Books are an important physical presence around anyone who feels reading is a major part of living. I can spend a lot of time just gazing at my shelves wondering what I should read or reread next or simply enjoying the company of my books. Of course, no book was created in isolation but produced by someone who was influenced by reading countless other books. The traditional hub for many great writers to discover books that inspire and inform them has been the library. This year The London Library which is the world's largest independent library with more than a million books and periodicals in its collection is turning 175 years old. “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” is a compact collection of pieces by great writers such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, EM Foster and the poet Leigh Hunt – all of whom were active members of The London Library. They contemplate the experience of being committed writers and readers who share the same wonder, joy and excitement we all feel when staring at a shelf filled with books.  

It's surprising how relevant some of the arguments and questions raised in these pieces still feel today. I suppose this is because the experience of being an enthusiastic reader never changes. George Eliot muses upon the profession of writing in her essay 'Authorship' and how writing for a living can cause someone to compromise their vision and morals due to commercial pressure. She considers the cultural impact of great writing against the degree to which its valued by society. These feel like the same arguments that are made in current articles on how authors are woefully underpaid. Virginia Woolf addresses the issue of criticism and urges readers to come to books with no preconceived notions or expectations about the text: “Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” In her typically ingenious way she meditates upon the interplay between the physical world around us, the imaginative world the author places us in and how these intermingle.

Charles Dickens' letter to George Eliot is filled with praise for her first publication “Scenes of Clerical Life” yet he shows himself to be incredibly astute guessing in a friendly manner that she is not male as her pen names suggests but female (something which was not publicly known at the time). Leigh Hunt contemplates his passion for the books around him, the manner in which books are consumed and how they are a touchstone to the past. He shows a certain snobbishness about different kinds of literature and how access to books is connected with privilege (this was certainly true when he was alive in the mid-1800s.) In a way all book lovers can relate to, he goes through some of his prize possessions on his bookshelves developing a fetishism for the beauty of certain books. He also covets the books other readers' possess remarking: “I cannot see a work that interests me on another person's shelf, without a wish to carry it off.”

EM Forster wrote his piece about The London Library itself at a time directly before WWII when he was aware of how precarious books and the inheritance of knowledge was in the face of rampant destruction. In this bleak time he ardently remarked about the library that “It is a symbol of civilization. It is a reminder of sanity and a promise of sanity to come.” It's comforting to know that The London Library is still thriving. This week from May 5th-8th to celebrate their 175 year a number of readings and events called Words in the Square are taking place.

This book is a fantastic touchstone for readers and lovers of literary culture exploring from different angles the way literature plays an active part of daily life. It makes a wonderful companion to Ali Smith's recent book of stories and collection of testaments about the importance of libraries Public Library. In the preface to each piece in “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” there is a short fascinating paragraph about each author's relationship with The London Library – for instance, when Virginia Woolf joined she gave her occupation as “Spinster”. These pieces reinforce how important the library was for these writers and this anthology is a wonderful celebration of our literary culture.

Sometimes the feeling of a novel resonates so strongly with my current emotional state that it’s eerie. It’s that magical moment where consciousness becomes fused so tight with the narrative and the particular story becomes my own – particular and universal. True. I had this sensation as I got into the thick of this novel’s story. It seems an unlikely place and person to feel so connected to: Galgut’s fictional imagining of writer EM Forster. The novel mostly takes place between the publication of “Howard’s End” in 1910 and the publication of “A Passage to India” in 1924. Forster (or Morgan as he is commonly called) travels to India primarily to visit a man he's fallen in love with named Syed Ross Masood. He experiences first hand the strained racial relations and the way imperialism was transforming at that time. Having met in England when Morgan was tutoring him the pair became close friends, but never lovers as Masood denied Morgan's advances. When Morgan returns to England he continues to live with his mother who is both his closest companion and worst enemy. During the war Morgan takes up a position in Egypt and there meets the second great love of his life Mohammed. Galgut carefully reconstructs the tentative relationships Morgan builds with other people, elucidating the suppressed sexuality of Morgan and the complexity of racial politics. The story is overall a speculation on the events and emotions which fed into the difficult creation of “A Passage to India” as well as the novel “Maurice” which wasn't published until after the author's death.

What resonated so strongly with me was the way Galgut skilfully conveys how an intensely intimate relationship can transform over time to something distant and unknown. What was once fiery can become nothing but smoke. But what also resonated with me was the distance Morgan feels between himself and other people. He is sociable and well liked. But it's as if the most essential parts of himself must be hidden from others. “His mood, which seldom left him, was like being under the sea, in aquamarine light. However bright or loud your surroundings, you were somehow always alone.” There is a yawning ravine between his essential self and others which causes him to feel intense isolation. This has to do with his personality but also with his Englishness; Galgut muses upon the way the national characteristics of being proper, not expressing intense emotion and being locked in a class system feed into the way Morgan feels so removed from others. Although it's a culture he was raised in he doesn't feel its inherent to him: “Although he was English all the way through, a great many English attitudes felt foreign to him.” Therefore his encounters with men from other cultures which tend to be more expressive and forthright with emotion entrance the impressionable writer and assist him in allowing his own true personality to emerge.

