The year is 1912, and the SS Birmingham is approaching India. On board is Edward Morgan Forster, a reserved man taunted by writer’s block, attempting to come to terms with his art and his homosexuality. During his travels, the novelist confronts his fraught childhood and falls in unrequited love with his closest friend. He also finds himself surprisingly freed to explore his “minorite” desires as secretary to a most unusual Maharajah.
Slowly, the strands of a story begin to gather in Forster’s mind: a sense of impending menace, lust in close confines, under a hot, empty sky. But it will be another twelve years and a second stay in India before the publication of his finest work, A Passage to India. Shifting across the landscapes of India, Egypt, and England, Forster’s life is informed by his relationshipsfrom the Egyptian tram conductor Mohammed el-Adl, to the Greek poet and literary titan C. P. Cavafy. Damon Galgut’s reimagining of Forster’s life is a clear and sympathetic psychological probing of one of Britain’s finest novelists.
“Galgut inhabits [Forster] with such sympathetic completeness, and in prose of such modest excellence that he starts to breathe on the page.”Financial Times
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Damon Galgut is the author of The Good Doctor, a 2003 novel that won the Commonwealth Prize (Africa Region) and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In a Strange Room (Europa, 2010) was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2013, Galgut was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
Read an Excerpt
In October of 1912, the SS City of Birmingham was travelling through the Red Sea, midway on her journey to India, when two men found themselves together on the forward deck. Each had come there separately, hoping to escape a concert that some of the other passengers were organising, but they were slightly acquainted by now and not unhappy to have company. It was the middle of the afternoon. They were sitting in a spot that offered sun and shade, as well as seclusion from the wind. Both carried books with them, which they politely set aside when they began to speak.
The first man, Morgan Forster, was thirty-three years of age and had come to think of himself as a writer. The recent publication of his fourth novel had been so successful that he felt financially able to make this journey. The six months that he planned to be away marked his first departure from Europe, and only his second extended absence from his mother. The other man was an army officer, returning to where he was stationed on the North-West Frontier. He was a few years younger than Morgan, a handsome fellow with backswept golden hair and numerous white teeth. His name was Kenneth Searight.
The two men had conversed a few times before and Morgan had found himself liking Searight, though he hadn't expected to. The ship was full of military types and their ghastly wives, but this man was different. For one thing, he was travelling alone. For another, Morgan had seen him behave with kindness towards the single Indian passenger on board, a kindness that was otherwise in short supply, and he had been touched by it. These small signs suggested they might have more in common than he had at first supposed.
Although he had only come aboard a week ago, Morgan was beginning to feel that he had been on the ship for too long. He was travelling with three friends, but even their company sometimes wore thin. His thoughts strayed constantly outwards, into the encircling sea. He would pace the deck for hours at a stretch, or sit at the rail, lost in aimless reverie over the flying fish that leaped at the bow, or the other creatures — jellyfish, sharks, dolphins — that sometimes showed themselves. 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.
He was stuck with the humans, however. The same set of faces awaited him each day. The ship was like a tiny piece of England, Tunbridge Wells in particular, that had broken off and been set in motion. For some reason, perhaps because they spoke more, the women were hardest to deal with. They assumed that he shared their feelings, when most of the time he did not. One of them, a young lady in search of a husband, had made a couple of sidling approaches, till his stony face repelled her.
But it was the casual vilenesses, flung out in airy asides at the dining table, that upset him most. He had set some of these down in his diary and brooded on them afterwards. On one occasion a matronly woman, who had been a nurse in the Bhopal Purdahs, had lectured him between courses on how deplorable Mohammedan home life was. And if English children stopped in India, they learned to speak like half-castes, which was such a stigma. "And this young Indian man who's on board," she added in a low voice. "Well, he's a Mohammedan, isn't he? He 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."
The Indian man in question, whose name he could never quite remember, had some acquaintances in common with Morgan, but he was a trying fellow whose company was unrewarding. Morgan had also begun to avoid him lately, but he knew that his table-companion meant something different by her aversion, and he disliked her for it. Though she was not in any way unusual: almost every other passenger treated the poor man with polite contempt. Only the day before, one of the army wives, a Mrs. Turton, had remarked, "They tell me that young Indian's lonely. Well, he ought to be. They won't let us know their wives, why should we know them? If we're pleasant to them, they only despise us." Morgan had wanted to reply, but held off, and felt bad about it afterwards.
So this chance encounter with the golden young officer held a tinge of promise in it. Something about Kenneth Searight — though it was hard to say what — did not belong in uniform, or with his air of impeccable politeness.
