I met South African writer Damon Galgut at the 2014 International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto where he was on several panels reading from and discussing his new novel “Arctic Spring.” Two of Galgut’s previous novels, “The Good Doctor” and “In A Strange Room,” have been Man Booker Prize finalists.
The timing couldn’t have been more propitious. I was at work at the time on a short story in which I recount English author E.M. Forster’s life leading up to and including his writing of his novel “Maurice,” his one explicitly gay novel. Galgut’s novel “Arctic Spring” is a semi-fictionalized take on the years 1912 to 1924 during which Forster was working on his novel “Passage to India.” It was during this period that he also wrote “Maurice.”
The grey area between fiction and non-fiction intrigues me. One of the most widely read contemporary excavators of this terrain is Hilary Mantel with her Oliver Cromwell novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” This mixed-genre seems to go by various names such as creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction and the somewhat distinct but related historical fiction.
With my short story “Morgan and Maurice,” I was interested not only in depicting the biographical elements in Forster’s life that led up to his writing of the novel but also the dynamics behind his decision not to allow it to be published during his lifetime. I tried a number of structures and approaches before settling on a straightforward recounting of Forster’s life up to 1913 when he wrote “Maurice” and then adding an epilogue in which Forster is in an imagined conversation with the character Maurice. Or to put it more specifically, Maurice chastises Morgan for his reluctance to allow the story out into the reading public for fifty-five years and through their conversation Forster has an opportunity to present the case for his decision.
Galgut has more guts and considerably more skill than I do. His whole novel “Arctic Summer,” while based on the known historical elements of Forster’s life, is a free-flowing journey through those years 1912 to 1924 when he was working on “Passage to India” as experienced from within the skin of the great novelist himself. Having done considerable research myself in preparation for writing “Morgan and Maurice,” reading Galgut’s “Arctic Summer” has been like a protracted and uninhibited conversation with a dear friend who was prepared to share the joy and pain that went into the creation of that work of art.
My copy of “Arctic Summer” bears the inscription: “For David – with very best wishes from another Forster fan, Damon Galgut, Toronto, 26 Oct 2014” – a lovely memento of an inspiring conversation with a very gifted writer.