Morgan's sense of isolation also has a lot to do with his sexuality. He must hide his attraction to men as a necessity as he's very mindful of Oscar Wilde's persecution and fears being scorned by his mother and the people close to him. Some of his similarly closeted companions speak of this desire with carefully modulated language, but it can never be fully acknowledged. Although Morgan is in his thirties when the novel begins he's never had a full sexual experience: “The world of Eros remained a flickering internal pageant, always with him, yet always out of reach.” The roiling sexual fantasies stirring within remain theoretical as he has no real world experience of physical sex. Morgan's tentative approach to initiating sexual contact is masterfully handled by Galgut and when he finally does experience sensual relations it's tenderly described. Even if some people close to Morgan accept his sexuality it can never be publicly acknowledged and this also adds a burden to Morgan's feelings that no one knows his true self. When Morgan loses a man he loves he can't acknowledge how he really feels: “There was something humiliating, too, in a display of grief when the relationship had been unwitnessed.” Since his love for a man is never publicly declared he must suppress the grief of its loss as well. This drives Morgan even further inside himself, guarding his emotions and transforming them into the artistic expression that is his writing.

A curious thing that Galgut explores is the way Morgan doesn't really feel like a writer. He doesn't take his writing entirely seriously and is a bit bemused when his novels begin to be received so well. Nor does Morgan feel that novels are entirely suitable for encapsulating reality: “Fiction was too artificial and self-conscious, he thought, ever to convey anything real.” Although he is highly aware of the shortcomings of literature it's something he does return to continuously and Galgut seems to be proposing in this novel that Morgan does so because he has no other outlet for expressing how he truly feels. Morgan is described being locked out of his own emotions: “there were days when all passion seemed to be frozen in marble.” Only in the carefully controlled and modulated reality inside the fiction he creates by chiselling away at that marble can Morgan's true self come alive.

The writer EM Forster as private secretary to the Maharajah at Pondicherry, 1934 - a period covered in this novel.

The writer EM Forster as private secretary to the Maharajah at Pondicherry, 1934 - a period covered in this novel.

Since Morgan was heavily involved with the highly canonized literary movements of the time there are naturally some scenes in “Arctic Summer” which feature appearances from writers like a spirited young D.H. Lawrence, a befuddled Henry James, a sage-like Cavafy and an intimidating Virginia Woolf. Although he draws a lot of inspiration and support from them, Morgan expresses his hesitancy about engaging with the Woolfs and Bloomsbury Group: “They were all so interwoven and intimate, changing relationships and sexual tastes the way other people changed hats. To say nothing of their cleverness, which was sometimes cruel, and used against friend and enemy indiscriminately.” These portrayals of other writers are great fun for bookworms who naturally enjoy musing upon what the real life interactions between famous writers must have been like. Inevitably they are not as momentous as you would hope for or might imagine.

One of the more writerly aspects this novel explores is the slightly testy relationship a writer has with the people he’s intimate with and how it influences his productivity. One of the primary things that inhibits Morgan from writing as freely as he wants is fear about what his mother and close relations will think. Alternatively his loquacious friend Masood has a deep reservoir of faith in Morgan’s genius and continuously encourages him to write more and complete what he’s started. Galgut writes beautifully about the craft of fiction when he comments: “He had learned, with his earlier novels, that if you screwed up your inner eye when looking at somebody familiar, you could glimpse a new personality, both like and unlike the original. Once this outline had taken shape, you could fill it with traits that in turn had been borrowed elsewhere.” In the novel, Leonard Woolf provides the most constructive advice any writer can have that rather than planning in his head and fretting Forster should work out how his novels form “‘Simply by taking up your pen.’” All this hesitancy feels warranted by the way Morgan's books are received and may provide an answer for why he never published a novel after "A Passage to India" despite living many more years. When Morgan’s fame and status are elevated by his publications the casual cutting judgements directed toward him from the general public who haven’t even read him are chilling.

The title “Arctic Summer” comes from a novel that Morgan begins after publishing “Howard's End” and never completes. The pairing of the words perfectly summarize the emotional friction between intense heated passion and frozen feeling. However, the fact that it was an unfinished book becomes a sort of symbol for the unexpressed aspects of Morgan's personality. Poetically, Damon Galgut writes the novel of Morgan's life, creating a book that Morgan himself couldn't complete in his own real life because of the circumstances of the time.

Galgut is a masterful writer. I've only read his other novels “The Good Doctor” which enthralled me and “In a Strange Room” which intrigued me but left me frankly baffled. “Arctic Summer” makes a natural companion to Colm Toibin's brilliant novel “The Master” which similarly fictionalized the life of Henry James exposing the emotional inner life he strove so fervently to conceal. I'm very much looking forward to hearing Damon Galgut being interviewed by the excellent writer and charming man Patrick Gale at Kings Place in London at the end of March:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDamon Galgut
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