Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Jane Austen and Satire

Ang Lee’s (1995) film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was greeted with critical acclaim, and is still considered to be one of the most successful adaptions of a Jane Austen novel. “I want to break people’s hearts so badly that they’ll still be recovering from it two months later”, he told the producer and screenwriter when they approached him about directing the film (i). They were delighted with this response. Jane Austen, one suspects, would be turning in her grave. As a supreme social satirist, whose first two novels, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, deliberately set out to undermine the popular novels of her day, Austen would have been horrified to discover that the film celebrates the very sentiment that she was trying so hard to ironize (ii).
Lee missed the most crucial point of the novel: that Sense and Sensibility is a satire of sensibility, not an endorsement of it. Austen set out to deflate the conventions of the 18th century novel: she is defiantly anti-romantic, realistic, and clear-eyed, parodying the absurd excesses of the popular sentimental fiction of the day.
Though Austen was a great advocate of the novel as a literary form, she was well aware of its limitations. Sentimentalism is a slippery concept, not least because what was first a term of approbation became increasingly pejorative. The cult of sensibility or sentimentalism was acted out in a code of conduct which placed emphasis on the feelings rather than on reason. A heightened sensitivity to emotional experience and an acute responsiveness to nature were perceived as the marks of the person of sensibility. Medical writers of the era connected sensibility to madness, over-taxed nerves, and hysteria.
Sensibility had its origins in philosophy, but it became a literary movement, particularly in the emerging genre of the novel. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield were exemplars of the genre, which emphasized ‘feeling’ and aimed to elicit an emotional response from the reader. The most notorious of all sentimental novels was Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which depicted a highly sensitive hero who kills himself because of unrequited love. The flip-side of this popular sentimental craze was the contention that such extreme behavior was mere narcissism and self-indulgent histrionics. Jane Austen belonged firmly to the camp of anti-sensibility.
Jane Austen’s roots were in literary parody. From her juvenilia, to her first full-length satire of the sentimental and Gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, to her final uncompleted novel, ‘Sanditon’, she continued to use satire as a literary tool.
Her juvenilia, written not for publication but chiefly to amuse her family, show her exposure to 18th-century satire both in the drama and the novel. From a very early age, she was an avid reader of those masters of satire, Henry Fielding and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She was particularly familiar with Fielding’s political plays, which repeatedly satirized the Whig government, plays such as The Author’s Farce,Tom ThumbPasquin and The Historical Register. The success of the latter play finally provoked the government into passing the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737, whose long-term repercussions were to include the growth of closet drama and the transfer of creative energy from the theatre to the novel (iii).
One of Austen’s favourite novelists was Samuel Richardson, the author of Pamela,Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. But she also knew and admired Fielding’s pitch-perfect satire of PamelaShamela, which ruthlessly lampooned Richardson’s heroine. Pamela is a lowly maidservant who refused the sexual advances of her master, Mr B, and tames him by her virtue and religious principles into making her an offer of marriage. Fielding loathed the hypocrisy of the idea that the reward for virtue should be so patently material: marriage to a wealthy man with a large house. In Shamela, the heroine is playing a long and sly game of sexual conquest:
He took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy: Laud, says I, Sir, I hope you don’t intend to be rude; no, says he, My Dear, and then he kissed me, ’till he took my away my Breath and I pretended to be Angry, and to get away.
Jane Austen loved to make her family laugh out loud when reading her lampoons, but she also approved of satire and burlesque as a literary medium for exposing moral and social hypocrisy. And also, like Fielding, she had a sharp eye for the absurdities and limitations of much of the fiction of her age. She shared Fielding’s irreverence for literary and artistic convention. Her characters are far from heroic, they are flawed and make mistakes. She is the pioneer of the imperfect heroine: “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked,” she said when writing about her own art of fiction (iv).
The young Jane Austen was a comic writer first and foremost. But she also was aware that satire acts as a form of criticism, a way of elucidating the absurdities and limitations of a particular art form. In one of her early works, ‘A Beautiful description of the different effects of Sensibility on different minds’, the heroine, Melissa, is suffering a self-induced fit of excessive sensibility, which makes her bed-ridden and close to death (shades of Marianne Dashwood). A doctor asks her whether she is thinking of dying, to which the reply is that “She has not strength to think at all”. “Nay, then”, replies the witty doctor, “She cannot think to have Strength”.
An early version of Sense and Sensibility called ‘Love and Freindship’ [sic] is a brilliant, fast-moving sustained satire on the novel of sensibility. Emotional excess—the indulgence of luxuriance in feeling for its own sake—was the particular target of her satire. Many sentimental novels contained clichés such as lost orphans, swooning heroines, emotional reunions, improbable chance meetings. ‘Love and Freindship’ mocks all of these clichés with a ruthless brilliance.
Above all, Austen shows how bad moral conduct, selfishness, and hypocrisy can be disguised behind the façade of sensibility. Her immoral, though highly amusing, heroine, Sophia, is caught stealing money, but responds in the injured tones of a virtuous heroine: “The dignity of Sophia was wounded; ‘Wretch (exclaimed she, hastily replacing the Bank-note in the drawer) how darest thou accuse me of an Act, of which the bare idea makes me blush?’” Her heroines in ‘Love and Freindship’ cheat, lie, and steal, all in the name of sensibility.
In Sense and Sensibility, the satire is more refined, but more stinging and acute. Austen satirizes the bullying egotism that is implicit in Marianne Dashwood’s excessive sensibility: “She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself”. Marianne’s romantic notions are frequently punctured by Austen. So, for example, one of her impassioned outbursts about autumnal leaves elicits the dry response: “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves”.
Marianne Dashwood’s romantic ideas are derived from the books she reads. Austen gains much comic mileage from her heroine’s faith in her own originality, although, ironically, her conduct places her as a rather conventional type.
Jane Austen was a supreme social satirist. Wit was valued highly in her family. The focus of her satire in Pride and Prejudice is social class and social standing. The later novels, EmmaPersuasion, and ‘Sanditon’, all register social and economic change and enact social mobility. But in Pride and Prejudice, Austen presents her most upwardly mobile heroine in Elizabeth Bennet and mocks the anachronistic social pride of Mr Darcy.
Elizabeth’s most damming condemnation of Mr Darcy is that he has failed to behave like a gentleman. Her stout refusal to equate high social status with intrinsic gentility sweeps away rigid class boundaries, and her marriage with Darcy heralds a more inclusive society. The final words of the novel reveal Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s fear that old money will mingle with new, that gentility will mix with trade: “she condescended to wait on them in Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received, not merely from the presence of such a mistress, but the visits of her uncle and aunt from the city”.
Darcy learns to abandon the social pride that is manifested in his superciliousness towards trade. His reformation forces a re-evaluation of his social prejudices: “When she saw him thus seeking the acquaintance, and courting the good opinion of people, with whom any intercourse a few months ago would have been a disgrace; when she saw him thus civil, not only to herself, but to the very relations whom he had so openly disdained…the difference, the change was so great”. He later confesses that Elizabeth alone has effected the change: “By you, I was properly humbled”.
Elizabeth’s stand off with Lady Catherine at Longbourn is one of the great ‘set-pieces’ in fiction, the triumph of the new order over the old. Elizabeth’s moral defeat of Lady Catherine reveals the shallowness and ignorance of the social distinctions to which the high-born woman is so desperate to cling. Lady Catherine’s insistence that the union between Elizabeth and Darcy would “ruin him in the opinion of all his friends and make him the contempt of the world” is crushed by Elizabeth’s cool and rational response: “With regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn”.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Eduardo Galeano: 'My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia'

