Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Spurling’

He got it right: The letters of Paul Scott, the man behind Jewel in the Crown

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011
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Eliel Saarinen's Cranbrook

I met British author Paul Scott briefly, during a scholarship weekend decades ago at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts and Institute of Sciences – with its beautiful gardens and buildings by architect Eliel Saarinen, coincidentally, a mile or so down the street from my family home.  A writer’s scholarship was heady stuff back then.  Poetry and prose were separated like goats and sheep:  the poetry folks were shuffled off for meetings with Galway Kinnell; the fiction people were sent off with Paul Scott.

Debonair and rumpled Galway was the charmer of the two – he charmed me, anyway, over biscuits and tea.  Paul Scott seemed under the weather – an old tropical disease, was the rumor.  To my eye, it seemed to have a lot to do with alcohol.

At any rate, in our small prose sessions, Paul seemed displeased with the lot of us.  After dismissing one piece of writing after another, he came to mine – a short satire of Russian writers (take that, Elif Batuman!).  “This is quite different,” he said, lifting his eyes to mine.  “I can see what you must have been like as a child.  You were quite brave, quite courageous.”  I did not correct him, but met his gaze.  Actually, he called it wrong.  I had been quite timid and withdrawn.

The charmer

The Cranbrook week was over all too soon.  But I didn’t forget him, and planned to meet him when I was a young intern at Vogue in London (yes, it was exactly like The Devil Wears Prada, and I felt very much like the Anne Hathaway character, except for the looks).  So I was surprised to read in the news of his death, a few months after my arrival, of colon cancer.

I wonder now if that’s part of why he was “under the weather” before, in the lush green of a Michigan summer.

His newly published Staying On, a coda to his Raj Quartet, hadn’t grabbed me; it won a Booker Prize after his death.  Like everyone else, I became a devoted fan of the Jewel in the Crown series years later – but by that time I’d had my own experiences in India.

Under the weather

Now, in 2011, two volumes of his letters have been published: Behind Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet: A Life in Letters, edited by Janis Haswell.  The volumes are reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement here.  An excerpt:

For much of his life, Paul Scott was the epitome of the struggling novelist. Dogged by self-doubt and money worries, tormented by writer’s block or inching forward painfully with a many-stranded narrative, his health and family problems exacerbated by a sedentary and often solitary lifestyle, he suffered for his art on a daily basis. Even success had its drawbacks. In a letter recording a lucrative paperback deal, he inveighs against “this coming and going and signing on the dotted line and being wooed by some crap publisher you don’t want to go to . . . all this is now a bit nasty, this is what I used to have ambitions for; and worked myself up into a tizzy just to meet this great man or this useful woman”. His frustration boils over on to the page. But the underlying reason for it is clear: “I’d almost give my right arm just to be left in peace to get on with The Birds of Paradise”. Some people really have no choice but to write, and Scott was one of them. As he himself explains, “The bloody trouble is we are only alive when we’re half dead trying to get a paragraph right”.

Jewel in the Crown: Art Malik as Hari Kumar, Tim Pigott-Smith as Ronald Merrick

My own mega-volume of Scott’s Quartet is marked lightly with pencil in the margins. “For me, the British Raj is an extended metaphor [and] I don’t think a writer chooses his metaphors. They choose him,” Scott had said.

His biographer Hilary Spurling wrote:

“Probably only an outsider could have commanded the long, lucid perspectives he brought to bear on the end of the British raj, exploring with passionate, concentrated attention a subject still generally treated as taboo, or fit only for historical romance and adventure stories. However Scott saw things other people would sooner not see, and he looked too close for comfort. His was a bleak, stern, prophetic vision and, like E.M. Forster‘s, it has come to seem steadily more accurate with time.”

Thumbing through reminds me of why I loved his vision as large as the empire, his empathy, his humanity.  And when he got it right, he got it right:

It will end, she told herself, in total and unforgiveable disaster; that is the situation. As she continued to look down upon the tableau of Rowan, Gopal and Kumar – and the clerk who no re-entered, presumably as a result of the ring of a bell that Rowan had pressed – she felt that she was being vouchsafed a vision of the future they were all headed for. At its heart was the rumbling sound of martial music. It was a vision because the likeness of it would happen. In her own time it would happen. … The reality of the actual deed would be a monument to all that had been thought for the best. ‘But it isn’t the best we should remember,’ she said, and shocked herself by speaking aloud, and clutched the folds and mother-of-pearl buttons in that habitual gesture. We must remember the worst because the worst is the lives we lead, the best is only our history, and between our history and our lives there is this vast dark plain where the rapt and patient shepherds drive their invisible flocks in expectation of God’s forgiveness.