BEFORE THERE WAS Eat, Pray, Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, A Year in Provence, Enchanted April — and any number of travel narratives about light-skinned people getting in touch with their insides during visits to lands of dark-skinned people — there was E. M. Forster.
It’s debatable whether the author of classics like Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View invented the above genre, but it’s safe to say that his romantic vision of self-transformation through travel is still being reckoned with today.
So it may come as no surprise that in his own life, E. M. Forster underwent a similar voyage of self-discovery while abroad from his native England. In the recent novel Arctic Summer, author Damon Galgut creates a fictional biography of the great British novelist, who like a character from a novel, gets out of town to find himself. What Forster actually finds, however, is somewhat grittier and grimier than what a reader might find in a Forster novel.
In E. M. Forster’s first four novels (Angels, Room, the masterpiece Howards End, and the not-so-masterpiece The Longest Journey, which unfortunately lives down to its name), sex and violence are present but not visceral. Characters die at the stroke of a pen rather than the end of a bloody sword. When sex occurs, it’s confusingly offstage; blink, and you’ll miss it.
In fact, the wonderful New Zealand story writer Katherine Mansfield memorably quipped about Howards End that she could never be sure as to whether a main character was impregnated by a man or by his lost umbrella. “All things considered,” she concluded, “I think it must have been the umbrella.”
More than a decade passed between Howards End and Forster’s next published novel, A Passage to India, boldly colorful, sensual, mystical, violent, and vital. Suddenly Forster’s characters fully inhabit their bodies, which get pierced by thorns, feel sticky with sweat from the tropical heat, even experience twinges of sexual desire.
What can account for this dramatic change of style and scope? If Galgut’s book is any guide, perhaps it’s the fact that Forster, at the ripe old age of 37, finally managed to lose his virginity — by traveling abroad.
It couldn’t have been easy for Forster, who was secretly gay at a time and place where homosexuality was illegal. Indeed, in 1895, when Forster was a teenager, Oscar Wilde was famously convicted of being gay and sentenced to prison with hard labor for what was then the crime of sodomy.
Though Forster was aware of his sexuality and had friends like the writer-philosopher Edward Carpenter who was openly gay, it wasn’t until he went to Egypt that he felt able to do anything about it. Galgut’s novel dramatically portrays the scene in which the great writer experiences sex for the first time, in the form of a blow job with a stranger at the beach of Alexandria.
Afterward, the fictional Forster is described as:
“Crouching down to recover, keeping his head low, he whispered it to himself, not quite believing it was true: “It has happened… It has happened.” He was thirty-seven years old.”
Galgut’s novel then dramatizes how Forster goes on to have a romantic affair with an Egyptian tram conductor as well as a sexual relationship with a servant while Forster works for a local maharajah in India.
It’s always dangerous to read fiction biographically, yet Galgut’s book makes a persuasive case that if Forster had not traveled to Egypt and India, he might never have actually acted upon the secret he kept hidden from the public all his life, nor would he have been capable of writing A Passage to India. And in Galgut’s hands, Forster’s expression of his sexuality is nothing as mystical or romantic as the lovely swoon in A Room with a View. Galgut ably portrays some of the seamy side of Forster’s relationships, like the inherent power and economic imbalances between him and his native partners. In addition, Galgut describes Forster as a clumsy lover, a clumsiness that mirrors the clumsiness with which Forster often wrote about sexual subjects.
And yet, for all its attention to realism, Galgut’s writing can at times feel a bit leaden, a bit too bound by facts on the ground, even for a book with a “true” subject. Forster’s style and his books have their flaws, but they also have the power to inspire and provoke, as A Room with a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India still do to this day. Ultimately, Galgut’s novel, well-done as it is, feels more like a skillful exercise in revisionism rather than a great work of art.
I wouldn’t want to have lived Forster’s life. But I wouldn’t mind being able to write a novel half as brilliant as his best works.