Most mornings it's the same. At the breakfast table Uruguayan-born author, Eduardo Galeano, 72, and his wife, Helena Villagra, discuss their dreams from the night before. "Mine are always stupid," says Galeano. "Usually I don't remember them and when I do, they are about silly things like missing planes and bureaucratic troubles. But my wife has these beautiful dreams."
One night she dreamt they were at an airport where all the passengers were carrying the pillows they had slept on the night before. Before they could board officials would run their pillows into a machine that would extract the dreams from the night before and make sure there was nothing subversive in them. When she told him he was embarrassed about the banality of his own. "It's shaming, really."
There is not much magical about Galeano's realism. But there is nothing shaming in it either. This septuagenarian journalist turned author has become the poet laureate of the anti-globalisation movement by adding a laconic, poetic voice to non-fiction. When the late Hugo Chávez pressed a copy of Galeano's 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent into the hands of Barack Obama before the world's press in 2009, it leapt from 54,295th on Amazon's rankings to second in just a day. When Galeano's impending journey to Chicago was announced at a reading in March by Arundhati Roy, the crowd cheered. When Galeano came in May it was sold out, as was most of his tour.
"There is a tradition that sees journalism as the dark side of literature, with book writing at its zenith," he told the Spanish newspaper El Pais recently. "I don't agree. I think that all written work constitutes literature, even graffiti. I have been writing books for many years now, but I trained as a journalist, and the stamp is still on me. I am grateful to journalism for waking me up to the realities of the world."
Those realities appear bleak. "This world is not democratic at all," he says. "The most powerful institutions, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank, belong to three or four countries. The others are watching. The world is organised by the war economy and the war culture."
And yet there is nothing in either Galeano's work or his demeanour that smacks of despair or even melancholy. While in Spain during the youth uprisings of the indignados two years ago, he met some young protesters at Madrid's Puerta del Sol. Galeano took heart from the demonstrations. "These were young people who believed in what they were doing," he said. "It's not easy to find that in political fields. I'm really grateful for them."

