In this novel based on the life of E.M. Forster, Galgut (In a Strange Room, 2010, etc.) focuses on the novelist’s visits to India, his time in Egypt and his homoerotic yearnings.
The opening sets the tone. Morgan, as he is known, is on a vessel steaming toward India in 1912. A British army officer tells him of his many sexual conquests of Indian men and boys; Morgan finds this titillating. He’s a timid mama’s boy, a closeted gay man, still a virgin at 33. His four published novels have examined heterosexual relationships; his gay novel, Maurice, will be published posthumously. Yet Morgan has known romance. In England some years before, he became friends with Masood, an aristocratic young Muslim Indian. While Masood gently rejected Morgan’s advances, the friendship blossomed. “Friendship is your Empire, Morgan,” declared the anti-imperialist Indian. Aside from his reunion with Masood, his first visit to India introduces Morgan to its religious and caste divisions and its frequently obnoxious British rulers; it also sows the first seeds of A Passage to India, written years later. Another opportunity to travel arises in 1915. The Great War is underway. Morgan works for the Red Cross in Alexandria, visiting hospitalized soldiers. He finally has his first sexual experience, fellating a soldier on a secluded beach: “this was the realest moment of his life.” Even if we accept that, Galgut’s focus on Morgan’s sexual needs is reductive. You wouldn’t know, apart from passing references (Lytton Strachey, the Woolfs), that he was a Bloomsbury figure himself. Another romance catches fire in Alexandria. Mohammed is a humble tram conductor; like Masood, he isn't gay, but he indulges Morgan’s needs to an extent while cherishing their friendship. Most of this has been documented in four biographies, as Galgut acknowledges.
Forster remains elusive in this unbalanced account.