The Matter of India

John Bayley

In that great study of early narrative, Epic and Romance, W.P. Ker suggested that there were two kinds of story going in the Dark Ages, roughly defined in the terms of his title. In a European and, more specifically, a British context, he was inclined to think that Celtic stories dealt in magic and ‘wondrous matters’, while Anglo-Saxon poems and Norse sagas preferred the facts. There might be dragons and monsters on both sides, but a Nordic monster, like Grendel in Beowulf, was an altogether more convincing affair than his Celtic counterpart. Ker conceded that the two traditions often came together and got mixed up: but in keeping with the racial ideas of his time he argued for two distinct types of creative imagination.

The remarkable, and to many incomprehensible, success of The Lord of the Rings shows that Ker’s concepts are not entirely fossilised, even today. Gentrified and emasculated as it is by Edwardian, Wind in the Willows-type fantasy, the world of Tolkien’s narrative still has some genuine ingredients from Dark Age epic and romance. Nor does it seem improbable that its success may have had some underground influence on other British fiction of the time, however seemingly different. Narrative can make fantasy out of stirring past events, or it can make pseudo-epic. Does J.G. Farrell take the Celtic line in The Siege of Krishnapur, and Paul Scott follow a more plodding and literal Anglo-Saxon formula in the four-novel sequence of The Raj Quartet?

There might be something in that. I suspect, for one thing, that those who cannot read Tolkien find Paul Scott heavy going too. Although one is writing about elves and hobbits, and the other about Indians and English, both are decidedly Anglo-Saxon in their approach. This has its own drawbacks and its own kinds of advantage. Paul Scott’s India is entirely believable. The reader is speedily convinced that everything happened exactly as he says it happened: that India in the last days of the Raj really was like this; that Indians and Anglo-Indians, soldiers and police, missionaries and civilians, behaved just this way and felt about one another just this way. Nothing is ‘made up’ except the story, and that is not very much made up either. Then shouldn’t this be as impressive in its own way as War and Peace or that Anglo-Saxon chronicle so much beloved by Russians, The Forsyte Saga? Alas, no. Art does not work like that, even with a writer as talented, industrious and conscientious as Paul Scott. Art abhors a vacuum, and Scott’s sequence seems to be founded upon a wholly negative principle: the careful avoidance of anything romantic, dashing or phantasmagorical: the avoidance of Kim, of the Plain Tales, of the Marabar Caves and their echo, of the riddle of just what happened to Adela Quested. All the strangeness of India so artfully concocted by other writers, all its imputed, paradoxes and enchantments, all the stories made up about it, must be scrupulously forgone.

The evidence of the work suggests that this was conscious policy on Scott’s part. It does him honour but it does not justify itself, either in terms of history – ‘how it was’ – or in terms of the novel. The two are in fact not so far apart, for both are made by the individual, who puts himself into them, puts in his ‘life illusion’, as John Cowper Powys called it, his unconscious fears and desires. History will not work without fiction, or at least the fictive principle, which Scott renounced as far as he could. This of course amounts to choosing a principle of another kind, but a negative one, based on the rejection of the positive model. Thus the story of Dr Aziz and Adela Quested becomes in Scott’s Quartet the story of Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners. This story is far more likely to have taken place, in the world of fact, than is the dramatic fantasy divided cunningly into acts, with a catastrophe and a dénouement, which Forster concocted. Scott’s story is at once meagre and over-documented, laboured but obscure, and it dwindles away just as unsatisfactorily as such things do in life. Its potential interest is considerable, but disappears in the scrupulousness of the method, whereas the encounter of Aziz and Adela remains for ever memorable in the wholly but secretly unscrupulous medium of Forster’s art.

Scott’s intention was to keep himself out of the archival perspectives of the Raj Quartet, and he succeeded, but fatally. Just how fatally is shown by the admirable essays in My Appointment with the Muse, notably one called ‘A Slight Case of Cultural Shock’. This gives a far more memorable glimpse of an Englishman in India than anything in his novels, and it gives it because Scott is himself present, telling us how he feels. He was invited by an old comrade, an Indian NCO, to the latter’s house in a country village. The visit was a disaster, perhaps predictably, an illustration – magnified a hundred times by the Indian setting – of the old truth that a friend you make in one context will prove a total stranger in another. There is a spontaneity in this account quite lacking in the Indian novels, and the reason for this is made quite clear by some of the other essays in the collection. Scott was a theorist. He pondered, and pondered very intelligently, the problem of how he could write a novel, present his material in fictional form. He asked himself questions like ‘In what does reality consist?’ – and when the novelist asks himself that things begin to look bad.

He decided that where the novel was concerned reality consisted for him in ‘a sequence of images’: when arranged in sequence, such images ‘tell a story’. In The Jewel in the Crown we have the image of Miss Crane, the missionary teacher, holding the hand of her dead Indian assistant, killed by rioters; the image of Daphne Manners running and running through the night streets, not so much escaping from what has happened to her as trying to rejoin it, to rejoin the hopeless situation of herself and the young Indian, Hari Kumar, who knows only England and English ways, and now finds himself having to live in India and be an Indian. But these things don’t explain themselves: they have to be explained to us, and Scott explains them very well indeed, makes them very moving. In fact, it could almost be said that his characters are all the more convincing because we don’t know them: a paradox that carries its own penalties and rewards.

Scott was probably quite unconscious of the fact that he had developed a technique of novel-writing which could only realise itself fully by being translated into another medium. Television had no doubt seeped into him, as into almost everyone. It is a nice point whether he connected his ‘sequence of images’ with those that appear on the screen. Certainly he was in no sense writing a scenario, or anything like one. As a novel sequence, The Raj Quartet is constructed with enormous care, tact and solidity. The ‘unpublished memoirs’ of Brigadier Reid, for example – ‘A Simple Life’ – constitute an unobtrusively brilliant pastiche which is purely literary, and which could not be transposed into screen or even sound effect. None the less when ‘images’ are converted into actors and actresses the whole thing falls into place; the distance from the reader of the novel’s cast of characters is exactly matched by the distance dictated by the screen. No viewer who has read the book is likely to say: ‘but that’s not my idea of Daphne, or of Barbie, or Tusker Smalley’. Novel and picture, dialogue and script, glide effortlessly into one another. In the film of A Passage to India they are immutably at odds. There the characters shrink, are debilitated and transmogrified: only scenery remains for film to exploit with its excessive ease. Television is in one sense an almost slavishly faithful and literal medium, at home with any story which does not exist by virtue of having created a world of its own.

A world of its own is certainly created by J.G. Farrell in The Siege of Krishnapur, a world which television would certainly destroy or denature into its own kind of Anglo-Saxon blandness. Farrell probably had as strong a theoretical view of what a fiction might be up to as Scott himself. He may have taken a hint from the South American practice of ‘magic realism’, and he is certainly as intent as Scott on conveying a picture of what ‘history’ might have been like at the time. What happens, however, is that fantasy takes over, creating a world with its own conventions, regulations and devices; juxtaposing the Great Exhibition and Victorian Fundamentalism with sabre-brandishing sepoys whose moustaches smell of patchouli. The result is ravishingly droll, a new kind of mannerism in which the separate ingredients are as visible as the currants in the suet roly-poly which the ladies of Krishnapur make to sustain themselves and their menfolk during the siege.

Now and then the screen of magic slips aside, as when the Collector is musing amiably on the status of the ‘fallen woman’, Lucy Hughes, who had come out from England with ‘the fishing fleet’, to find a husband: ‘The war had taken such a toll of young men! Only in India was there still a plentiful supply to be found’. He is thinking, of course, of the Crimean War, but the effect is disorientating, perhaps deliberately so, because it is the kind of reflection that might have passed through the mind of a man in the Collector’s position in the 1920s, but hardly in 1857, when the number of young men killed at Inkerman or Balaclava, rather than on the Somme, was, in statistical terms, extremely small. But that of course is just the oddity of history, and of the consciousness in which it resides at any given moment. Paul Scott would never have made such an apparent faux pas; his sense of historical timing is always quietly immaculate. But Farrell’s apparent bloomer could be said to be a true case of novelist’s intuition. Every war, large or small (and the Crimean conflict had made a big impact on the popular imagination), leads to this kind of stock response. Farrell’s technique here is not really original – it probably owes a good deal to A High Wind in Jamaica and The French Lieutenant’s Woman – but it is used with an atmosphere and personality all its own. He makes history extremely funny, and true humour always sounds authentic. Young Fleury, the clever young man of fashion from England, who finds himself involved in the siege, is distracted at a particularly critical moment when he is helping to serve a six-pounder cannon, by the Padre trying to persuade him of the validity of the argument from Design. As he sponges the gun, listening to the Padre’s exposition of the wonders of caterpillars and cabbages, it occurs to him that the Designer might have saved himself trouble by making the butterflies eat the cabbages too; and, come to that, ‘could it not be, he thought, trembling on the brink of an idea that would have made him famous, that somehow or other fish designed their own eyes?’ Such ideas were indeed ‘in the air’, as they say, and in our own time are still vaguely circumambulating. Why should they not have buzzed around during a Mutiny siege, maddening the upright Padre whose simple faith helps to keep up the morale of the defenders and their womenfolk.

