One day in 1950 I walked down Crown Passage, an alley between King Street and Pall Mall, to call on the Falcon Press in pursuit of money they owed me. The managing director Peter Baker had left letters unanswered and telephone calls unreturned, and sure enough he was out. I saw instead a harassed long-nosed man in a blue suit who said his name was Paul Scott, and that he was the company secretary. Things were in a bit of a muddle, but he would see what could be done. I can’t remember whether I ever got my money, but Scott had good reason to look harassed, ‘with the accounts in front of him and creditors on the telephone’, as one of his friends put it. He wisely left Falcon Press before its collapse and the trial of Peter Baker – Captain Peter Baker, MC, the youngest Tory MP in the 1950 Parliament – for fraud and forgery, at the end of which he received a seven-year prison sentence.
The anecdote is not a mere personal irrelevance. Max Beloff, who admired the ‘Raj Quartet’ and met Scott more than twenty years later, thought he looked like an accountant or a provincial businessman rather than a writer. And he was a successful businessman, a fine organiser and a literary agent who in his biographer’s words ‘sheltered nervous talents, supported frail ones, pruned back bogus growth, detected and cherished genuine achievement in the wildest and most undisciplined bolters’. To be an adviser to other writers and also a novelist yourself must be difficult, but when at the age of 40 Scott gave up the agency game to live by writing novels and reviews many authors wrote to him or rang him up at home to ask for advice, and some threatened to leave the agency.
That then was Paul Scott, a patient and efficient businessman. He was also, however, a hard drinker from youth onwards who by the late Sixties was knocking back a bottle of spirits a day. A family man attached to his home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, deeply in love with Penny whom he had married when he was 21 and devoted to his two daughters, he alienated wife and children by an air of cold hostility. He took his current work in progress with him on holidays and brooded about it while drinking heavily, and the ‘new start’ to his marriage envisaged when he became a freelance writer, was abandoned within weeks. The new start involved stopping work at midday, having a drink with Penny in the local and then coming back to lunch. Instead, he spent the day in his study, writing and drinking. Cheerful and eloquent when friends were present, he became so hostile to Penny that she took taxis back home alone from restaurants or left parties pleading a migraine. The friends naturally tended to blame her. Penny, in an unpublished manuscript of which Spurling makes considerable use, says they were ‘two people estranged from one another ... sitting in a silence that bordered on enmity’. He never attacked his wife or children physically, but they were terrified of the constant sneer on his face when he looked at them. He slashed a portrait of himself done when he was an Army subaltern, smashed up a telephone. One of his daughters tried twice to commit suicide, and two years before his death in 1978 Penny left him. This figure, who in his biographer’s words ‘had for years pushed his wife to the limit of her endurance’ and ‘was determined to find her breaking-point’, also was Paul Scott.
Hilary Spurling tells this unhappy story with sympathy and fine balance, suggesting persuasively that Scott’s personal problems, which developed after several years of happy marriage, sprang from suppression of his adolescent homosexuality, together with what she never precisely names as equally suppressed sado-masochism. She tells us that Scott omitted from a book of the early Sixties, The Birds of Paradise, an episode in which a young Indian Army subaltern subjected his young wife to ‘unspeakable sexual indignities’ including bondage, beating and voyeurism. Scott’s friend Peter Green said that a scene omitted from another novel of a man making love to a tongueless girl was ‘a fantasy, a paradigm ... of what Paul thought a woman should be’. And James Leasor, who was with him in India during the war, immediately identified Scott with the sadistic police officer Ronald Merrick when he saw The Jewel in the Crown on TV.
With all its virtues of sympathy and sensibility, this biography is much too long. A suburban North London childhood (Scott was born in 1920), a mother with a devouring emotional passion for the second son she regarded as a prodigy almost from birth, unremarkable schooldays, equally unremarkable experiments in homosexuality, bad youthful poems, accounts of books like Three Weeks and The Picture of Dorian Gray that affected young Paul, are all given more space than their importance warrants, as later are the activities of the literary agent. There is indeed a little too much of everything: the passion for India, alienation from Penny, financial problems, sales figures, the reactions of publishers. Too much, that is, for all except those who regard Paul Scott as a major 20th-century novelist.
Of these there must surely be few. Scott’s reputation rests, rightly, I think, on the four novels that make up the ‘Raj Quartet’ and the last short novel Staying on that won the Booker Prize. The two thousand pages of the ‘Raj Quartet’ represent a remarkable achievement in the depiction of Indian scenes and the reconstruction of the lives and attitudes of the British in India during the decade that ended with the close of colonial rule. The interweaving of characters and events, and the movement back and forwards in time so that matters dealt with in one volume may be elaborated in another, are handled with the organising skill once given to accountancy and literary agency. But although there is lots of technique, there is no style. The level of the writing is almost consistently commonplace, the dialogue rarely more than adequate, the characterisation lacking in power and sensibility. Scott seems to have been untouched by the best poetry and prose written during his adolescence. His work shows no strong literary influence, and throughout his life he had a chip on his shoulder about what he called the literary establishment. In drinking sessions with his friend and fellow-novelist Gerald Hanley the two agreed that they were outsiders who would never get ‘the pickings available on the old-boy network’. They were, Scott said, ‘plain bloody navvies without a trade union’, and could expect to suffer accordingly.
