“Encircled by Invisible Emotion”: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer


This kind of companionship had far more value to Morgan than their few, fumbling physical encounters. Sex could be forgotten, or made into something that it wasn’t, but feelings were much harder to erase. There had been moments, from their time in Alexandria, when they had simply sat together talking quietly, or smoking cigarettes in brotherly contentment, when he’d felt that they were removed from other people. Paired off. And it had come to him then that there might be many men like them, in the past as well as the present, who had been together in a similar uncelebrated way, encircled by invisible emotion.

My book club chose Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer to follow Howards End. Not only did I enjoy Howards End so much that I liked the idea of hanging around with Forster a bit longer (which is also why I reread A Room With a View), but I’ve been curious about Arctic Summer since I read Steve’s review in Open Letters Weekly, and got even more interested when it made the Stevereads “Best of 2014: Fiction” list.

I enjoyed Arctic Summer quite a bit — though maybe “enjoyed” is the wrong word, as it’s such a low-key, melancholy novel. Unlike Steve, who has always already read everything else (in this case, specifically the Forster biographies on which Galgut’s novel is heavily dependent), I knew little about Forster the man before I started, and now I feel that I have gotten to know him pretty well. I like him, too, though I think there’s a side of him I might like even better than the somewhat mopish, solitary man we mostly see here, where we hardly ever spend time with him when he’s actually having fun. “On a surface level, he was quite sociable,” we’re told at one point, “seeing a great many people and acquitting himself well in company, but an essential part of him had become deeply withdrawn, hardly noticing the outside world.” It’s that withdrawn man, steeped in reticence, who is Galgut’s main character, not (or only very rarely) the man who holds his own (just for instance) in conversation with the Woolfs and their friends at Monks House. That his reserve is in many respects a necessity only makes it more poignant: Galgut’s muted tone nicely matches the emphasis he puts on the emotional costs, to a man as hesitant and sensitive as Forster, of a life so shrouded in secrecy.

It’s that “surface level,” I guess, so much more confident, assertive, and optimistic, that comes across in Howards End or A Room with a View, or in The Art of Fiction or the radio broadcasts Zadie Smith discusses in her wonderful essay “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” Because this is the Forster I knew, I was surprised to find Arctic Summer so sadly yearning. “Only connect” seems a more wishful (or wistful) credo here — but connection is certainly what Galgut’s Forster longs for. He does achieve it, but only equivocally, in both of the two friendships that dominate the novel: with his Indian friend Masood, to whom A Passage to India is ultimately dedicated, and his Egyptian friend Mohammed, with whom he comes closest to the kind of intimacy he most desires (“To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong that sometimes it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken”). His final affirmation is also equivocal, hardly a happy ending but not unhappy either: “I have loved. That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way.”

Mark Athitakis has a really smart, eloquent review of Arctic Summer in the Barnes and Noble Review in which he discusses the relationship between Galgut’s novel and A Passage to India:

Misunderstanding, prejudice, and power are the lenses through which Galgut tries to position a sexually repressed Forster, introduced in 1912 making his first trip to India. Though he’d written four novels attuned to the relationships of men and women, he struggled to apply his plea to “only connect” to his own life. His homosexuality was unspeakable: “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. But via Galgut, unspoken lusts abound within him, especially for Masood, a young Muslim he met as a Latin tutor in London six years earlier. The opening pages capture the first stirrings of that repression becoming unlocked. The sentences are thick with heat and lust, felt by a man fit to burst.

That Forster — Morgan as his friends call him — will be liberated over the course of the novel isn’t in doubt. The tension within Arctic Summer is how much, and how that urge for sexual liberation was sublimated into the novel. To the second point, Galgut cannily invests picayune details from Passage into his own novel and invests them with a sensual weight: help with a collar stay, for instance, or Masood’s observation of Forster’s “pinko-gray” skin. But the novel’s engine is Morgan’s broader anxieties.

It has been too long since I read Passage for me to add anything to Mark’s analysis, though now of course I want to reread it, partly to complement Arctic Summer, partly to test Mark’s comment that Passage “is showing signs of age.” (I read The Jewel in the Crown not that long ago, however, and got intermittently confused by recollections of it that surfaced during discussions of Passage. Parts of Arctic Summer also reminded me of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, particularly the descriptions of Bapu Sahib’s chaotic household.)

passageBecause I couldn’t sustain a properly intertextual reading, what I found myself thinking about the most with Arctic Summer was the question of genre. In his original OLW review, Steve describes it as a “mildly inert reading experience” because of “the novel’s curiously timid approach to its own novelhood.” He concludes with dissatisfaction, but clearly reconsidered by the time he was assembling his ‘best of’ list. Maybe because I didn’t have the “two great templates” mentally to hand, I didn’t find Arctic Summer thin in the way he describes, but I agree that, interesting and touching as I found it as biography, it doesn’t ever really take off as a novel, so I ended up wondering what is really gained, or lost, or intended, in rendering Forster’s life story in fiction in this way. If it doesn’t break any new ground (and I have to take Steve’s word for it that it “virtually never strays from Furbank’s biography in its details”), and it doesn’t do anything striking formally or artistically (though it is certainly well written and crafted) — is it really just taking Forster’s story and making it more accessible, more digestible? Is it the novelistic equivalent of a docu-drama or a re-enactment?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, especially since I’m someone who is (evidently!) much more likely to read about someone’s life in a novel than in a full-fledged biography. (The opposite is true of my husband, who very much enjoyed Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan but has repeatedly declined offers of David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk.) But somehow in this case I was left fretting about whether reading fiction in lieu of fact was such a good idea: Arctic Summer seems so much like straight-up biography that I might be misled into believing things about Forster that weren’t really true.

