Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review: Arctic Summer by E M Forster

E M Forster
Arctic Summer

Published by Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Drew Gummerson

‘Arctic Summer’ is a fragment of a novel. Forster began writing it in 1911, after the publication of ‘Howard’s End’ and at a time when he was established as one of England’s leading novelists.

It opens with an accident. Martin Whitby is at Basle station with his wife and mother-in-law. They are to take a train to Italy. In an effort to secure them all seats Martin rushes forward, slips, and is prevented from falling under the train by a young soldier, Clesant March. The novel is to centre on the clash between these two men.

Forster described himself as being at the ‘fag end of Victorianism’. He was describing a new world, that of Edwardian times, when the classes were jockeying for position. Martin is a civil servant. He believes society is perfectly formed, everything that is to be discovered, has been discovered. It is just a question of tidying it all up. Clesant is part of the old world. He comes from a background of the manor house. His is a world of chivalry, where gentlemen should behave as gentlemen.

Martin inadvertently snubs Clesant when they meet again at Tramonta. Clesant wants to view the frescoes, it is said that they depict one of his ancestors, performing heroic deeds. Martin speaks disparagingly of ancestry. All that doesn’t matter, it was what you do now in the world that makes a man. This he regrets after, and he writes to Clesant, says if there is anything he can do, he will be more than willing to help.

This being a Forster novel, you know that the two men will meet again. There is a gunshot, a death. The fragment comes to a full stop.

Around this time Forster was also contemplating his ‘gay novel’ Maurice. There is a sense that he was tired of writing about relationships he didn’t care about, or rather that, relationships he didn’t want to write about.

After ‘Howard’s End’ there was only one more novel, the great, ‘A Passage to India’. At this centre of this novel is a hole, a central event in the caves that either did or did not happen. For Forster this was the hole at the centre of his ambitions. It wasn’t until his death that ‘Maurice’ was published.

Yet I wish he had persevered with ‘Arctic Summer’. I, at least, wanted to know what happened next. For me Forster is both a sharp writer and a sexy one. There is one scene in which Lance March leaps out of the bath and runs naked through the house, shocking his brother. There is something both sweet and innocent about this, and Forster writes so clearly, I can still see that naked man in my head.

Drew Gummerson lives in Leicester, England. In 2002 his first book 'The Lodger' was published. It was a finalist in the Lambda Awards in the States. Drew’s next book 'Darts' was a finalist in the UKA/PABD Great Read Novel Competition. Drew’s latest novel 'Me and Mickie James' is due to be published in July 2008 by Jonathan Cape.

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