Of the great, complex novelist
Kindness is a key theme throughout, as is how we respond to those unlike ourselves, whether culturally or racially. The “ship was like a tiny piece of England, Tunbridge Wells in particular”, and most people on board treat the Indian passenger, Mamoon, with contempt.
The journey motif serves Galgut well as he takes the reader on a voyage, too, skilfully building anticipation for the ship’s arrival into India, the passengers “glaring ahead at the horizon in the hope that it might yield up something solid”. A pair of yellow butterflies signals land is nearby. Having a journey at its heart also allows examination of the gulf between expectation and reality; the chasm between the idealised, romanticised notions that Morgan expects to find on arrival in an India ruled by the British Raj and the reality creates considerable tension. Morgan stays with an Indian friend. (Searight tells him: “You won’t learn anything about India unless you mingle with the Indians, whatever anyone else might tell you.”) Galgut does an excellent job at sketching the fine details, from modes of address to manners of dress.
Galgut prismatically captures the many complex sides of EM Forster — from the civilised veneer to that which Forster senses lurking beneath, the “drunk and disorderly and primitive, closer to the woods than the city”. Galgut traces Forster’s sexual awakening; at the beginning of the novel, the sexually inexperienced Morgan envies the salacious Searight and his “ability to translate yearning into deed”. Yet yearning will continue to haunt Morgan’s life, such as in his growing friendship with Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man whom he tutors in Latin, that will become unrequited love (“There was something in human affection that was at odds with reason, he thought, like a kind of mild insanity.”)
This is a novel about the processes of creativity, and how a story, a fiction, is born from life. Morgan “sensed the beginnings of a story”, about lust in close confines, under a hot, empty sky, breeding dreams of murder, as he observes the relationship between Searight and Mamoon. We see how a new novel gestates while also gaining insight into the way Forster’s previous novels were written (“The Longest Journey, as it wound itself out of him, showed him strangenesses in his own nature that partly alarmed him, but partly pleased him too — because they confirmed what he hoped about himself: that he did not belong, not quite, in the deadly properness around him”).
Galgut traces the various compulsions throughout Forster’s life that drove him to write, whether to express or excite himself, and how an idea “seeded itself in him”. This is a passionate and meticulously researched paean to a great novelist, but it is ultimately Galgut’s words that linger most in the mind, beautiful turns of phrase such as: “Time seemed to swell, becoming waterlogged with emotion.” In claiming a title of a novel that was never finished for this finished novel, Galgut masterfully shows the literature of the past and present in powerful dialogue.
Anita Sethi is a writer and broadcaster.