What kind of concern is this, though? It’s not something that bothers me at all about Wolf Hall, where surely the odds are much greater that I’m getting a Cromwell wholly unlike the man who actually lived. Wolf Hall is “historical fiction”: is it just the longer expanse of time between us and its subject that changes the terms on which we read it? I’m not saying it doesn’t matter whether Mantel did her research: it does, and she did. Wolf Hall is anything but timid as a novel: is that what makes me feel differently about it? You couldn’t read it and forget you were getting an artistically-shaped treatment: maybe it’s Arctic Summer‘s semblance of transparency that provokes this line of questioning. Just by being a novel, though, it’s setting aside its claims to be telling the truth. Furbank’s biography, which is also, inevitably, made up (because, as we all know, narratives must always be imposed on chaotic, amorphous reality, or carved out of it) probably presents itself much more authoritatively. In retelling Forster’s story as a story, maybe that’s Galgut’s signal contribution: a reminder that however scrupulous we are about the facts, the result will always in some sense be fiction.

10 thoughts on ““Encircled by Invisible Emotion”: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

  1. Harriet February 22, 2015 / 5:00 am

    Interesting review. I love Forster, but would I read this? I’m usually with your husband re. biogs vs novelisations, though of course Wolf Hall blows this right out of the water. That quote about “virtually never strays from Furbanks biography” would set me off on a quest to see exactly what that “virtually” actually meant. When I watch a biographical movie, I go straight to Wikipedia to see what the “real” facts were (yes, I know, Wikipedia, but still…). Perhaps the answer to the Wolf Hall thing is that Mantell is a great writer and Galgut just a competent one? But yes, your final sentence is indeed a good reminder.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2015 / 2:39 pm

      My husband wouldn’t read Wolf Hall either! He’s something of a purist about this, I guess (though I think if he actually got further into it he might forget his principles).


  2. Keira Soleore February 22, 2015 / 3:59 pm

    I read Forster’s Passage and saw the movie a long time ago, so I can’t comment on Forster.

    However, I was struck by this: “a reminder that however scrupulous we are about the facts, the result will always in some sense be fiction.” and the discussion on “Wolf Hall.”

    As an aspiring writer of historical fiction, there is always the struggle between the desire to get the facts right and the desire to not sacrifice the fictional arc by bogging everything down with details. The best historical fiction stays true to the portrayal of real characters and events with choice details, but imagines everything else while still staying true to the period, the times, the politics, the culture, etc. And sometimes, historical details have to take second place to the fictional story–gasp!–but hopefully in not egregious ways.


  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) February 22, 2015 / 5:03 pm

    I want to protest the idea that historical fiction is bound by the truth in any way. Writers, be egregious!


    • Keira Soleore February 22, 2015 / 5:45 pm

      And then other historical writers/readers/reviewers will come out of the woodwork to skewer you. 🙂


    • Amateur Reader (Tom) February 22, 2015 / 6:08 pm

      Are they really that narrow-minded about fiction? They read Song of the Shank and they get out their skewers?

      The novel I mentioned is in some sense a biographical novel about Blind Tom Wiggins. But it is full of deliberate inaccuracies and anachronisms. It may have other problems, but not those Rohan finds in the Galgut novel.

      The writer’s responsibility to truth is to the truth of his art.


      • Keira Soleore February 23, 2015 / 11:03 pm

        I admire your separation of history and fiction, and how everything is in service of the story in a fictional novel.

        However, where I come from–historical romantic fiction–while story should not be sacrificed for facts, it is drummed into a newbie writer’s head that she should try really, really hard not to sacrifice facts for story either. These facts can be macro (people and events) to micro (minute clothing details). On some level, I’m with the “get most of the details right” group, otherwise call it alternate historical fiction or plain fiction, but not historical fiction.


      • Amateur Reader (Tom) February 24, 2015 / 12:11 am

        Ah, “historical romantic fiction.” We are not talking about the same thing. I should have realized, and I concede any point at issue.


  4. steve donoghue February 22, 2015 / 10:18 pm

    I’d like to think the problem here isn’t simply that Mantel is a much stronger writer than Galgut (although I admit there’s a depressingly high likelihood that it’ll ultimately boil down to that)! I think the problems I initially had with Arctic Summer revolved more around the point Keira raises about fiction taking precedence over fact in a novel – and an author’s dedication to that. I could make you a long, long list not just of the misinterpretations but of the outright lies Mantel tells us about ‘her’ Cromwell, but the list wouldn’t matter: her Cromwell is overwhelmingly convincing as a fictional creation. Whereas Galgut seemed to be writing ‘his’ Forster worried the whole time about being caught out by Forster experts – which strikes me as exactly the wrong way to write historical fiction. In his novel, HE should be the Forster expert.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 22, 2015 / 11:48 pm

      “In his novel, HE should be the Forster expert” — that’s so helpfully put. I do think Mantel’s skill (or is it daring? her novel is just more risky, I think, so her pulling it off is all the more impressive) is a crucial factor, but a big part of that has to be confidence — of the right kind. I couldn’t pick out errors of fact in either case myself, but in one case I’m convinced, as you say, whereas in the other I found myself wondering intermittently — is this right? did this happen? is this from one of the letters? And that’s exactly what I should not be thinking, not in the novel version, anyway.


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