Of the great, com­plex nov­el­ist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

EM Forster

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