I count E.M. Forster to be one of my favourite writers and he is one of the few whose work I will re-read over time.
So, for this reason I was excited to pick up Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut. Arctic Summer is a fictionalized biography of Forster during that period of time when he finished his highly successful Howards End and the 10 year gap before his greatest work, A Passage to India, was published.
Forster presented to the world an image of a prim gentleman, an intellectual who spent his life in the company of his mother and his aunts. His early novels – A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread – rebelled against societal conventions and the limits put on relationships. As a gay man, at that point in history, he was unable to, not only explore openly, but also to write openly about the kind of relationship he wished to pursue. During this time Forster began a novel, Arctic Summer, which he was to abandon. By an arctic summer, he was referring to a long cold day in which there was time to do things. This describes well this decade in which he struggled creatively and personally.
Sadly, love for him was not possible for him at home, so he, like many others, went abroad, with his travels taking him to Egypt and India. Forster had an unrequited love affair with Syed Ross Masood, who encouraged him to travel to India and write about his country. During the war Forster had a non-combat role in Alexandria where he had a relationship Mohammad el Adl, a tram conducter, a relationship that continued over time to be affectionate despite their differences in race, income and class. Forster grew more reckless and during a second trip to India as a private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas, he began an unsettling and unequal relationship with the Maharaja’s barber that eventually came to a violent conclusion, which left Forster deeply disturbed.
Forster’s journeys were the paths to discovery both personal and creative, as he attempted in that decade to forge affectionate and sexual relationships and to break free himself from the forces that were stifling him creatively allowing him to complete his greatest masterpiece.