Perhaps the limitations of the ‘Raj Quartet’ should be stated more specifically, though they are encapsulated in the fact that almost everything essential in its two thousand pages was conveyed in 13 hours of excellent television. Read as a whole, it can be seen as a monstrously overblown work. Scott rewrote and rewrote, but his pruning skills as an agent seem never to have been applied to his own writing. Daphne’s letter to her Aunt Ethel in the first volume runs to 13 pages, the interrogation of Hari Kumar in the second to more than seventy. In both these typical cases what we learn doesn’t begin to justify the length of the passages. They are instances also of a desire to reveal events at second or third hand that may be justified in any particular instance (as in the beating of Hari Kumar which might have seemed only crudely vicious if directly described), but which has a thinning, weakening effect when so constantly practised.
Because of it, we are too often told what we should be shown. The Day of the Scorpion begins with a conversation between the British Governor and an Indian politician whom, against the Governor’s own wish, he is about to imprison because the politician supports the Congress Party. Three or four pages of subtly explicatory dialogue tell us all we need to know about the political situation and the attitudes of both men. Typically, though, they are followed by several more pages of speeches and explanation that weaken the effect of the interview.
A Division of the Spoils begins with some pages of potted history, ingeniously done in the form of the narrator’s reflections on an exchange of letters with his Aunt Charlotte, but still an awkward device that should have been avoided. In this final volume the rape in the Bibighar Gardens is recited yet again, from a different point of view, but still going over wearily familiar ground. The four books are full of such passages, produced by a writer who often replaced some scenes by others, but never contemplated or perhaps understood the idea of achieving effects by compression or omission.
Nothing in Robin Moore’s book bears directly on the literary merits of the Quartet, although he thinks that the TV serial lost much of ‘the texture of testimony’, the ‘intimation of character’. He also, however, quotes John Bayley’s view, similar to the one expressed here, that these ‘losses’ are really gains, that the serial makes concise and clear much in the novels that is otiose and woolly. The book is a very useful addition to the biography in showing the thoroughness and intensity of Scott’s research. He dug and dug into the origins and background of the Indian National Army, even though, as he said, it was ‘relatively marginal’ to his work, tried desperately hard to discern and convey the relationships between Indians and British, and dredged past and present history, while insisting that his was not a historian’s view. The assiduity is admirable and the results interesting, though they haven’t much to do with the merits of the novels. Moore also gives details of critical reactions to the Quartet (mostly admiring) and the TV serial (predictably hostile from Salman Rushdie, surprisingly so in one or two other cases).
In later years Scott was scathing about his first novel Johnnie Sahib (1952), but its stiff-upper-lip romanticism, competent yet curiously colourless portrayal of military men, and homosexual undercurrents, are echoed in later books, particularly The Chinese Love Pavilion (1960), with its faintly Conradian flavour, and the ambiguous relationship in it between the mystical Saxby and the narrator Brett. This is not Scott’s most successful novel, but it is the one that digs deepest into character, which in his case meant digging into the writer’s character.
The last book Staying on has a particular poignancy, as well as rare moments of humour. Scott’s obsession with India, where he had done the interesting part of his war service, remained dormant, rather than being extinguished by his settled family life in London. In 1964 he returned on a visit, was outraged by the unofficial apartheid still practised by the British against Indians, and met the original of Hari Kumar. This visit of course gave a powerful impetus to the ‘Raj Quartet’. He returned eight years later and heard the story of a widow in Ootacamund who chose to stay on and became ‘virtually a prisoner of the Eurasian couple with whom she lodged, who appropriated her meagre funds, intercepted her post and spied on her visitors’. This provided the background for the story of Tusker and Lucy Smalley in Staying on, but Scott transformed the characters in his shortest and liveliest work. He clearly had his own relationship with Penny in mind when writing of the Smalleys, and the poignancy springs from the fact that the year in which he wrote the book was probably the bleakest of their marriage. He went to bed with whisky or vodka, lighted up the first of his sixty daily cigarettes on waking, settled at the typewriter with a glass of vodka beside him, ate dinner off a tray. His daughter Sally said he looked at his wife as if she were a bad smell under his nose, to which Spurling adds (necessarily basing herself on Penny) that his face was ‘set in a perpetual sneer, the sneer of self-hatred that had come to include her too’. He was dismayed and horrified when she left him, and wrote to say so. His letter to her is more coherent but less expressive than Tusker’s apology to Lucy, written just before his death. Scott wrote to his wife: ‘I am contrite, but could not tell you to your face. I’m a mess.’ Tusker to Lucy:
Can’t talk about these things face to face, you know. Difficult to write them ... Don’t want to discuss it. If you do I’ll only say something that will hurt you. No doubt will anyway. It’s my nature.