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.



Popular posts from this blog

Hanif Kureishi: Something Given - Reflections on Writing

Diego Rivera: The Flower Carrier

Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry