A love song for the loveless: Reflections on unrequited love – Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Valentines Day. It has been many years since I have had a true object of romantic affection. This annual occasion tends to come and go without my notice. Even my children are too old to warrant the heart shaped candies and chocolates I used to purchase. And yet I have to stop and wonder why I do not feel the absence.

I am not sure it is coincidental, but romance does not seem to figure highly in the work I tend to read. Lost love, dysfunctional relationships, misplaced attempts to find affection, yes; but it tends to be the underlying elements of discord that create dramatic tension and literary interest for me. Tolstoy’s unhappy families and all that. So in thinking about today’s exaltation of romantic love I decided to turn to a book I read last year but did not review, a novel that holds, at its heart, the account of a deeply felt but unrequited love: Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer.

In this fictionalized biography of EM Forster, Galgut re-imagines the eleven years of frustrated creative blockage that spanned the time between Forster’s initial conception of his “Indian novel” and the final product, A Passage to India. Along the way we meet Syed Ross Masood, the Indian man with whom Forster will fall passionately in love – a love that will shape, define and haunt his romantic sensibilities – but which will remain one that the heterosexual Masood is unable to return in anything but platonic terms. During the World War I years in Alexandria, Forster finally loses his own virginity at the age of 37 but his meagre intimate relations will remain a sorry, even pathetic, attempt to achieve the emotional and physical comfort he longs to find in another man’s arms. Sexually repressed and closeted until his death, he is, nonetheless, able to channel his affections and experiences in India into one of the finest English novels of the early 20th century. It would be the last work of fiction Forster would produce though he would live and continue to write and engage actively in the literary world for another 45 years.

arctic summerIn my first encounter with Arctic Summer last fall my reactions were mixed. I was a great fan of Galgut’s more typical pared down, ambiguous and haunting novels and I was immediately struck by the more claustrophobic atmosphere he had created to evoke the sensibility of the world in which Forster lived and wrote. At times I felt it weighing on me as a reader. Having the good fortune to hear Damon speak in person and meet him when he passed through my home town with our writer’s festival while I was in the midst of my reading, I was aware that he had found the process of writing a historical novel rewarding but not one he would be anxious to repeat. That awareness may have been a factor but I suspect there was also something more at play. After all, as readers, we enter into any work with our own issues, histories and expectations.

At the timel I was still struggling to break down the barriers that I had constructed over the preceding decade or so to keep those around me from getting close. By that point I was painfully aware that I had re-closeted myself in the world to avoid emotional risk and vulnerability. At one point, despairing of ever experiencing desire in the way he longs, Galgut’s Forster reflects:

“His own sterility was apparent to him and would soon, he felt sure, be visible to others. Curiously, he didn’t feel depressed at the prospect. He was almost intrigued by the idea of giving in to his oddness, turning into one of those remote, ineffectual creatures so warped by their solitude that they became distasteful to normal people.”

I was struck by that passage, I remember where I was when I read it and the page number in my paperback American edition is burned into my memory. Although I had been, oddly enough, a single male parent for years, through my determined unwillingness to express romantic interest or engagement with anyone, female or male, I had stubbornly sought to neuter myself in the world. Unpeeling those layers of defense and reclaiming an identity, especially one that falls outside the default mainstream, is not easy. Forster’s dilemma was hitting too close to home.

As I have since learned to re-embrace my identity and sexuality, I did briefly imagine that I was ready to open myself again to the possibility of falling in love. The result was in influx of a emptiness and longing. I began to feel the absence and did not like the void. So I have decided to turn my focus to building an emotional support network based on common interest and experience. It is, I realize, a much better place to start. If, somewhere along the way, the potential for romance arises I would not necessarily reject it, but it cannot be the grounds for meaning and value in my life.

Now, four months after I first finished Arctic Summer, I have occasioned to revisit A Passage to India, and have found myself dipping back in and out of Galgut’s novel simply to savour the restrained beauty and sensitive recreation of the writer’s inner personal and creative journey against the lush landscape of India. The work has simmered in my consciousness and increased in the power that it holds for me as a reader. I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Forster’s love for Masood had been reciprocated. I am not sure he would have ever been able to even crack open the closet doors and I suspect that he might have ended up even more deeply torn between his homosexuality and his attachment to his mother. For better or worse he was able to channel his energy into writing, friendship and a long life.

Well lived? For his sake I hope so.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

12 thoughts on “A love song for the loveless: Reflections on unrequited love – Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut”

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
    Beckett wrote “What goes by the name of love is banishment with now and then a postcard from the homeland,,,,” and I tend to agree with him. Is falling in love so much more than a turmoil in one’s brain chemistry, nature’s way to drug us, an inconvenient occurence like a cold, but with potentially much more disastrous effects? I’ve been a bachelor for 17 years now, and I might actually qualify as “One of those remote, ineffectual creatures so warped by their solitude that they became distasteful to other people”. In my case, I don’t like falling in love at all, I hate it that my brain can conjure up these states, in which I find another random person attractive and fascinating against my declared will and better judgement.
    One minute everything is fine, the next minute you feel as though you can’t live without another person?
    It’s all biological trickery in my opinion, biochemical fraud, that has nothing to do with reality.
    It’s a state of estrangement and unhealthy elevation, like one is, as Beckett said, banished from one’s homeland.

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    1. Of course Beckett did have a lifetime companion whom he did marry and maintained a simultaneous relationship with another woman for the last 30 years of his life. So talking about love may have been on some level guarded and academic.

      There is a difference between the sort of infatuation that typifies that heady state of attraction and long term love and affection, but a wish to avoid the vulnerability of the first state would seem to preclude the possibility of the latter. I share the same anxiety about such surrender (or state of exile so to speak). I am also at the stage in my life that I can appreciate a physically attractive person for what that is worth, but it is only a serious intellectual attraction that might break through my barrier. And quite frankly, in real life I have not seen too much risk of that happening…

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      1. I’m not too sure whether I actually believe in the possibility of long-term love relationships. The ones I’ve witnessed in my family during my childhood and later were without exception of a kind, that elicited disgust and horror. To be quite honest: I’ve never managed to observe a happy, caring, affectionate long-term couple in “the wild”, only disfunctional relationships full of suffering and tension.
        Love for me is a fictional phenomenon reserved for romcoms, which I actually enjoy.
        The memory of the atmosphere between my grandparents still makes me shudder.
        The few relationships I had during my adolescence weren’t much of a success either.
        My view of falling in love is therefore much more that of a terrible temporary confusion that might lead to another doomed relationship, which had better been avoided in the first place.

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      2. I think the key thing is for a person to be happy with the decision they have made for themselves and not feel pressured to live up to societal expectations of what is “good” or “normal”. There seems to be a move toward more people rejecting the notion that coupling is the norm which may lead to less of the dysfunction and misery you have observed.

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  2. The problem with ‘celebrations’ like Valentines Day is that we get pressured into feeling we should all be in celebration mode and live exactly as the characters do in movies. I love your comment that you have found its best to enjoy whatever opportunities might come but not to hang your life on seeking for them.

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  3. I’ve heard of this books and wondered if it was any good; books that fictionalize real people, especially authors I like, tend to be fraught affairs. But it sounds like it is a good book and would read well along with Passage to India which I have not yet read. I really enjoyed reading your personal reflections too. Books can help up open up so many doors.

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    1. Thanks. This is one of those cases where my appreciation of the novel has only increased. In style it is so different from the lean prose I associate with Galgut but, at the same time, he is the ideal writer to breathe life into this period of Forster’s life and the dynamics of creative writer’s block. Don’t miss a chance to visit (or re-visit) the wonderful 1984 film. That was my introduction to Forster’s work in my romantic early 20s!

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  4. Read Arthur Martland:”Forster:The Prose and the Passion”, first overt fully book re F’s sexuality and how it manifests in his often(self?) censored writings: GMP, probably out of print; WELL predates Moffat , which is also good:) Steve

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