I love E.M. Forster’s writing. I love the poetry of A Passage to India — the aphorism “only connect” and the final passage about the impossibility of interracial friendship and same-sex romance at that place and time going so deep as to appear to be ingrained in nature itself. I love the rawness of Maurice — the author’s own pain and longing practically pulsing off the page.
So with Arctic Summer, a novel about the years Forster spent writing Passage to India, Damon Galgut both piqued my interest and had a hell of a lot to live up to. In brief: he delivered. Arctic Summer is a beautifully crafted portrayal of Forster’s travels in India, and the relationships he formed. Galgut even echoes Forster’s style somewhat — the subtle suggestions of violent emotions, the attention to small details, and the meandering thoughtful interludes of reflection.
It’s difficult to pick particular passages that reminded me of Forster — it was more a niggling sensation throughout. Galgut did take some descriptions of India from Forster’s novels, so in the scene where Forster visits a set of caves, the experience could very much have led to what eventually became Passage. Still, Forster’s influence seems to permeate much of the book, enhancing the feeling that we really are entering the mind of the author. Take for example the following passage:
Whom could he tell about his love? He wrote about it to a handful of people at home, but he was aware of how absurd, how ridiculous, it sounded… It was more as if he’d fallen into love through Mohammed: into a small circular space in the very centre of his life, where almost nothing threw a shadow. [p. 221]
The first section frames a emotion within the context of socially acceptable self-consciousness, yet the dissembling into the purely metaphorical in the second section reveals how deep his emotions actually run. It’s this type of linguistic tension that reminds me of Forster, and this interplay between social norms and emotional truth being reflected in language.
The story itself also reflects the themes Forster explores in Passage and Maurice. We see Forster’s romances, and we see how his fascination with Indian culture clashes with the haughtiness of his fellow Englishmen and women. We see his various efforts to connect with others, as well as his attempts to capture the wonders of his experiences in words.
Galgut does a great job in taking us into Forster’s head, and in reflecting the thought processes that could have gone into writing Passage. He also makes tangible the relationships that Forster could only hint at in his own writing, as well as the tragedy that these relationships couldn’t work out. Arctic Summer renewed my love for Forster’s work, and I finished this novel with a desire to re-read Passage and Maurice, and to check out P.N. Furbank’s biography E.M. Forster: A Life, which Galgut mentions in his acknowledgements as a key source.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.