Saturday, 12 April 2014

“You Turn Yourself into an Outsider”: An interview with Anita Desai

As a child in India, the only thing Anita Desai wanted was to see her books on the family bookshelf, sitting next to those by Nikolai Gogol, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Wolf. Seventy years later, and living in New York, Desai is now a long way from her childhood home. But with a career that has spanned sixteen novels, and most recently, a collection of novellas entitled The Artist of Disappearance (2011), one could make the claim that, in a way, Anita Desai has fulfilled her childhood dream.
This past October Desai came to Pittsburgh as a featured writer with the Prague Writers’ Festival‘s first appearance in the United States. On October 16 she also read selections from her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay at a salon-style reading hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.
On the day of the Prague Writers’ Festival kick-off, Desai spoke with Sampsonia Way in the lobby of Pittsburgh’s William Penn Omni Hotel. In this interview she discusses her childhood of writing and reading, her creative process over the years, her state of hereditary exile, and the complicated perspective on India and the West that it has afforded her.
How did you discover you were a writer?
From a very young age I knew that this was I what I wanted to do. Before I could even spell I was putting letters together to make words. We also had lots of books in our home and everyone read a lot. My family would see me sitting in a corner, scribbling all the time, so they used to address me as “The Writer.” I just wanted my books to be on the bookshelf too.
What was the first thing that you wrote?
A little piece that was published in a children’s magazine when I was nine. Looking back, I don’t know if it’s lucky or unlucky to have such a closed vision so early on in life. I see others trying many things before they set out on their life’s work, and I never had that. While I wish I could do more, I’ve been incredibly happy just being able to read. For me, as a child, the greatest joy was getting my pocket money for the month and racing off to the bookshop to see what I could buy.
What were you reading at that time?
In my early years I was influenced by the British classics of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy. Those are the ones we read, but as I progressed I also discovered Russian authors. It was a great revelation to learn that as a writer you could delve so deeply into the human mind and experience. People like [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky and [Leo] Tolstoy write with such a range of human experience, but the one I particularly love is [Nikolai] Gogol. He wrote some of greatest short stories that have ever been written. There’s an abstract element to his work that seems somehow mysterious, and a little vague, so I keep returning to try and discover those secrets.
Your most recent work, The Artist of Disappearance, is a collection of three novellas that was published two years ago. Are you working on anything right now?
I’ve been absorbed in [Kiran Desai] my daughter’s work, seeing her through the difficult stages of the novel she’s writing. But in the process I’ve been remembering that it’s hard to keep up my stamina through a long piece. I was very happy while working on The Artist of Disappearance because I restricted myself to the limited form of the novella and could do it with ease. In the future I’ll try to write more novellas. The novel takes a lot out of me.
Do you have a routine when you write?
I spend at least three hours at my desk every morning, whether I’m working on a book or not. I always told myself that a desk and a chair in a corner by myself is all I need. I like to have a window and a view too, but I mostly need to be alone when writing. I also write by hand and don’t use the computer until the end of the process. It’s fine for editing, but not for writing.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Aravind Adiga - Interview