To begin with, they talked in a desultory way about the voyage. They had recently passed through the Suez Canal and the experience, for Morgan, had been curiously reminiscent of a picture gallery. And he had been disappointed by Port Said: it was, so everyone had told him, one's first vision of the East, yet it had none of the smell and vibrancy and colour he'd been expecting. There were no minarets and only a single dome, and the statue of de Lesseps, despite pointing commandingly towards the canal, appeared to be holding a string of sausages in his other hand. He had gone ashore, of course, and some of the Arabs were beautiful, but they had spoiled it by trying to sell him smutty postcards. ("Do you wa' to see something filthy? Noah? Well, perhaps after tea.") All in all, it hadn't been an uplifting experience.
"Except for the coaling barge," Searight said.
"Yes," Morgan answered. "Except for that." The memory of the barge came back strongly to him. More specifically, it was the figures on top that continued to trouble him: black with coal-dust, they had woken from a death-like torpor into a frenzy of activity, singing and squabbling as they carried their baskets on board. One of these figures, of indeterminate age and sex, had stood by the plankway after dark, holding a lamp, and the image, with its deep shadows and contrasting yellow glow, had seemed both hopeful and frightening to him.
Searight had also been there, Morgan remembered now; they had been standing close to one another at the rail, watching the scene. Although they had not yet met or spoken, the moment seemed in retrospect like a kind of complicity.
They began to speak now about their plans after landing at Bombay. They agreed they might travel as far as Agra together, after which Searight would head off towards Lahore and Morgan to Aligarh.
"You are staying with a friend there?"
"Yes," Morgan said, and then dared to admit, "He's a native."
"Ah," Searight said. "I thought that might be the case. I'm glad to hear it, very glad to hear it. You won't learn anything about India unless you mingle with the Indians, whatever anyone else might tell you. I myself have been close to many of them. Ah, yes. Very close."
"I can't imagine all your brother officers approve."
"There is more understanding than you might think, but of course you have to be careful. It's a matter of knowing your time and place." He laughed shortly. "Is your friend a Hindu?"
"He's a Mohammedan, in fact."
"Ah, yes. The Mohammedans. People think of the Hindus as sensual, because of all the decadent religious imagery. On the other hand, the Mohammedans are People of the Book, just like us. Well, I can tell you, the Pathans are a breed of young savages, and I intend to make friends with many of them. It's one of the delights of being transferred to Peshawar. I used to be in Bengal, you know, in Darjeeling, and I had a ripping time there. But I'm looking forward to the future."
Morgan had the uneasy feeling that the topic had slid away from him and that they were talking about different things. Nevertheless, he said, "So am I."
"You're looking forward to seeing your friend?"
"You've been missing him? How well I know this feeling, how well. And then I'm driven to seek consolation elsewhere. Fortunately one doesn't have to look far, not in India. More difficult in England, as you know."
"Consolation." He looked meaningfully at Morgan. "I did meet a horse guard in Hyde Park. Just a couple of weeks ago."
Alerted and alarmed by the turn the conversation had taken, Morgan decided to make a non-committal noise in his throat and to stare out at the water. Searight had turned towards him in his chair, his whole attitude confidential. After a pause, he began to speak about the heat. This seemed like a new topic, but it grew stealthily out of the preceding one. Over the last few days the temperature had risen dramatically; many of the passengers had taken to sleeping on deck. And had Morgan noticed how some of the men were wearing short pants? The older ones should not be allowed to do so, Searight said, their legs were not attractive. Very few Englishmen had attractive legs, it had something to do with their knees. 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.
Morgan thought it best not to answer, but to wait and see what happened next.
Eventually Searight sighed and murmured, "I blame it on the heat."
"Yes," Morgan said carefully.
"One thing leads to another. It undoes people. I've seen it over and over. People go out there, to India, I mean, and they start behaving as they never would in England. I blame it on the heat."
"I shall wear my sola topi."
"It will not protect you."
"I assure you, it's of the finest quality —"
"No doubt. But it will not save you from yourself." Something in Searight's face had imperceptibly altered; his expression had become a little coarse and sensual.
"I'm not quite sure I follow you."
"Oh, I think you do."
At this moment there was a flurry of sound from deep inside the ship, a faint uproar of music and voices, eclipsed by the rush of water at the bow — a reminder of the normal world close by. Morgan looked around quickly, to be sure they were alone. "Perhaps we had better go and get ready for dinner," he said.
Before he could move, Searight leaned over and handed him the book he'd been holding on his lap. Morgan had barely glanced at it, assuming it to be a volume of poems like the one he himself was reading. But the fat bound notebook, green in colour, was something altogether more personal. It bore the mysterious word Paidikion on its front cover, and the many pages inside were filled with handwriting instead of print.
