears two women who recognise the now famous novelist in a teashop in London discussing him: ‘”His trousers are a few inches too short,”’ says one of them (‘I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled’). She goes on: ‘”He is a timid soul. They say he hasn’t really lived at all, except in his mind.”’

At this point he catches sight of his reflection in a mirror:

The angle of the light wiped out the surrounding room, so that he seemed to be standing alone in the middle of an immense whiteness. A snowy, frozen landscape, on which the sun was nevertheless pouring down. Arctic summer: nothing moving, nothing alive, and yet the sky was open.

He contemplates several cutting ripostes, but ends, with a characteristically ‘small’ voice:

“I have loved,” he told them. “That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way.”

The most interesting aspect of this novel is when he finds the answer to the mystery at the heart of the plot of his Indian novel, just when despair of doing so had almost crushed him:

The moment he thought it he knew that the lack of an answer was, in fact, the answer. He had circled the question for nine years, while all along the solution was almost underfoot…Dry, earnest Adela [Quested, in APTI]. All this time, she’d been in love, longing to be touched, and her longing had transmuted into violence. Imaginary or real or ghostly: let it remain mysterious. He wouldn’t explain what had happened, because he didn’t know what had happened. As a writer, he’d felt he had to provide answers, but India had reminded him that no answer would suffice.

Like Flaubert’s Mme Bovary, Adela is Morgan in his ‘driest, most sticklike’ persona.

Let me finish what has turned out, I’m afraid, to be a rather long post, with a couple more pictures of Portugal, where I read Arctic Summer. After five days Mrs TD and I caught the train down to the Algarve, and stayed ten days near Tavira, by the Ria Formosa national park, a haven for wildlife, especially birds – including flamingos.

Fuseta

The disused lifeboat station at Fuzeta, opposite our apartment, in the lagoon at low tide.

Flamingos

They were a bit far away, but those are flamingos, feeding and honking on the salt pans near Fuzeta

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Rapture and cowardice: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

  1. That is a very meticulous and fair review, Simon. Galgut is one of my favourite writers, but this book is not representative of his writing which is typically so spare and finely honed that it catches your breath. I think that he was attempting to achieve the feel of an Edwardian novel and, as his only attempt at historical fiction, he became obsessed with getting the detail exact. All the same there are stunning moments that stick with you. I had the pleasure of meeting him when he was touring this book and asked if the writing was a “claustrophobic” experience. He admitted it was. Ironically this is the book that finally garnered him the most prestigious South African prize.

    I would recommend any of his earlier works unreservedly, especially The Good Doctor, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, The Impostor, and In A Strange Room.

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Joe. It’s interesting to hear that this isn’t typical of his work. I confess I did find it dragged a bit, though when I reread and skimmed a second time I found much that pleased me, as I hope my post suggests. There’s interesting insight into EMF’s view of his own, and the novel’s, limitations: ‘fiction is too artificial and self-conscious ever to convey anything real’, Morgan says at one point. But I do feel the prodigious research Galgut clearly carried out weighs the narrative down with too much detail, and there are some sketchily realised characters, and maybe far too many of them. I liked the grumpily obsequious servant he had in India, Baldeo.

      • I like the observation on the narrative becoming weighed down with the research. Is it a bit like the “kill your darlings” command? After all that work and sweat, not being willing to let go of all the factoids?

        Found this in my “File ‘O Reference Articles:

        “If it does not advance your plot or provide your reader with important information about your characters, then it is irrelevant to your story and must go overboard.”

        Make those factoids walk the plank!

        (From http://www.elizabethcrookbooks.com/articles/historical_fiction.htm )

        • Maureen: it seems churlish to say this about such a gifted writer, but yes, I do think Galgut could have done with filleting the material a bit. OK, he doesn’t mention quite a lot of important characters – Rupert Brooke, for example, goes unmentioned – but the passages involving the Bloomsberries, and that vignette with Lawrence, entertaining enough in themselves, don’t fulfil what you quote about ‘important information about your characters’. It’s like he knew these details, so put them in. Or maybe I’m being too picky. The Edward Carpenter scenes are much more pertinent, for they show Morgan starting to recognise that another way of living as a gay man is possible – even though being out like that is a step too far for him. The exchanges with Virginia Woolf seem to me gratuitous – her ‘lantern face’ lends little to the development of Morgan as a character.

  2. I have a strange feeling of gentleness towards Forster, and a sense that, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, he “did the best he could” given the times and his nature. Perhaps his “real” life (as he suggested to the two women who made the…very rude by the way…comment) lived within his creations.

    I will share a bit of my own story to perhaps explain the above. I grew up in a very rough atmosphere, in which there was not much love or energy to spare for all of us kids. I think something told me to “withdraw” my real self better survive until it was safe to come out, and I distinctly remember at about the age of 7, “withdrawing” from full participation in the chaos and violence around me. I kept enough energy to function in the real world, but most of “me” was within an another world of my books, my imagining, and my wandering about the neighborhood. Of course, this resulted in being a bit of an “absent-minded professor” but it also preserved my own core. Over the course of adulthood, with several abrupt and messy birth pangs, the “inside” me eventually did become the “outside me.

    To cut to the chase after all the personal junk, if you are in an environment so terribly hostile to your own homosexual desires, and you are also, at heart, an artist with an artist’s drive to understand the world through your visions, it may indeed look as if “nothing” has happened in your life. But, gee whiz, look at the incredible impact Forster has had on the world through his novels!

    A long post, but I thought “cowardice” might be a bit harsh in this case. I would suggest “self-protective” may be more apt.

    Cheers, and thanks for the photos, Simon!

    • I think Morgan felt, in Galgut’s version of him, rather cowardly, which is perhaps being a bit harsh on himself. I understand your point about the need to preserve the self from corrosive environments and cultures, but phrases like his ‘sterile preoccupations’ are frequently used by Galgut in the narrative to describe Morgan. Many of these are surely taken from the letters and journals – not having read them I couldn’t say, but that’s my guess. As a super-sensitive artist, he’d no doubt be his own most severe critic. As an undergraduate I loved his critical lectures, collected in the book Aspects of the Novel. Astute and witty. I just would have liked a bit more wittiness in this novel: it’s all a bit dour. Probably inevitable, given EMF’s life and time.

      • I hear you. My comment was more to the Forster as a person, but how that plays out in the novel stands on his own. Interesting, since, as you say, Forster was a witty person.

  3. Like Joe, I’ve read other novels by Galgut, (though not The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, I must find a copy of that one) and am surprised to see his departure into historical fiction here because I think he is so good at capturing contemporary issues in ways that make me think differently.
    Still, having read EMF’s Maurice and found it very moving, I am intrigued by this one…

    • I tend not to read too much contemporary fiction, preferring the solidity of the past or recent past. I bought this because it was on offer at a giveaway price in my local supermarket, and I’d heard DG talking about the novel on a lit podcast and liked the sound of it. So thanks to you (and Joe) for the extra context and recommendations. Haven’t read Maurice yet, either, but shall do so. There’s a good account in A Summer of the gestation of Maurice (and of F’s abandonment of writing about heterosexual love stories in favour of honest treatment of what he knew: this is perhaps the strongest aspect of the novel)

  4. Interesting review, Simon. I haven’t read this one but would second Joe’s recommendation of Galgut’s earlier work, particularly The Good Doctor. In a Strange Room is excellent too, both spare and haunting. Compared to his other books, Arctic one sounds a little overwrought – a pity as the subject matter sounds interesting.

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