Forster is an elusive presence in Galgut's fiction. Photo: Cecil Beaton/Conde Nast/Archive/Corbis
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A web of race and class: Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Most of the writer’s novels are set in modern South Africa; this life of E M Forster is an unlikely change of direction.

Arctic Summer
Damon Galgut
Atlantic Books, 355pp, £17.99

In her 1939 essay “The Art of Biography”, Virginia Woolf described this as “the most restricted of all the arts”. “The novelist is free; the biographer is tied,” she wrote. Arctic Summer, a novel about E M Forster by the South African writer Damon Galgut, suggests that reality can press just as heavily on the novelist as on the biographer.

Many of Galgut’s novels are set in contemporary or near-contemporary South Africa, focusing on the idealism and corruption of the country post-apartheid. The life of Forster, middle-class chronicler of middle-class English values, seems an unlikely subject.

In fact, the themes of Forster’s life and writing coincide with those of Galgut’s work: the false promise of progress, ambiguous relationships between men, the weight of loneliness and the difficulty of authentic connection. Arctic Summer opens in 1912 with Edward Morgan Forster on his way to India to visit his friend and former pupil Syed Ross Masood, the Oxford-educated son of a prominent Indian family. Forster, virginal and inhibited, had been in love with Masood for some time. He was 33 years old and a successful novelist (his trip was funded by the proceeds of Howards End). It was only the second time in his life that he had been away from his mother for any substantial period.

During his six months abroad, Forster started work on what became A Passage to India. It would take 12 years and another stay in India, on this occasion working as private secretary to a maharaja, for him to finish the novel. After he left India the first time, Forster spent a couple of years living with his mother, equally hampered by her and
by his own diffidence (“I am leading the life of a little girl so long as I am tied to home,” he wrote to a friend). The First World War set him free, sending him to Alexandria where he worked for the Red Cross and had his first relationship, with a young Egyptian tram conductor. When the war ended, he returned to the suffocating conservatism of genteel English society while his friends (Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, D H Lawrence) busied themselves pushing creative and sexual boundaries.

Arctic Summer largely concerns the interval between the conception of A Passage to India and the novel’s publication. Galgut gamely represents the social and political climate in England on either side of the war, but his main interest lies in Forster’s experiences abroad: both his sexual encounters and the web of race and class in which he found himself caught. The novel draws on his letters and diaries, quoting them directly and re-creating episodes they describe. Galgut weaves scenes and phrases from A Passage to India throughout Arctic Summer in an attempt (as he explains in his acknowledgements) to “suggest the wide range of sources from which Forster may have drawn his material”. Suggestion is one thing, but such literal correspondence feels contrived – as do laborious explanations of how Forster translated his experiences into fiction:

The people he imagined were . . . made from those he’d encountered in India. Nobody was precisely anybody: he built them from aspects and shards and impressions. He had learned, with his earlier novels, that if you screwed up your inner eye when looking at somebody familiar, you could glimpse a new personality, both like and unlike the original.

Despite its depiction of Forster’s struggle to write and to find happiness, Arctic Summer is oddly without direction. Novels about novelists can do things that biographies can’t: consider the psychological depth of Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) or the experimentation of Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George (Arthur Conan Doyle); but Galgut is too wedded to the latter genre to produce a completely successful example of the former. His best work – The Good Doctor (2003), The Impostor (2008), In a Strange Room (2010) – is remarkable for its intensity and restraint, the way in which it combines moral complexity with the clean lines of parable. Forster’s own fiction boasts a combination of the same elements.

Arctic Summer takes its title from a novel that Forster started writing in the year before his first trip to India but never finished. Asked why, in an interview with the Paris Review, he said he had been unable to decide what was going to happen: “The novelist should, I think, always settle . . . what his major event is to be.” It is this sense of event, of a shaping force behind the unwieldiness of life, that Forster found in the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India – and that Galgut lacks in his Arctic Summer.

Hannah Rosefield works for the British Library and is an editor at Review 31

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution