Someday, years from now, some talented author might wonder about the dedication in Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer: ‘to Riyaz Ahmad Mir and to the fourteen years of our friendship’. Those words might trigger something in the memory of that future author, something from Galgut’s earlier book, The Good Doctor. There, Riyaz Ahmad Mir is also mentioned, in the acknowledgments: ‘for keeping me company’.
The future author might dig a little more and find an interview with Galgut in The Paris Review where he said that he’d written much of The Good Doctor on a beach in Goa, around 14 years before Artic Summer was published. Is there a story there, the future author might wonder, before carrying out some diligent research and finally writing a fictionalised account of Galgut’s relationship with Riyaz Ahmad Mir.
Would Galgut be opposed to such a book? Surely not, since he’s done the same with E.M. Forster. Galgut was inspired by the dedication in A Passage to India: ‘To Syed Ross Masood and to the seventeen years of our friendship’.
Galgut was certainly diligent in his research. The novel – and it is a novel, not a biography – contains many factual details from Forster’s life and many of the people he came into contact with. It covers moments of Forster’s own likely research that later turned up in his novels, such as a visit to the Marabar Caves which feature at a crucial moment in A Passage to India when Adelais apparently assaulted by Dr Aziz.
But Arctic Summer is essentially a tale of unrequited love, of Forster’s infatuation with Masood and the Englishman’s inner conflict as he struggles with homosexuality in a reserved and very formal society.
The novel is also about the creative process: how writers (Forster in particular, but also Galgut and perhaps even that future author) find their inspiration and develop it into a full blown story.
That said, Arctic Summer isn’t really a story. Although it’s a fictionalised account, the novel reads more like a biography in that it relates various events from Forster’s life. The narrative follows a more episodic structure than the dramatic rise and fall pattern of most contemporary novels.
Any Cop?: Forster’s Arctic Summer, his unfinished novel, is said to potentially have been a masterpiece. Galgut’s homage might not have quite achieved that standard, but he certainly succeeded in what he set out to do. Galgut’s Arctic Summer delivers a fascinating insight into the mind of a great author, and it’s not only Forster’s qualities he reveals.