Arctic Summer

arcticsummerArctic Summer
by Damon Galgut
2014/352 pages
rating: 6 /fiction – fictionalized biography

Nonfiction which “reads like a novel”  is fairly common and I’ve read a fair amount,  but a novel which “read like a biography” is rather unusual – in fact this is the first I’ve ever come across and, for the most part,  it’s not a great experience.

What is wrong????  –  Unless we’re talking textbooks, most contemporary nonfiction tries to infuse a bit of tension if not suspense,  whether it’s in the finding of a cure or the outcome of a true crime.  Fiction is supposed to create it somehow in the use of foreshadowing and immediacy and other devices.  But although it’s fiction,  there is no tension at all in Arctic Summer.  It reads like the biography of a rather creepy  but very talented old homosexual in the early 20th century.  Perhaps Galgut was trying to create the ambiance of A Passage to India – except that marvelous book has lots of suspense!

So why the rating of 6?  Until the latter part of the book I was considering a rating of 4 – but a few things came together then,  the writing of the whole book is very nice and  parts of Forster’s creation of Passage to India were actually quite well done – while other parts lapsed into the straight biography of a writer.

I very much enjoy Forster’s other major novels (Howard’s End, Room with a View, etc) and I don’t think I’m homophobic, but reading a fictionalized version of Forster’s  life with an opening focus on the demons of homosexuality was almost a bit over the top (for me).  But I persevered.

I’ve also enjoyed all of Galgut’s prior novels,  The Good Doctor and a couple others,  but this is different because it’s historical fiction of the biographical variety – fictionalized biography.  The emphasis here is on biography because Galgut apparently does not deviate from what is known about Forster’s life – and there’s quite a lot, thanks to diaries, etc.   Gadget is apparently only adding some invented dialogue and the exact scenes.

Back in 1914, when EM Forster was already an established

E. M. Forster

E. M. Forster

and well-regarded novelist, he  traveled to India for the second time.  He went alone (meaning without mother or friends) and accidentally (?) developed the ideas used in the novel A Passage to India (published in 1924 and  which I’ve read twice,  but both times quite a while ago now).  The second trip to India is the opening chapter of the book.

Then we are carried back via memory to Forster’s first trip to India when he went with friends, trying to get closer (or stay close) to a man he’d met at university.

Arctic Summer takes its title from Forster’s unfinished and unpublished novel (which is what he was trying to work on during that first trip),  but Galgut has done quite a lot of research into the man and the times and added enough dialogue,  interior ideas and setting information to try to bring the man in his own life and times to life – except that it doesn’t quite make the “to life”  level.   It reads in too many places like a biography – stilted, plugging along at the details with some dialogue added.

See the Washington Post article / review about Arctic Summer and EM’s biography.


Forster and Masood

To tell the truth I got bored.  Bored bored, bored – I kind of enjoyed picking up on the places where I see one of his novels alluded to. I liked knowing it was “real” –  Galgut didn’t fudge that anyone has mentioned.

I just didn’t enjoy the interiors of a lonely man longing for homosexual love in what was essentially still the tail end of the Victorian era.  Forster was a virgin until age 37 .  He was fond of younger men (early 20s) and the Maharajah assisted in procuring these young men.  To tell the truth,  Forster comes across as somewhat creepy.

I’m not even much interested in straight romance –  At this point,  (Chapter 4) EM has been involved with  Searight (in the opening chapter for some structural interest),   Masood and now Carpenter.  He got a bit obsessed with Masood – was not enchanted by India.  Then there the other are boy/men in India which are strictly for sexual purposes.

Perhaps if I annotated the people and events, etc. my interest would pick up.  THere’s really quite a lot of name-dropping in the parts which take place in England:

EM Forster
on his diaries:
Kenneth Searight (p. 1)
Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson  (p. 8)
Oscar Wilde (p. 9)
von Golden photographs (p. 10)
Mrs. Mawe (p. 11)
Bob Trevelyan (p. 12)
Gordon Luce (p. 12)
Syed Ross Masood – (p. 16)
Lily Forster – EM’s mother
aymie Aylward – Lily’s friend (not via Google but I’ll bet she’s mentioned in Foster’s diaries or something. (p. 21)
Paul Verlain (p. 23)
Cambridge Apostles (p. 26)
Hugh Owen Meredith “Hom”  
(p. 26)
Caroline Graveson – (p. 30) not found but probably the wife of Hugh Meredith
Ansel the garden boy (probably from diaries)
Ernest Merz (p. 44 – not directly found but see a biography – the story in Arctic Summer is pretty close)
More and more and more – about every name. place, event is accurate.

Lytton Strachey (p. 158)
Maurice and Alec Scudder – title of Forster’s book but based on different people  – p. 158)
Charles Holroyd (p. 160)
Theodore Morison (p. 161)
Lady Ottoline Morell (p. 162)
David Herbert Lawrence (DH Lawrence – p. 162)
Duncan Grant – painter
Edward Carpenter  (p. 166)
Gertrude Bell (p. 167)
Cavafy ( p. 170)
Mohamed Ali Club (p. 170)

Etc.  and you get the picture – all in all Galgut has written a biography – adding blood and guts I suppose,  the up-close and personal angst of being gay in a  very unsympathetic society including the domineering Mum.

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