Though on the particular page that Searight's forefinger held open, there seemed to be, after all, a poem.
... I passed From sensuous Bengal to fierce Peshawar An Asiatic stronghold where each flower Of boyhood planted in its restless soil Is — ipso facto — ready to despoil
(or to be despoiled by) someone else ...
"Oh, dear me," Morgan said. "What is this?"
"It is the story of my life, in verse."
"You wrote this?"
... the yarn Indeed so has it that the young Pathan Thinks it peculiar if he would pass Him by without some reference to his arse.
Each boy of certain age will let on hire His charms to indiscriminate desire,
To wholesome buggery and perverse letches ...
"I blame it on the heat," Searight said, and laughed noisily.
* * *
He repeated the conversation breathlessly to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson in their cramped cabin that evening while they dressed for dinner. Even in recollection, a shock quivered through him and his fingers slipped on his buttons. It was amazing, he told Goldie; it was remarkable. To have spoken in that way to a near-stranger, to have exposed oneself so recklessly! It hadn't been a confession — there was no shame behind it. That was the truly astonishing thing: Searight appeared to be almost proud of who and what he was.
The two men glanced at each other in silence. Then Goldie enquired delicately, "And did he swear you to secrecy?"
"No. I think he took it for granted."
"Why did he believe that you wouldn't ... ?"
"I don't know."
"And did you talk about yourself to him in the same open way?"
"Not at all. He didn't seem very interested in me. I told him a little about my home life and he changed the subject."
"Ah," Goldie said. His tone was commiserative, but his relief was obvious.
This was the way the two of them usually communicated, in little gusts of shared enthusiasm, followed by murmurous bouts of allusion. Much passed between them without being explicitly stated. They had known one another for some years now, since Morgan had been a student at King's, while Goldie was a don, though their friendship had been slow to flower and had only taken form more recently, once Morgan had left Cambridge behind. They were both fussy, worried men, elderly before their time, in whom a spinsterish quality was evident. Both of them had experienced love, but from afar and unrequitedly.
They understood one another well and therefore Morgan knew, though Goldie didn't say it aloud, that the older man mistrusted Searight. He thought that anyone so indiscreet could be dangerous. Goldie came from a generation where discretion was the first line of defence and any dropping of one's guard could lead to catastrophe. Oscar Wilde had gone to prison only seventeen years before.
Morgan, nearly two decades younger, was slightly less cautious, but only in theory. In practice, he was not nearly so afraid of the State as he was of his mother. 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. He himself was a solitary. At Cambridge, among his own circle, the question was discussed, though from an angle, and safely abstracted. One could be forgiven for believing it was a matter of talking, not doing. As long as it remained in the realm of words, no crime had been committed. But even words could be dangerous.
* * *
Over the next few days, Morgan watched Searight carefully and observed that his life was broken into two. In his military existence he put on a public face, and in this area he was to all appearances vigorous and masculine. He was a member of the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment, a fine, upstanding defender of the Realm; he could laugh and drink with his fellow officers in a hearty, backslapping way; he was popular and well respected, although he avoided the company of the women on board. That was one half of him — but of course there was another secret side, which Morgan had already seen.
This aspect of Searight's nature — which could be said to be his true character — he revealed only to those he trusted. But when the camouflage came off, it came off completely. That first conversation amazed Morgan, but it was followed by others soon afterwards. The very next day he took Goldie to the same part of the deck to meet his new friend, and almost immediately they were discussing things that Morgan had never voiced before, or only to his journal, and then cryptically.
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. He read a short story aloud to Morgan and Goldie, one he'd written himself, that made his own breathing become shallow and tortured. He let them peruse more of his epic autobiographical poem, which he called The Furnace. And he showed them several pages at the back of the green notebook that were filled with cryptic columns of numbers, before explaining in an undertone that they represented a tally of his sexual conquests thus far, all with statistical details of date, place, age, how many meetings and frequency of climax. These encounters were mostly with boys and young men, ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-eight, a great many of them Indian. Almost forty so far.
Almost forty! Morgan himself had never had a lover, not one. The world of Eros remained a flickering internal pageant, always with him, yet always out of reach. It had been only three years before that Morgan had fully understood how copulation between men and women actually worked, and his mind had flinched in amazement. His mother and father engaging in such physicality to produce him: it was almost unthinkable. (But must have happened, at least twice.) 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Arctic Summer"
Copyright © 2014 Damon Galgut.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"This is a wise and brilliant book." –Times
"A beautiful book, strikingly conceived and hauntingly written, a writer's novel par excellence without a clumsy word in it." The Guardian
"Galgut's powerful writing is honest and insightful, polished as it is to a marble-like perfection." The Globe and Mail