In both your Booker-winning debut, The White Tiger, and new book,Last Man in Tower, you analyse the depredations of India's dash for growth. Is that how you see it?
I don't see myself as criticising what is happening in India. India and China, both ancient civilisations, are becoming new kinds of nation state. This is happening through processes that a columnist might write about - global trade, civil society, law and order. And it's also happening through the release of tremendous amounts of amoral energy, that of new kinds of entrepreneurial figure. My position is chronicling this as a writer, and it's perhaps different from the kinds of fiction in English we've had from India before. I find some of that a bit sentimental.
Does it frustrate you when your novels are treated as artefacts of social criticism rather than as fiction?
To some extent, yes. I didn't intend with this new book for there to be an obvious message, or any obvious resolution to the problems. I'm in two minds about what's happening.
I grew up in a very different India. My life then was very much structured around shame and guilt; it was a very conservative society. But that India has gone.
You said there's no obvious hero in this book. Doesn't Masterji count as one?
This figure of the man who says "no" - I never meant for him to be the hero. I hope I've written it well enough for the reader to wonder if he's saying no out of idealism, or even a kind of nihilism. The hero, if there is one, is the city of Mumbai.
How long have you lived in Mumbai now?
I came here in late 2006. But I've spent some time away, in Bangalore. I've never had a job in this city, so I'm free all day. If you have a job, you tend to see less and less of the city.
You say it has changed even in the relatively short period you've been there.
The interesting thing is that Mumbai is growing more slowly than many other cities in India. There's a very palpable anxiety that Mumbai has been misgoverned for many, many years. It takes for ever here to build roads and bridges. The city is not the centre of India's technology industry - that's Bangalore. And New Delhi has much better infrastructure and people see it as the great Indian city of the future. So while Mumbai has changed, it perhaps hasn't changed fast enough. And that's the kind of anxiety that's present in the book - that it will take people like Mr Shah to get things done.
Another anxiety concerns China.
It's a dangerous comparison, because you can't go about crushing individual rights in a quest to grow faster than China. I would like things to get done faster, but I worry what price some people in this country will have to pay. There's a danger that the process of industrialisation and growth can ignore the rights of many weaker sections of society.
Have English writers like Martin Amis had any influence on you?
I wish I could write like Amis. He strikes me as the most Dickensian writer around, in terms of style. He's astonishingly good [in his] native command of sentence structure. On the other hand, he often forgets that he has to tell a story.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

