Decent People

D.W. Harding

  • The Root and the Flower by L.H. Myers
    Secker, 583 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 436 29810 4

The plan Myers adopted of framing a discussion of 20th-century people and their problems in Akbar’s India is vindicated by the freshness the novel has in this reissue fifty years after it was written. Finished when Myers was in his early fifties, it presents a mature and civilised man’s experience of picking his way among the decent and the detestable people of a sophisticated civilisation. Features of the background – the dictator state, the secret intelligence service and its ubiquitous agents, an underground movement, rival religions associated with political factions, mass executions, unexplained murders, prostitutes accidentally involved in high politics – such things have certainly not grown more remote from us since the late 1920s when the first novel of the trilogy appeared. Nor has the difficulty diminished of isolating personal moral convictions from practical politics.

The great variety of the praise the book evoked when it first appeared reflects the fact that Myers was civilised enough to suppose that an author must make his offering as attractive as conversation, not buttonholing his readers as if they had an obligation to listen to his troubles and convictions, but giving them inducements to go on reading. He is remarkably fertile in devising incidents, minor characters are vividly sketched, the excited bustle of social occasions contrasts with quiet scenes of natural landscape (not meticulously detailed, more like imaginative and effective stage sets), philosophical reflections are skilfully merged into character and action, and he offers an unfolding plot in which subordinate puzzles, episodes of suspense, forebodings, glimpses of intrigue, all create minor turbulence on a deeper wave, mounting irresistibly to the crucial choice between good and evil in a world where in the end personal values and political action cannot be held apart. The ultimate choice is made not in terms of practical politics, let alone ideology, but from detestation of a person, one who expresses a transcendent force of evil, and by a person who believes in no such force and thinks he has freed himself from personal attachments and antipathies.

The decent people of the novel, seen in close up, are four adults and an adolescent boy, all with faults and limitations, critical of one another, but united by trust in each other’s moral seriousness and by a shared distaste for the ‘hardness, coarseness, and ostentation’ of the society established by Akbar’s empire. The positively evil force is only gradually defined, focused at last in Prince Daniyal. The practical problem, for everyone with political responsibilities, is whether to support the intelligent but apparently trifling aesthete Daniyal as future Emperor, or his half-brother Salim, a drink-sodden boor and a secret adherent of the orgiastic cults which Akbar’s persecutions have driven underground. Between the decent people and the evil, Myers introduces a varied array of characters, all involved in some degree with one side or the other, whether as dupes, victims, allies, tools or would-be exploiters. As possible people in the world Myers knew, they are not only portrayed but always, tacitly or explicitly, appraised. That they should be is central to the purpose he defined in his Preface to the 1934 volume.

When a novelist displays an attitude of aesthetic detachment from the ordinary ethical and philosophical preoccupations of humanity, something in us protests – we charge him with a kind of inverted cant, or of artistic snobbery. Proust, for instance, by treating all sorts of sensibility as equal in importance, and all manifestations of character as standing on the same plane of significance, adds nothing to his achievement, but only draws attention to himself as aiming at the exaltation of a rather petty form of aestheticism.

  For my part I believe that a man serves himself better by showing a respect for such moral taste as he may possess ... While a great deal is made of aesthetic sensibility and its refinements, we hear very little about moral sensibility. It is ignored; and the deep-seated spiritual vulgarity that lies at the heart of our civilisation commonly passes without notice ... Is there less range of merit in personalities than in works of art?

Unfortunately, the reprint silently omits his Preface and though Penelope Fitzgerald’s Introduction includes some useful biographical facts it cannot balance the loss.

Of the major characters, Rajah Amar is gradually and unexpectedly moved into the centre of the action. Buddhist self-discipline has brought him to the point where he feels fitted for withdrawal from the world – once he has fulfilled his last responsibility of committing his small principality to a political alignment that his wife Sita can maintain during their son Jali’s minority, with guidance from Gokal, his Brahmin friend. In spite of Daniyal’s reputation as a trifler, and in spite of disliking him when they meet, Amar judges that his faction is the stronger, and must in prudence be supported against Salim’s. Sidelights on Daniyal’s character make him a little uneasy lest he should be committing Sita ‘to an allegiance that would be offensive to her personal standards’. In an anticipatory irony he reflects: ‘For his part he found little difficulty in sifting out questions of personality from questions of policy but Sita was otherwise constituted.’ Hari, the impulsive and romantic member of the group of friends, warns him: ‘You have made no terms with the feminine in yourself, and of that we all partake. Some day it may wreak vengeance upon you.’ As the climax comes nearer, Gokal begs Amar to recognise the full force of his intuitive revulsion from Daniyal: then ‘you will change your attitude from one of frigid and contemptuous self-withdrawal accompanied by outward acquiescence into one of hot anger and nonacquiescence.’

Besides refusing to respect the intensity of his own feelings, Amar has neglected the fact borne in on Jali amid the vulgarities of smart society at the Durbar that however politely conformist the decent and sensitive are, the others will infallibly detect and dislike them. At the extreme of evil represented by Daniyal – the worst of several degrees of ‘wickedness’ that Gokal defines – goodness is accurately perceived and deeply hated: ‘what the wicked man desires is this: that the gentle and the innocent, the kindly and the wise – all those to whom goodness is dear – should be offered a spectacle of the world such that they sicken at heart – sicken with a horror far more awful than any that could be caused by personal affliction.’ Daniyal sends for Amar and deliberately displays himself as the evil person he really is. Amar, the Buddhist – almost, he himself believes, free from anger as a lurking possibility, a prudent judge of what is politically practicable – reacts as a person, draws his sword against the Prince and is instantly felled by a blow to the head from the bodyguard Daniyal has placed in readiness. ‘Another minute, and I really believe he would have run me through. A very hot-tempered gentleman!’ the Prince remarks. The problem of anger, its psychological validity, its practical futility, had been announced as a theme in the opening incident of the trilogy: Jali watches a snake, exasperated beyond bearing, explode into a lunge fatal to itself.

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[*] Hogarth, 316 pp., £3.95, 16 April, 0 7012 1905 2.