A writer who creates his own world makes the metaphors of fiction more authentic than the numerous memoirs and books of the time on which, in the case of Farrell, the fiction is founded. Indeed, it is on the incongruity between such material and the type of perception the novel cultivates that Farrell goes to work. When Fleury and a young officer are taking tea with Lucy they are abruptly submerged by a black invasion of flying cockroaches, which attach themselves ten deep to the girl’s white muslin clothes. Terrified by the insects crawling under them and over her skin, Lucy tears off her garments in a vain effort to rid herself of the creatures.

But hardly had a white part been exposed before blackness covered it again. This coming and going of black and white was just fast enough to give a faint flickering image of Lucy’s delightful nakedness and all of a sudden gave Fleury an idea. Could one have a series of daguerrotypes which would give the impression of movement. ‘I must invent the “moving daguerrotype” later on, when I have a moment to spare,’ he told himself, but an instant later this important idea had gone out of his mind, for this was an emergency.

To the two young men there seems nothing for it but to try to be of assistance. But how? Lucy has swooned. The resourceful Fleury tears the front and back boards off a Bible and they begin to use them like giant razor blades to shave the black foam of insects off her skin. ‘It did not take them very long to get the hang of it, scraping carefully with the blade at an angle of 45 degrees and pausing from time to time in order to wipe it clean’. Both young men are interested to discover Lucy’s close resemblance to the plaster casts of Great Exhibition statuary in the Collector’s apartments, except for her pubic hair which they confuse with the cockroaches and spend some time vainly trying to remove. A touch out of Ruskin, perhaps not very plausible in this context but combining with the other grotesque details to produce not only hilarity but complete conviction. Farrell’s sense of the sexual consciousness of the age is as light but sure as is his feeling for its scientific and imperialistic optimism. Fleury and the young officer would no doubt have been familiar with bazaar women and prostitutes, but the blankness with which they cut off such things, even from themselves, might indeed have made them assume that young ladies, like statuary, were constructed on quite different principles.

Oddly enough, though, this rococo mixture, whatever its charms, would hardly amount to much if it were not for two other factors. In this, as in any other spirited fiction, incongruities – rebels cut down by electroplated ornaments from the banqueting hall rammed down the gun muzzles – will only take us so far. Farrell, however, has his own ‘normal’ voice, the expression of a variously humane and sympathetic personality, and this steers the narrative through flights of fancy which seem more like distractions in its path than episodes which it has itself invented. There are also moments in the narration of extreme poignancy, which seem to startle the author as much as they do the reader, such as the collapse of a little girl with sunstroke as she plays on the ramparts. Fleury never forgot the force with which she clung to him as he carried her down to the hospital, where she dies without regaining consciousness.

And so, at least where India is concerned, a straight narrative, however well-organised and well-intentioned, does not seem to be the answer. Like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – like A Passage to India itself – The Siege of Krishnapur relies on the tradition of magic and fantasy rather than that of sober reporting, and all three by that method establish for the reader a deeper fund of reality than does the Raj Quartet. Staying on, Scott’s last and separate novel, seems to have the author himself in it, and for that reason will probably last the longest, while the Quartet is consigned to television archives. Farrell’s earlier novel, Troubles, set in Ireland in 1920, is if anything even richer and more absorbing than his Mutiny novel. His later one, The Singapore Grip, although just as dense and humorous as its predecessors and even more elaborate, is none the less not quite up to their standard. Its scope is too wide, its matter too diverse, and its characters lack the richly three-dimensional charm of Farrell’s earlier heroes: the Collector, the Magistrate, Harry and Fleury, and the Major in Troubles who presides distractedly over the numerous Anglo-Irish family and guests at the Majestic Hotel.

Farrell’s three structures are all based on siege situations, which gave him the right setting, tempo and psychological precipitation. In fact, he could probably not have written novels without such a situation, or the correlative of one, and its accompanying atmospheres. Surveying the flushed and rice-powdered faces of the ladies huddled in their billiard-room dormitory at the Residency, the Collector experiences a twinge of pleasure at his own ‘scientific’ perception that ‘being all together like this excites their femininity’. The conditions of siege – its heroisms, weaknesses and absurdities – excited Farrell’s fantasy. In the same way, Patrick O’Brian, a similar and at least as great a talent, though not specifically an Oriental specialist, has to have a ship and the sea for his marvellously delicate and humorous fantasies set in Napoleon’s day. These are emphatically not adventure stories, or the sort of mechanical marine thrillers which sprung up in the wake of C.S. Forester. Smollett and Marryat are here being rewritten less for the excitement than for the feeling, as Dr Johnson said of Richardson: both O’Brian and Farrell share the wholly civilised, entirely good-humoured champagne Irishness of Laurence Sterne. Celtic fantasy maybe, but there was never anything less like a leprechaun.

Both writers are immensely well-informed and take infinite pains with the background documentation of the world they have created. But the effect is as light as bubbles at the brim, stimulating, tender, thought-provoking. O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin, half-Irish, half-Catalan, an expert surgeon and dedicated zoologist who is also a secret agent, is none the less an extraordinarily convincing character. O’Brian manages to give him a perfectly ordinary personality, complex and vulnerable, yet in natural harmony with the fabulous elements in the tale. In the first volume of the series, Master and Commander, he meets up with a young Naval officer, Jack Aubrey, when the two discover a mutual passion for Boccherini, and a pleasure in playing him together on violin and viola. The partnership continues throughout the series, with Jack captaining sloops, frigates and other vessels of war, and Stephen serving as medical officer and collecting what plants, fishes and insects he can (on an island in the Indian Ocean he discovers a giant tortoise which he formally classifies as Testudo aubreii).

Both Farrell and O’Brian depend on the formulaic, but it is their own attractive personalities which preside over the world they invent. O’Brian is particularly successful at conjuring the whole life of a ship, the camaraderie, the formality, the talk of the officers in the wardroom and the men on the gun-decks. He makes brilliant use of the speech patterns of the time, but escapes any suggestion of quaintness. Jack and Stephen once fall in love with the same girl, but Jack then woos and fortunately marries her cousin, while Stephen is left hopelessly enamoured. Never extended, the love passages are remarkably touching; O’Brian is a master of rapid and unobtrusive psychological aperçus; and all the characters, from Jack’s Naval servant to his mother-in-law, live in their own right and on their own terms. Though known as ‘lucky Jack Aubrey’ from a few early prize-money successes, he is by no means generally fortunate, on sea or land, and the nature of his embarrassments are accurately typical of the Navy and of English society at the time. Like Farrell, O’Brian has solved in his own individual way the intractable problem of getting history – in terms of habits, assumptions and ideas, as well as events and actions – into the texture of the novel.

Two or three of his novels pursue with fidelity the course of an actual British Naval campaign, transposing his own characters into an original setting, as Farrell does in The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip. In The Mauritius Command O’Brian creates a remarkable relationship of contrast between Aubrey as commodore of the invasion fleet, and a young Irish peer commanding one of the expedition’s frigates. Possibly suggested by the historic figure of Cochrane, that spectacular but unsound hero of the time, O’Brian’s Anglo-Irish peer is a subtle and sympathetic portrait of a brave man determined to win success and popularity, but without the inner confidence, and even more important, the good luck, to ballast his frenetically energetic temperament. The solid figure of Jack, which has dogged him throughout their service together with a sureness his own provenance has always withheld, drives him to a fury of emulation. He is a Lord Jim without the author’s philosophic pretension, and in his context far more convincingly contrived. O’Brian’s combination of sagacity and magic is at its best here. So much sui generis is the texture of his narrative that it is hard to quote from, but he has wonderful bravura passages describing in detail how a gun was actually loaded and fired, or a scene in the cockpit ‘where, by the light of three hanging lanterns, the surgeons were putting a final razor edge on their instruments by means of an oiled silk-stone’.

To return to the more explicit matter of India, which, like the matters of Britain or of Rome the Great in the Middle Ages, seems to have become a major field for contemporary epic and romance. In his really excellent book, After the Raj, David Rubin makes clear, perhaps inadvertently, the difficulties for a novelist of seizing what he can use and handle from that enormous area, and possessing it as his own ‘world’. It is here that the Celtic magic, if it can be conjured up, has its great advantage. Indeed I would say that Farrell and O’Brian are the two most successful British novelists of recent years at the strange business of plucking a traditional type of novel out of the air, while at the same time founding it on meticulous research. For this reason they can get everything in, but by implication rather than diagnosis. By contrast, the more sober type of novel, which takes an area like India and its ‘problems’ for a subject, is committed in advance to the same responsibilities as Socialist Realism, and the same principle of analysis and demonstration. It was a great loss to the novel that Farrell died prematurely, drowned in Ireland; but Patrick O’Brian, who contributed a fine piece on pirates to the London Review of Books not long since, is in full swing as a novelist, and his admirers hope for many more books from him.