What Muriel Spark Saw

She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip.
To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.
But her reputation has never been secure. Once considered a peer to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Spark is now regarded as a bit of a curiosity, the chronicler of kinky nuns and schoolgirl intrigue, exemplar of the “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish” women’s writing that Norman Mailer derided. But lightning, in this case, strikes twice. Several of her books are being rereleased in America. We have a chance to reconsider the prime of Ms. Muriel Spark.
The bad news first. The nonfiction, it seems, has gone off. “The Informed Air,” a collection of book reviews, “pensées,” and various exhalations, feels lumpy and slightly stale. And save for a weirdly mesmerizing section on watching a dairymaid cutting up a slab of butter, her memoir, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a work of almost sinister dullness—a shame, since her life was anything but, what with a stint in military intelligence, amphetamine-induced madness in her thirties, public betrayal by her lovers, public quarrels with her son. But the novels astonish, even now. All thanks, as it happens, to their “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish,” morally dubious glory; their kinky nuns and schoolgirls; their meddlers and murderers; a grandmother who smuggles diamonds in loaves of bread; a young woman on holiday who meticulously plans her own murder, down to picking out the tie she intends to be strangled with.
What hash Spark’s characters make of those eternal debates over unlikable characters or unlikable women. These women aren’t unlikable, these women are monstrous, and what’s more, Spark behaves monstrously with them. There’s a nasty little scene in her novella “The Girls of Slender Means,” in which a group of women struggle to escape a burning building through a small window. The window can accommodate hips that are at most thirty-six and a quarter inches, “but as the exit had to be effected sideways with a maneuvering of shoulders, much depended on the size of bones, and on the texture of the individual flesh and muscles, whether flexible enough to compress easily or whether too firm.” (Flexible enough to compress easily: Spark looks at her women like a wolf.) The skinny women have slithered through to safety; only the larger or pregnant ones remain. A tape measure is produced. As the room fills with smoke, the women present their hips for measurement. It’s a sweaty, agonizing scene. Once you’ve read it, you’ll remember it like some awful moment from your own life, with odd details taking on a terrible vividness—the way, for example, one trapped woman’s freckles seem to darken as the blood drains from her face. It’s also a deeply silly scene, if that can be believed, with women popping out of the window like corks and randomly disrobing. This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.
Spark was fond of pointing out that as a child she never mothered her dolls. They were puppets, at her command; so too are her characters. They are broad types, complete with catchphrases: “I was Mrs. Hawkins,” “I’m in my prime.” We cannot “enter” them, as the dreadful phrase goes. They don’t excite empathy. They don’t, in fact, differ much from one another. With a few variations, your Sparkian heroine will be a large, intensely clever woman, an editor or a writer, a bit lonely, a bit criminally inclined. Above all, she’s a superb “sighter,” as Spark would say. A watchful woman talented at teasing out secrets. Put simply: imagine the young Muriel Spark.
These characters, these editors and writers, frequently call attention to their implausibility—that is, if they don’t discover that they’re characters in a novel and stage a mutiny, as in “The Comforters,” in which a young writer realizes that Muriel Spark intends to make a fictional character out of her and tries to leap from the frame by changing her travel plans at the last minute or missing appointments she thinks are important to the narrative. To read Spark is always to read about reading. By populating her novels with memoirists and poets, cranky publishers, well-connected hacks, all of them arguing about what makes a character, what propels a sentence, and did you hear about so-and-so’s advance, she draws our attention repeatedly to the artifice of the novel. She loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure. That’s the point of all those catchphrases. Every time Jean Brodie tells us that she’s in her prime, it’s Spark’s voice we hear, and we’re reminded of who wields the puppet strings.
But why torture these poor puppets so voluptuously? Spark loves to make us watch, and we feel that she wants to make us better at watching, so completely must we surrender when we read her. She makes sighters of us, too, Sparkian solitary sighters stuck at the margins, growing gravid with everyone else’s secrets. We learn how powerlessness can make you an expert in the art of appraisal—in assessing someone’s market price down to the penny. Think of how the women in the boarding house in “The Girls of Slender Means” memorize each other’s measurements: they literally have each other’s numbers. In this world, everything is transactional, and everything is currency. The girls of slender means keep a careful accounting of their assets, from their faces to the last nub of rationed soap.
Spark set these imbroglios in female-only spaces: boarding houses, girls’ schools, abbeys, the ladies’ wing of a nursing home. “The strongest men on all fronts were dead before I was born,” she told her biographer, Martin Stannard. (Not that she was ever at ease with her own sex—or, for that matter, her species. “She went through people like pieces of Kleenex,” the writer Ved Mehta said. Like Patricia Highsmith, with whom she shared a healthy interest in sadism, and, briefly, a little black cat named Spider, she was a creature apart, not of us but living among us with lively disdain and mistrust—rather like, well, a cat.) Women were just where the action was, but to be “womanly” was another matter. “There’s something a bit harsh about you, Fleur,” a character says to our heroine in “Loitering with Intent.” “You’re not really womanly.” This irritates Fleur, who tells us, “To show her I was a woman I tore up the pages of my novel and stuffed them into the wastepaper basket, burst out crying and threw her out, roughly and noisily. After that I went to bed. Flooded with peace, I fell asleep.”

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Amrita Pritam: A Letter

File:Amrita Pritam (1919 – 2005) , in 1948.jpg

Me—a book in the attic.
Maybe some covenant or hymnal.
Or a chapter from the Kama Sutra,
or a spell for intimate afflictions.
But then it seems I am none of these.
(If I were, someone would have read me.)

Apparently at an assembly of revolutionaries
they passed a resolution,
and I am a longhand copy of it.
It has the police’s stamp on it
and was never successfully enforced.
It is preserved only for the sake of procedure.

And now only some sparrows come,
straw in their beaks,
and sit on my body
and worry about the next generation.
(How wonderful to worry about the next generation!)
Sparrows have wings on them,
but resolutions have no wings
(or resolutions have no second generation).

Sometimes I think to catch the scent—
what lies in my future?
Worry makes my binding come off.
Whenever I try to smell,
just some fumes of bird shit.
O my earth, your future!
Me—your current state.


