An E. M. Forster Trilogy, Part 3: Life Stories

arctic-summerAfter discovering Forster’s short stories about his love for men, and rereading Maurice, the novel whose composition (if not publication) filled part of the long blank space in Forster’s career between Howards End and A Passage to India, I thought it was time to embark on reading that last, great masterpiece again. But dawdling over pages devoted to Forster on Amazon, I stumbled across another unfinished novel called Arctic Summer, begun after Howards End and never finished.  Still dawdling, I came back a few weeks later to search for Arctic Summer again, and this time discovered Damon Galgut’s book of the same title, a novel about Forster’s life.  If Forster himself had a hard time settling into his final novel, I understood his plight.  I would take advantage of this diversion.

Arctic Summer doesn’t attempt to encompass Forster’s entire life, chronologically or thematically.  Chronologically, its focus is on the period from 1906, when Forster first met Sayeed Ross Masood, to whom A Passage to India is dedicated, until shortly after 1924, the year A Passage was finally completed and published.  Thematically, the focus is dual: first, on the struggle to write, and particularly to write this novel of India, and second, on Forster’s homosexuality and his struggle to find love and physical fulfillment.  And the two themes are presented as inextricably intertwined.

The novel opens in 1912, two years after the publication of Howards End, which was to be the last of Forster’s early novels, and the last published for more than a decade.  Morgan,  as the novelist is referred to throughout Arctic Summer, is on board a ship in the Red Sea, heading to India for the first time.  He is traveling with a group of friends who, though comfortable with one another, are guarded about their sexual orientation.  Morgan finds himself powerfully attracted to a handsome man named Searight; among his other qualities, Searight behaves humanely towards the only Indian on board the ship.  Morgan’s imagination runs away with him as he constructs a shipboard romance between the desirable Searight and the young Indian, and therein lies the kernel of this novel in miniature.  Desire is intuited, seen almost as if from afar, unreliable, and ultimately, as much if not more a source of loneliness as it is of connection.

This passage to India had its roots years earlier when Morgan’s mother arranged the first meeting between Morgan and Masood; the latter is seeking a Latin tutor and Lily recommends her son.  The friendship is thus brokered in a household and an atmosphere that guarantees the repression of the desire that Morgan quickly grows to feel for Masood.  For his part, Masood doesn’t share the desire, and when Morgan finally makes it to India, Masood firmly rebuff’s the Englishman’s affection, proferred in an awkward kiss.    In this way India and England become mirrors of one another, and both heighten Morgan’s sense of solitude, of otherness, of an inability to find his place.

Midway between these two worlds lies Egypt.  After returning from his first visit to India, when the Great War breaks out, Morgan volunteers to work for the Red Cross and spends much of the war in Alexandria.  It is there that he fumblingly forms a bond with Mohammed, a tram conductor, that finally grants him a sort of physical intimacy.  Yet even that relationship remains problematic, vexed, and disorienting.  The two men, of different classes and races, are held apart by those distinctions, even though, in another way, those very differences are what allow Morgan to act on his desires.  But real fulfillment remains elusive, and different as the two cultures are, they act in concert to prevent that fulfillment.  The men may connect, but their relationship cannot succeed.

After the war, Morgan returns to India, where he takes up a post as secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas.  Once more, through a loosening of the strictures against homoerotic desire, Morgan forms a tortured, even mildly sadistic, relationship with a barber in the court.  Once more, there is the gulf of race and status that both allows and frustrates intimacy.  And once more, throughout his travels, Morgan’s desire to find a meaningful emotional connection with Masood is frustrated.

At the same time, throughout these adventures, Morgan is seeking a solution to the blockage that has kept him from transmuting his Indian experiences into the art of a novel.  For Morgan, the possibility of fiction to elucidate a truth that cannot be spoken in ordinary life remains an unattainable grail.  Back in England, he takes up the composition of A Passage to India once more and wrestles with the central question of what happens in the Marabar Caves.  For Morgan, finding a means of expressing the ineffable feeling he experienced in those caves on his first outing to the subcontinent is the point on which the plot of his novel turns.  It is only when he decides to leave the action as veiled and impenetrable in the novel as it was in life that the blockage is overcome and he is able to complete the novel.  The final pages of Arctic Summer briefly chart reactions to A Passage and tell of Morgan’s final (and only) return to India twenty years later, after Masood has died.

Although I read Galgut’s novel avidly, now that I’ve finished, I feel that I’m also lacking any vital connection to it.  Writing a while back about the Merchant/Inory film adaptation of Maurice, I noted, “The story hews closely to Forster’s original, but in doing so makes abrupt transitions and winds up with a feeling, nonetheless, of truncation.”  I feel somewhat the same about Arctic Summer.

Galgut has chosen to build his novel on the twin pillars of Forster’s homosexuality and the long, blocked creation of A Passage to India.  The possible connections between the two have long been a matter of speculation for Forster’s admirers and scholars, especially in the wake of the publication of Maurice and the revelation of how its composition partially filled the gap between Howards End and A Passage.  The connection is strengthened in Arctic Summer by filling in the story of Forster’s love for the Egyptian Mohammed during the war years, which occupied much of the rest of that interval.  And yet somehow the notion that Forster’s blocked sexuality explains the writer’s block that kept A Passage to India in a prolonged period of gestation comes across no more convincingly in Arctic Summer than it has in biographical and critical explorations of the idea in the last fifty years.

The two stories never seem to really inform one another.  Perhaps I felt this way because so much still seems missing from each.  By focusing on the Indian connection, Galgut slights much of the rest of the story of Forster’s sexual life, be that his earlier experiences at Cambridge, the writing of Maurice itself, or the complicated relationship Forster had with his mother.  Galgut introduces Edward Carpenter and his lover George Merrill at several points in Arctic Summer.  The effect on Forster of their relationship is clearly significant to Forster’s feelings about his own sexuality and his hope for both affectional and sexual fulfillment.  But the impact of that friendship on the second theme, of the creation of Forster’s great novel of India, is never clear or convincing.  On the other hand, Morgan’s experiences in India, while reinforcing the themes of frustration and alienation, don’t ultimately seem to illuminate the novel, except to foreground Forster’s mystification and uncertainties.

In the end, Arctic Summer doesn’t quite succeed as either biography or as novel; it is both too much and not enough of either.  Galgut suggests that Forster (or Morgan) felt that his earlier novels ultimately failed to capture a fundamental truth about life because their author was constrained to write about relationships that he himself never entered into fully—heterosexual relationships—and Maurice, which did burn with Forster’s own truth, represented a path that could be followed only in secret.  (At one point in Arctic Summer, Galgut has Morgan burn all the erotic short stories he’d written for private entertainment over the years—only a partial truth as The Life to Comes bear witness.)  Arctic Summer is a brave attempt to find a voice for all those years of solitude and silence, but in the end, it feels closer in spirit to Forster’s first novels than to either Maurice or A Passage to India.

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