Magazine article The Spectator

A Later Beginner

Magazine article The Spectator

A Later Beginner

Article excerpt

'On the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings whom you think are sadly mistaken, ' said Penelope Fitzgerald in 1987. The South African novelist Damon Galgut has reversed this formula - with mixed results. He has written a novel about a fellow novelist, E.M. Forster, using episodes and quotations taken from a conscientious reading of biographies, diaries and letters. He salutes Forster as a writer and commends his humanity; but it is not clear whether he thinks Forster was sadly mistaken in his sexual bearings or lame in his choices.

Arctic Summer opens with Forster travelling with his fellow members of the Cambridge Apostles, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Bob Trevelyan and Gordon Luce, aboard the steamship Birmingham heading for India in 1912. They are known as the 'salon' by hostile passengers - officers, civil servants and merchants of the Raj, who sense their estrangement from British imperialism. One night, on deck, Forster meets an army officer called Kenneth Searight, who shows him exuberantly homoerotic poetry and tries to loosen the prim repressions of this fussy, anxious, bleating young man.

Before meeting Searight, Forster had published several successful novels with love themes - without himself having any full sexual experiences involving anyone else. True, he had shared chaste, fully-clothed embraces with another Apostle, Hugh Meredith; had been infatuated with Syed Ross Masood, scion of an Indian legal family, who reciprocated his affection but not his lust; had even been harassed by a blackmailer who overheard his unguarded talk in the Savile Club. All these people and incidents are given a thin varnish of fiction by Galgut.

So, too, are Forster's meetings with other real-life characters. He travels to Yorkshire to meet the campaigner for sexual liberation Edward Carpenter. He goes to stay with D.H. Lawrence, who decries him as 'cloistered, limp, ineffectual'. Sir Courtauld Thomson, the mannered bachelor who is Red Cross commissioner in the Near East, treats him sniffily. In Alexandria he shares confidences with the poet Cavafy.

Forster's life and to some extent his novels rejected tyrannical egotism and uncurbed passions in favour of an almost masochistic docility. 'All human interaction was power, ' he reflects in Galgut's fiction. …

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