Amrita Pritam was a Punjabi poet and novelist who recorded the trauma of Partition in her best-know poem, “I Call upon Varis Shah Today.” Denis Matringe’s French translation of her novel, The Skeleton, was awarded the La Route des Indes Literary Prize (2005). Among her other honors were the Jnanpith award (1981) and the Padma Vibushan (2005).

The Origins of Paul Scott's Vast Masterpiece The Raj Quartet, The epic of colonial India

I first met Paul Scott at Firpo’s bar on Chowringhee in Calcutta in 1944. I was an NCO in what was euphemistically described as “Special Duties,” that is, intelligence, but more often meant taking on any odd job for which no one else could be found; Paul was an air supply captain who had been commissioned into the Service Corps, unkindly known to the Rifle Brigade or the Gurkhas as, in the words of his biographer Hilary Spurling, “the Rice Corps, Flying Grocers, or Jam Stealers and generally considered to be about as low as it was possible to get in the Indian Army.” We eyed each other’s shoulder-chips with sympathy over drinks, and got on extremely well. I did wonder at the time whether he might not have been trying to pick me up, a suspicion that Spurling’s biography and the new collection of Scott’s letters have done nothing to dispel.

A decade later, with Cambridge behind me, I was trying to break into the London literary world, and decided I needed an agent. Summoned for an interview at the firm then known as Pearn, Pollinger and Higham, I found myself facing, across a desk, an elegantly suited gentleman who—I suddenly realized at about the same moment as the penny dropped for him—was none other than my Rice Corps bar companion. We both exploded with laughter, and I became his client on the spot.

So began a literary friendship that lasted, in person or by correspondence, until Paul’s tragically early death in 1978. For six years, until he gave up his job to become a full-time novelist in 1960, Paul was my literary agent. We exchanged innumerable critical letters1 (quite a few of which have found their way into Janis Haswell’s collection) about work in progress, together with a kind of running commentary on the rare splendors and all-too-frequent miseries, mostly financial, of the writer’s life. We lunched with each other regularly at Paul’s favorite Soho tavern, the Dog and Duck. He was pleasant, competent, sardonic: nice to know, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I moved to the country and came up to town on weekly flying visits, I occasionally stayed with him and his wife, Penny, and their two school-age daughters in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

But from 1963 until 1971, my family and I were living in Greece, and after that I took up an academic post in the United States, so that during this highly important late period of his career my friendship with Paul was in essence restricted to letters. It was then, in the early 1960s, that Paul finally discovered his great theme—the twilight and eclipse of the British Raj in India—and retreated further and further, during the decade that it took him to sweat out the four long volumes that emerged as The Raj Quartet, into a kind of creative solitude where the fictional world of British India that he conjured up became, more and more as time went on, virtually his sole reality.

The physical and emotional cost was appalling. It was, essentially, as his daughter Carol saw, the prime cause of his alienation from Penny, the break-up of his long marriage. By the end he was (as he told a doctor) eating little, sleeping less, and drinking a quart of vodka a day. When I finally saw him again, after the completion of the Quartet—we had invited him to lecture at the University of Texas—I was shocked by the change in his appearance. In 1975, though still only in his mid-fifties, he was a dying man, and knew it. The completion of that vast and complex project had exacted a horrendous price, of which perhaps the saddest aspect was that Paul never lived to enjoy the fame and success that it brought him.

Paul himself had put it on record, very early, “that I mean & intend to become a great artist if I possibly can be.” Yet there is nothing about his early suburban life—or, indeed, much of his pre-Quartet fiction—that presages the power and the scope of the Indian tetralogy. The son of a commercial artist (the family claimed descent from the engraver Thomas Bewick) who fell on hard times, he was removed from his private school—a far from classy one—at the age of fourteen and set to train as an accountant. He began writing poems and plays that were, as he agreed later in life, better forgotten. The turning point was his army career, which took him to Bengal, Imphal, and Malaya; but the seed then sown took years to come to fruition, and not before several not-quite-right attempts, such as Six Days in Marapore and The Chinese Love Pavilion, had been painstakingly hammered out. After the war, having qualified as an accountant, he got a job keeping the books for a new publishing firm, and from there moved on to the literary agency where I met him again. All the time he was writing, and fiction by now was slowly beginning to oust poems and plays.