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E.M. Forster and the writing of A Passage To India

Arctic SummerI have struggled, to some extent, with Damon Galgut’s ‘biographical novel’ about E.M. Forster, Arctic Summer, which uses the title of an ‘incomplete’ novel Forster wrote, which was unpublished in his lifetime.

The subject matter of the book is two-fold, taking as it does not a cradle-to-grave biographical approach, but an examination of the process of writing itself, particularly the writing of A Passage To India, and also, Forster’s struggle with the straitjackets of his class, at a particular time in history and in geography (the time of Empire) and of a sexuality which was not only illegal, but, for a large part of his life, shameful to Forster, whether expressed or not.

My struggle with this book, much as I admire Galgut’s writing, is that he is himself a writer with a tendency to conceal as much as he reveals. He is a writer of spare and beautiful prose, but the reader is deliberately not drawn in. There is a reserve in his writing. This does of course perfectly fit his subject in this book. Forster was also a man of reserve, both through the entirely stiff upper lip repressed attitudes of the times, rendered even more obvious in Forster because he did have so much to hide, and in many ways was so very unlike the hearty, anti-intellectual Empire builders of the time, who did not mingle socially with, and indeed despised, ‘the natives’.

This was a vigorous, outdoor world, full of sports and guns. If you didn’t join the club or play polo or shoot tigers or subdue barbarous tribes on the borders, you were immediately an unsound quantity, the more so if,…you lived in your mind a great deal and wrote books. Of what earthly use were novels? How did they help anybody?

So, Galgut, a writer of some reserve, and a tendency to a kind of cool unfervent mysticism – most potently seen in In A Strange Room – writes about Forster, who seems similarly reserved. Both men are/were clearly both deeply thinking and deeply feeling, but the ‘Only Connect’ central to, I believe, both writers, is not easy, in either of them. Reserved writing about a Reserved writer in the end left me wanting more, as the book wore on.

Now in an extended clarity, he saw the way forward. He had wanted the story to open out, and suddenly it had, in the most Indian of ways, into wider questions about the universe

It’s strengths for me were in the earlier part of the book, where the absolute awfulness of living at a time and in a place where sexual orientation was so rigidly and restrictedly defined and culturally and legally controlled, are beautifully expressed. Galgut does not use polemic, or bang drums, or preach to a possibly largely converted audience, but, almost dispassionately, lays out what is/was, and lets the effect of that resonate for the reader. His recounting of the sense of shame and self loathing which so many ‘minories’ inhabited, was deeply distressing.

E.M.Forster painted by Dora Carrington,  Wiki Commons

E.M.Forster painted by Dora Carrington, Wiki Commons

Forster’s discomfort with the prevailing racist, classist attitudes of his peers, AND his sense of shame and self-loathing at the times he became aware of those self-same attitudes within him, also formed a telling part of the story.

It is perhaps inevitable that ‘Forster the man’ and the difficulties and challenges which Galgutarise through being part of one culture, time and place, are more immediately resonant to a reader who is not a novelist than the interesting (but, for me, more cerebrally experienced) passages about writing itself, and particularly the gestation and difficulties of writing A Passage To India, which at times for me became a little dry. I very much admire Forster’s writing, but was less interested, in this case, in the process of that writing, whereas the man within the larger world, within his time, was absolutely absorbing

He had cut himself open and showed the innermost part; it had been rash and unconsidered and regrettable. Now he had to close himself up again, to seal the carapace, and he began to do what was necessary. It was part of a willed cheerfulness he had learned back in his childhood already, as protection against disappointment. The only defence against raw, naked feeling was reason. Understanding made sadness easier to bear

Arctic Summer Amazon UK
Arctic Summer Amazon USA