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Arctic Summer Damon Galgut

March 31, 2016

AS 2‘Arctic Summer,’ is the title of Forster’s one unfinished novel. Is this a metaphor for Forster’s wish to become his true self as opposed to his feeling of unfulfilment?: He could sink very deep at moments like these. Once he had seen tracts of scarlet, billowing in the swell, which he was told were fish spawn, waiting to hatch. Life that wasn’t human life, maturing and breaking out and expending itself, in a medium that wasn’t human either.

Some of us are currently reading Wendy Moffat’s ‘A New Life’ a biography of Forster (2010) which had access to Forster’s diaries and papers held by Kings College and also sought to explore the impact of his sexuality on his career.  We feel that Arctic Summer didn’t offer any more than Moffat.  The latter is a testament to the sensitivity of Moffat’s work.

However, this book works well as a fictionalised biography, though how much is fiction and how much is biography?

The book captures peoples’ internalised world, though to what extent can we know what they thought and felt?

We don’t get the smells and noises that assault the senses in India.

The description of the Malabar Caves is good but we wouldn’t have realised their importance in ‘A Passage to India’ unless we already knee that work.

Many of us believe the British Empire to be about plunder and subjugation rather than the bringing of so-called enlightenment. Note the racism and snobbery of the English: “And this young Indian man ‘who’s on hoard,” she added in a low voice. “Well, he’s a Mohammedan, isn’t he? Ile has been to public school in England, but has it improved him? He thinks he’s one of us, but of course he never will be.”.. If we’re pleasant to them, they only despise us.” Morgan had wanted to reply, but held off, and felt bad about it afterwards.

How things have changed have changed since then: “But in India there were a great many attractive legs. Legs were everywhere on display, as Morgan would see. Flesh was generally more visible in India than at home; that was how they did things out there.” – I know somebody who came back to the UK after a year in India who was overwhelmed by the amount of naked flesh that he’d not seen during that year and which now came flooding back in.

We see Forster’s internalised homophobia: That was the truly astonishing thing: Searight appeared to be almost proud of who and what he was.

He conforms to the classic ‘father deprivation’ theory: His father had died when Morgan was not yet two, and when he contemplated sex in any form it was the image of his mother, Lily ­widowed, middle-aged, perpetually unhappy — that rose before him, to intervene. As she did now.

When he says: “It was a leap of logic to assume that Searight was sharing a cabin with the Indian; such an arrangement was unlikely.” I am reminded of a book or film I have recently encountered where something similar happens – but I can’t remember which.

We get the suicide, obligatory for the period, as early as p.47

Morgan is disgusted by his lust. It must have been awful to have this sort of corrosive self-loathing. Of course, things were different back then but his inept forays and fumblings make him seem quite pathetic.

Morgan uses the term ‘minorite’ for homosexuals – though the word actually refers to a friar.


A collection of von Gloeden photographs, for example, well worn despite careful handling. Morgan had seen these images before, but in a context that had required sober, aesthetic appreciation. That wasn’t the case now. In Searight’s hand, the sullen Sicilian youths, lolling among ruins and statuary, took on a carnal frankness. His voice became husky with awe on the subject of youthful male beauty. Flesh and feathery moustaches and defiant yet vulnerable eyes… “And look at his sultry cock, angled to the left at about forty-five degrees. It’s a real beauty. To say nothing of the testicles, which are spectacular, especially the one on the right.” In his telling, even the most tawdry encounter became luminous, operatic.

“There were only certain intimacies one could hope to survive.”
“The only defence against raw, naked feeling was reason. Understanding made sadness easier to bear.”
“What he sensed more than anything else was kindness – a kindness of a human and immediate sort. It was surprising how very radical this simple emotion could be.”
“There was no reason why he should not lift the veil aside.
Well, there was Lily. He could imagine his mother’s face if he told her he was giving up meat and alcohol and going to live off the land and make sandals. Not to mention homogenic love. The veil might be thin, but in some cases it was insurmountable.”
“under the elaborate filigree of language, hadn’t it always been about this deferment, this selfishness, this veil drawn over the obvious truth, which was that Masood simply did not care enough? Morgan could not look at the possibility for long, but at least he could look at it, and over the coming days he took it out and hurt himself with it at particular moments when he was alone. He had always been slow to comprehend his own feelings, and it came only gradually to him how disappointed he was.”
“What did love mean if it was doled out so carelessly, with no thought of consequence?”
“There was something humiliating, too, in a display of grief when the relationship had been unwitnessed. No, this was to be a private suffering, like lust or literature, lived out mostly in his dreams.”
“There were some, naturally, who would understand, and he wrote for them, or for himself. Anyhow, some idealised reader who would accept everything, and forgive.”
“He didn’t depend so much on the good opinion of others to feel complete. Nor did he expect happiness as his right any longer; he knew it was only for the strong.”
“What I don’t understand about your type is that you want to emulate the other side. You kick up such a commotion about being different, and all you want is to be the same.”
“To be honest and to be fair were not always the same thing.”
“It is always an attractive moment when curiosity takes hold.”
“He feared at certain moments that the only new knowledge he would take away from this country was learning how to swim and use the telephone.”
“Why did people believe it was only the flesh that binds?”
“Even in one’s most physical moments, the real craving was for love.”
“All of them would understand, as he did now, that he had crossed a line in himself, he had left their world behind, the decent world of tea parties and suburban witticisms.”
I blame it on the heat. And Morgan had gone to India, and the heat had not undone him. He had remained respectable.”
“Other people might have to confess their sins, but he, Morgan, could only confess their absence.”
“No emotion was supposed to cross the great divide of class. Affection could erase all hierarchy; in this was the danger, and the delight.”
“All have their foolishness, and this is mine.”
“Race and class were a kind of destiny; very little could dent them. Morgan himself had been decanted back into the vessel that had made him.”
It was unsettling and comforting to know that he was the only white man in a radius of twenty miles.

