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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser