Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

The long is: I suspect most people come to this as an EM Forster fan, whereas I’m the contrary case. This was the only Galgut I hadn’t read when I picked it up in London a year or more ago. On the other hand, I’ve never read a thing by EM Forster other than his brilliant short story ‘The Machine Stops’.

So enamoured am I of Galgut that when I bought this, I didn’t even look at the back cover, only to discover when I sat down to begin it at home that it is a bio-novel. I was crestfallen. I have a historian’s distaste for bio-pics, biography, autobiography. Why would a bio-novel be any different? What is it? Some excuse to write a biography without doing the hard work? Without having to bother with the facts? Back on the shelf it sat, and sat. And sat. Until the other day when I came upon it soon after an experience which had given me a different perspective on this sort of book. I read Infinity: The Story of a Moment by Gabriel Josipovici, read it, loved it, and only subsequently discovered it was a bio-novel. Fantastic, opened up a new world to me, one where it is possible to be sympathetic to reality while fleshing it out in some way a fiction writer may have at his fingertips, but not a historian.

Why not Galgut, then? Indeed, why not. He did a great job of the various settings, culturally, geographically and temporally. The elegant prose is precisely fit for the period and the man which are the subject of it. It’s quite unlike anything else Galgut has written and he does a more than satisfactory job of stepping outside what I think of as his comfort zone. It’s a gentle, melancholic story of a man to whom nothing happens, but oh, aren’t we batting for him all the way?

The short is: I couldn’t put it down, read it in a couple of days. Another triumph for Galgut.

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