All that the Celtic imagination requires to make its magic world is the past, a past necessarily attached to the present; but sober Saxon documentation has to map out its ground and its era more systematically. And as Rubin, himself a novelist in this field, cannot help making clear in After the Raj, even the seemingly inexhaustible topic of India is today in danger of running out. The reason seems to be a loss of specific identity, a loss which is always a bad thing for the novel. The ‘problem’ of being English, of being Indian, of belonging to this class, that caste, was always something for discerning novelists to exploit. It generated tension, provided ready-made incidental comedy and a tragic upshot. The sense of an ending is already immanent in the novels of Ruth Jhabvala, one of the most discerning, but also it must be said depressing, users of the matter of India. In her work the old fixed certainties of race and outlook can be seen on the verge of coming together in an indifferent and undifferentiated mass, in which no one cares any longer who anybody is. Probably a good thing socially, but a bad one for the diagnostic novel, which could always thrive on the indignation and irony to be derived from the spectacle of racial exclusiveness, and its fears and dreams about sex.

Rubin seems to me to underestimate Ruth Jhabvala, as he overestimates Paul Scott, but he perceives very well the significance of the Indian mythology of sex: potent long ago in the novels of Flora Annie Steel, with their wicked Indian cult leaders demanding blood sacrifices of young white women; later refined in the central image of A Passage to India, which has fascinated so many readers and novelists alike. (Forster’s variation is to fall in love with the hero who then rejects the unattractive white woman.) The theme can be seen losing its power in the cool perceptive novels of Kamala Markandaya, an Indian woman married to an Englishman. Sex, like the race with which it was so intimately connected, has now ceased almost entirely to be a hot topic for the novelist of the matter of India. It has cooled to the calm-of-mind, all-passion-spent vision of India found years ago in the gentle novels of Edward Thompson (father of E.P. Thompson) such as An Indian Day and The End of the Hours.

One of the best summings-up of how things were and are is given in the deceptively simple concluding sentence of The Siege of Krishnapur. The Collector has come to believe, ‘by the very end of his life, in 1880, that a people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge’. An even better one, perhaps, is the comment made by one of the other characters about Merrick, the police officer who is in a sense the villain of the Raj Quartet, persecuting the unfortunate Hari Kumar, the ‘English’ Indian educated at Harrow who can never feel at home on the subcontinent. Merrick is an obvious extension of McBryde, the policeman of A Passage to India, and suffers as a character from being based on a stereotype, yet Scott’s image of him is both subtle and imaginative. Merrick clings – even to wickedness – to the idea of the Raj, because it offers him his chance to think of himself, and be thought of, as an officer and gentleman. A real one says of him: ‘Can’t the fool see that nobody of the class he aspires to belong to has ever cared a damn about the empire and that all that God-the-Father-God-the-Raj was a lot of insular middle- and lower-class shit?’ In England, as in India, class and caste were determining factors, and the Raj itself was never quite quite ... The gents made use of it, as they did of everything.

John Bayley discusses the following books:

The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott: The Jewel in the Crown (Granada, 576 pp., £2.95, 1985, 0 58 603877 9);
The Day of the Scorpion (Granada, 576 pp., £2.95, 1985,0 58 603872 8)
The Towers of Silence (Granada, 464 pp., £2.95, 1985, 0 58 603800 0); A Division of the Spoils (Granada, 719 pp., £2.95, 1985, 0 58 604306 3)
Staying on by Paul Scott (Granada, 255 pp., £2.50, 1985, 0 58 604585 6)
My Appointment with the Muse: Essays and Lectures by Paul Scott (Heinemann, 175 pp., £14.95, 1985, 0 43 462600 7)
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell (Flamingo, 314 pp., £3.50, 1985, 0 00 654117 8)
After the Raj by David Rubin (University of New England Press, 197 pp., £13.95, 29 January 1986, 0 87 451383 9)

Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Jack Aubrey’ novels are published by Collins and Picador. The most recent, The Reverse of the Medal (Fontana, 256 pp., £10.95, 0 00 222733 9), came out on 12 March 1986.