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LOVE UNDER A HOT, EMPTY SKY

Arctic Summer By Damon Galgut, Aleph, Rs 595

Edward Morgan Forster, shuffling about in the attic of his mind, writes in his diary on the day before his 86th birthday in 1964: “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex prevented the latter.” One would be mistaken if one takes this to mean that Forster was so busy enjoying sex in his best years that he could not pay enough attention to writing. Living a timorous life in the shadow of his wid owed, cranky mother, Forster managed to get rid of his virginity only in his mid-thir ties and did not quite have a romp even after that. What had presumably prevented him from publishing more frequently was the fear of being rejected by conservatives on speaking out about his kind of love and sex — Forster was a homosexual. However, one is led to doubt this excuse of Forster for not publishing more since the artists of the Bloomsbury group, of which Forster was a part, were famously experimental, fond of experiencing love in every possible combi nation, not merely same-sex; and, as it is, Virginia Woolf, the ‘face’ of the group, was publishing novels in which women were falling in rambunctious love with each other, as Virginia herself was in real life. The novelist, Simon Raven, had said with his customary cynicism that sex could not have been the only hurdle in the way of Forster writing more: he was also “bone idle”.

What emerges from these — a sketch of an artist perhaps a little lazy, perhaps a little scared of love and turbulence, perhaps more scared of eyes that fix him in a formulated phrase — is one that Damon Galgut develops into a portrait in Arctic Summer, the title taken from Forster’s own unfinished novel of the same name. Although Galgut must have got more than just a little help from Forster’s own diaries and letters, recorded comments of contemporary writers on Forster, and several biographies, his “Morgan” has a life of his own, albeit a life wholly structured around his sexual orientation. So right from Page 1, when Morgan is travelling aboard the ship, City of Birmingham, in October 1912 to India, he is rocked by thoughts of buggery, of the resultant alienation in the society back home where that is still a crime, and by “dreams of murder” bred by a “hot, empty sky”. Since Morgan is going to India chiefly to meet his dear friend, Syed Ross Masood, whose innocuous “I love you” in letters has recently started giving him long shivers of joy, it is expected — to give it to Galgut — that Morgan would be haunted by visions of lust and love. Galgut connects Morgan’s ‘coming out’ to India through Masood, though Forster had been in love with men before and after the Masood affair. But the kind of unhinging brought about by India, where meaning and meaningless collide to become the echoing “boum” of the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, is what finally makes him come to terms with himself, Galgut suggests. The unbearable Indian summer becomes, paradoxically, the ‘Arctic summer’ — a time of vertical, unblinking light so bright that it induces its own darkness. It is the “mystery” of the Caves, the “lack of a solution… [that] was the truth”.

Forster’s prim novels contain no hint of their author’s sexual orientation (excepting Maurice, which was published after his death). Critics have long suggested that Forster was telling his love through metaphors and subterfuges in his novels —that they are also expressions of his controlled rage at not being able to speak out. While this may or may not be true, there are surely other concerns, most prominently, those of class, in Forster’s work. To reduce everything to the torture of not being able to voice and enjoy one’s sexuality can create a sentimental effect, especially in our times, when the acceptance of alternative sexualities is considered to be a sign of high-minded political correctness rather than of plain kind-ness.

This weepiness is to be found in some perfectly banal sentences like “Even in one’s most physical moment, the real craving was for love.” The Morgan of Arctic Summer emerges as a mousy little fellow always looking out for signs that will help him identify men of his ilk (the “minorism” of the Greek poet, Cavafy, whom Morgan meets in Egypt, is said to be evident in his “fussiness, his over-refinement”), ever hungry for acceptance, and sniffling over lovers who simply cannot understand the language he speaks. Reading Arctic Summer I had the uncomfortable feeling that there is more of Galgut than Forster in his Morgan.

However, certain vignettes drawn by Galgut are delightful. Of these, the most entertaining one is of Morgan’s gouty mother, whose image rises like that of Mrs Norma Bates in Morgan’s mind at crucial, heated moments, to further incapacitate him. His mother, with her tea parties and false pleasantries that sum up English middle-class provincial life, comes to stand, in Galgut’s novel, for the stiflingly narrow-minded society that Morgan despises and rebels against. After succeeding in losing his virginity at last at the age of 37, Morgan excitedly ruminates; “If they could have seen him doing… what he’s just done, his mother, oh how terrible, or Maimie or Aunt Laura, any of the old, powdery, frangible halo of women who encircled him, there would be no words.” Yet, Morgan is also a true product of this frangible world — which makes his attempts at reaching out to a warmer, more dangerous reality as symbolized in Masood, and India, slightly ridiculous.

Two of Masood’s usual exuberant gifts are a pair of embroidered slippers and a hookah, both which ill suit the propah Englishman. The picture of the tentative Morgan, overwhelmed by the gifts and their giver, sitting at the edge of his bed with the hookah to his lips and the slippers on his feet, is both amusing and touching. Less witty, because conforming to stereotypes, are the sketches of Morgan’s fellow Bloomsburies — like that of Virginia, with her “long, lantern-shaped face, inhabited by sharp intelligence”, who announces prophetically, “You know, I can’t imagine you there [in India]” (in her diaries, Virginia had written with much more anxiety about Forster’s imminent trip to India: “He will become a mystic, sit by the roadside and forget Europe... we shan’t see him again”).

Arctic Summer would be of considerable appeal to those getting to know Forster, discovering homosexuality or learning the ‘secrets’ of the incestuous Bloomsbury set for the first time. Galgut cannot be solely blamed for condensing all of Forster’s dilemmas into his sexuality — the opening quote from Forster’s diary proves that he himself wanted to propagate that assumption for reasons best known to him. But the Forster who beckons from his novels, even from A Passage to India, which is his bleakest, is not the wimpy kid of Arctic Summer wailing for love, but a man of sharp wit and humour who could declare wickedly, for instance, “If love is everything, few marriages would survive the honeymoon.”