Arctic Summer is a slice of a bygone era 

Damon Galgut's novel is an exquisite snapshot of the life of E.M. Forster

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMTTED - Damon Galgut The South African novelist is coming to the Whistler Writers Festival.
  • Photo submtted
  • Damon Galgut The South African novelist is coming to the Whistler Writers Festival.

Whistler hosts the 2014 Writers Festival from Oct. 17 to 19. Pique is running reviews of books by attending authors to celebrate. For information and tickets www.whistlerwritersfestival.com.

Arctic Summer is a beautifully written fictionalized biography of the renowned author, E. M. Forster. The title, borrowed from a novel Forster started in 1909 and never completed, echoes the dichotomy of Forster's life, one where the light of summer is fleeting, followed by longer periods of grey.

Damon Galgut's novel opens with 33-year-old Morgan, Forster's preferred name, on a boat to India, a passage to India as it were, a man who was beginning to think of himself as a writer after the release of his fourth book. Able to finance the trip with his newfound earnings, he takes a vacation from his mother — a dominant presence in his life to reunite with his great love — Syed Ross Masood, a beautiful Indian man of high breeding he tutored years prior in England. Filled with an intoxicating sense of freedom, Morgan embarks upon the first of his three trips to India that leaves him enamoured and intrigued by the country, concerned and conflicted by the British presence with their classist and racist attitudes and disappointed by Masood's apparent indifference.

Galgut weaves a haunting portrayal of a man who longed for meaning and connection in his work and in his personal life. A reticent man who followed the strictures of his society, living on the edge of life, diving in briefly and timidly. Sadly both his loves were unrequited. Masood loved him but ran hot and cold, he professed a flowery admiration and affection but remained aloof. Masood could not fulfill Morgan's desires, as he was not, unlike Morgan, a 'minorite'. Morgan's other love, Mohammed, a tram conductor he met while working in Egypt during WWI, tolerated Morgan's physical advances but again, he too was not a 'minorite'.

Morgan's nature, his shyness and shame kept his affairs infrequent, barely satiating his lust, leaving the emptiness inside of him greater than ever. Although his need threatened to overwhelm him at times, his true desire was beyond sex. Morgan yearned to be loved.

"In any event, the hunger wasn't satisfied. Even in one's most physical moments, the real craving was for love.

"This kind of companionship had far more value to Morgan than their few, fumbling physical encounters. Sex could be forgotten, or made into something that it wasn't, but feelings were much harder to erase."

Galgut styles a sympathetic character, a man who honed his powers of observation from the sidelines. Yet I would venture that Morgan's trips abroad, his WWI experiences in Egypt, and his time in India gave him respite from the edges, saved him in fact. These excursions allowed Morgan moments where he stepped into life, took leave from the suffocation of his era and class, embracing life fully, however briefly.

Arctic Summer is a writer's look at the elements that make up a work as timeless as A Passage to India. This 11-year snapshot of Forster's life is in good hands, the parallel of Galgut's life palpable. Galgut's experience as a white South African, liberal, gay man, one who grew up under apartheid, echoes the themes Forester explored in his novels. Galgut gives us a lovely glimpse into the life of a great writer living in a bygone era that lingered within me for days, as any great novel should.

As part of the 2014 Whistler Writers Festival, award-winning South African author Damon Galgut appears at the Sunday, Oct. 19 brunch event at the Fairmont Hotel at 11 a.m. Psychotherapist and author Nancy Routley will be appearing at reading event, Writers of Non-Fiction, on Saturday, Oct. 18, at 10 a.m., at the Fairmont Hotel.

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