“My dear, he talked of peering into catamites’ anuses, if you can conceive of anything more wonderful.”
“I am happy to see you, Masood.”
“Happy? Happy? What a pale, pathetic English word. You must not be ‘happy’ to see me. No, you must be enraptured, transported! You must be overjoyed. I have no use for ‘happy’.”
“The Indians were inside their bodies, he decided, in a way that the British were not. His own flesh impeded his spirit.”
“Fire and water and smoke and incense and chanting and bells and butter and blood: this was a language whose syllables were translated into physical terms; a language of the elements. It was a language that he hoped might speak to him one day.”
“A mixture of rapture and cowardice. No action, but all that quivering!”
“Of what earthly use were novels? How did they help anybody?”
“That echo. It played in his head at unexpected moments, repeating certain sounds and making nonsense of them. But could you remember an echo? Memory itself was like another kind of echo, everything duplicating endlessly, in shadow versions of itself.”
“He had it now, he thought. What he had been searching for till now: the heart of it, the central, engendering event.”
“A silence followed, while the two men contemplated dying for love.”

There was a chaplain from the military cantonment, a foolish bounder who bullied the Maharajah tirelessly, shouting at him that he should be eating beef, that it would do him good. Whenever he left, the Personal Secretary would murmur to them that, “The Padre Sahib is a very nice man, he has no interest in religion, and that is very suitable for a clergyman.”

Saeed was wholly his friend again when he came to the station to see him off. The Station Manager had to delay the train by ten minutes while they went, through their farewells.


He found himself behaving in ways that were potentially dangerous, without quite knowing what he was up to. On one or two occasions he loitered in public lavatories, hoping for some offer to present itself. Open spaces, especially those in Hyde Park, excited him with possibility. But there was only ever a glance, an accidental collision, which left him turbulent with fantasies. To act out of lust, even without any tender accompanying feeling, would be less damaging, he felt, than these corrosive bursts of desire that went nowhere. He took himself to see Nijinsky dancing almost naked in L’apres-midi d’un faune and the utter abandonment of that human body alarmed and delighted him, like an enactment of everything which roiled invis­ibly inside. Afterwards he longed to miss his train home and give himself up wholly to adventures in the foliage somewhere, though he wouldn’t have known where to go.

The veil might be thin, but in certain cases it was insurmountable.

“A transfiguration takes place,” she told him, “when a man picks up a gun. A spiritual renewal, very mysterious. It is almost like a light, shining from within. Do you not agree?”

So surprising was this idea that he believed, for an instant, she was being ironic. Then he saw that her face had its own shining light, and set down his teacup.

“No, I’m afraid I do not,” he said firmly.

“You must have observed it. Surely.”

“I have observed a base instinct take charge,” he said. “I have observed European civilisation being set back by thirty years. That is all.”

Although shed his religion early on, it was only the Church of England he’d dropped, with its safe morning prayers and Sunday services. He had never ceased to yearn for something rawer and rougher, some­thing closer to the earth, or perhaps the sky, of which the brain could not partake…. Though he couldn’t let go of himself enough to worship, he had never lost a sense of an ultimate cause, a Thing at the back of things, which propelled events without actually shaping them. Whatever the ruptures and ructions of human life, he felt, the universe operated according to some vast, unfolding principle, and to abandon oneself to its rhythms wasn’t a senseless undertaking.

And this says it all: “That is it, my dear. He is a timid soul. They say he hasn’t really lived at all, except in his mind.”

“He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term; he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority.

“His mood, which seldom left him, was like being under the sea, in aquamarine light. However bright or loud your surroundings, you were somehow always alone.”

“Although he was English all the way through, a great many English attitudes felt foreign to him.”

“The world of Eros remained a flickering internal pageant, always with him, yet always out of reach.”

There was something humiliating, too, in a display of grief when the relationship had been unwitnessed.”

“Fiction was too artificial and self-conscious, he thought, ever to convey anything real.”

“there were days when all passion seemed to be frozen in marble.”

Morgan expresses his hesitancy about engaging with the Woolfs and Bloomsbury Group: “They were all so interwoven and intimate, changing relationships and sexual tastes the way other people changed hats. To say nothing of their cleverness, which was sometimes cruel, and used against friend and enemy indiscriminately.”

“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. Once this outline had taken shape, you could fill it with traits that in turn had been borrowed elsewhere.”

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