Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Artic Summer

Famously after the long, nine year gestation of 'A Passage to India', Forster abandoned the novel form after its publication in 1924 (and indeed his output past this date was minimal - a travel book, an opera libretto and a short film script until his death in 1970).

 'Artic Summer' was the title of a novel that E.M. Forster did not write and the title of a new novel by the South African novelist, Damon Galgut, whose central character is Forster and whose central focus is the impact of 'the East' on Forster's life and work.

The "East" was both working in Egypt and two extended visits to India and the two people he met there around which his love flowed. The first was Masood, an Muslim Indian from the upper classes, who he first met as a seventeen year old coming to his house in England for improbable Latin lessons. The second was Mohammed, the young tram conductor, he met in Alexandra, shortly after losing his virginity to an English soldier on a secluded beach. Neither, interestingly were gay, with only Mohammed willing to respond to Forster physically. Yet both loved him after their manner and both allowed him to open emotionally, to establish an identity. Himself an 'outsider' in his own culture, released by the 'other' - people disenfranchised by Empire, even if of very different status.

Forster emerges as always as the archetypal liberal, conscious of his class and position yet critical of it, open and tolerant and yet hedged in by his acquired values and upbringing, committed to people as individuals and wary of causes. Typically when the First World War broke out, he knew he could not fight yet could not call himself a 'conscientious objector' so had to find a way to contribute without destroying life. He found himself a 'searcher' for the Red Cross in Alexandria, piecing together, painful bits of information about the lives of soldiers to help locate the missing and what had happened to them. Thus he was exposed to searing accounts of the very thing he could not bring himself to do yet, in the process, helped so many.

It is a beautifully written book, acute about the nature and practice of Forster's writing, of the trials of Forster seeking love and lust in a world utterly unforgiving of his homosexuality; and, of his complex relationship with both men and with their countries.

It too has great vignettes of some of the famous people Forster knew - the Woolfs, especially Leonard, practically helpful over his writing; the inspiration that was Edward Carpenter defiantly and openly gay, in a long running relationship with George, who famously caressed Forster on a visit, awakening him; and, Cavafy, the great poet of Alexandria, with his subtle poems of love and loss, of history as utterly other yet parabolic.

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