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.

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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.