EM Forster’s passage from Bloomsbury

ARCTIC SUMMER by Damon Galgut (Umuzi, imprint of Random House/Struik)

Damon Galgut can raise the dead.

The eerie evocation of E M Forster’s ghost in Arctic Summer is an extraordinary accomplishment. No wonder the novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Raising the dead: Damon Galgut

South African writer Galgut has quietly established his international reputation over the years, from A Sinless Season on to this latest, meticulously researched, and convincing resurrection of the elusive being that was Forster. Arctic Summer is far more than a biography: it’s a seance with the departed.

Galgut is particularly impressive in his subtly developed explanation of Forster’s renowned A Passage to India. And, yes, explanation is the word: his articulate understanding of the creative process is absolutely persuasive. It’s like reading poor, lonely Forster’s diary. Which Galgut did.

Readers may flinch at intimate details of the curious, painful but often hilarious, facts of Forster’s progress from Bloomsbury tea parties to gaudy revelry in colonial India. The walk-ons by the great and goodish are fascinating – everyone from Virginia (“eyes like nails”) and Leonard Woolf, to eccentric bejewelled rajahs and – at long last – lovers.

Well, sort of lovers. Forster was in his thirties when he eventually steeled himself to pursue his covert lust for young males. It is noted that this tendency, for some unexplained reason, often involves aristocratic yearning for physical engagement with working-class youth. This patronage seems frequently to have extended to passions for impoverished colonial citizens. Thus Forster.

It may have been that Forster would have preserved his virginity for ever if World War I had not upheaved his sedate academic existence. The shock of exchanging prim bachelor life with sighing Mother for the urgent exotica of Asia and Africa was momentous.

South Africans are accustomed to living with an astonishing mix of humanity, but a proper young county man, in the twilight of British empire, would have been dazzled by the vivid, often baffling, social range of the colonies.

Kind Oxford Old Boy influence landed Forster in some unlikely Indian situations. As private secretary to a witty little princeling, Forster stumbled into such phantasmagorical doings as the celebration of the birth of Krishna. While the band played Nights of Gladness, elephants bellowed and cannons roared, Forster found himself pacing barefoot, hand-in-hand with two Hindu holy men smeared with red and black paint, en route to feasting till dawn.

Mother would have suffered one of her dreadful  rheumatism attacks if she had been informed of such heathen excesses.

Galgut’s rare dramatic skill bemuses the reader into forgetting that Arctic Summer is a novel, not a biography or autobiography. The writer has steeped himself in the mind and spirit of his subject to such an extent that author, and author, are inseparable. Spell-binding stuff.

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