Paul Scott Essay - Critical Essays

Scott, Paul

Scott, Paul 1920–

Scott is a British novelist. Stimulated by his military service in India, he began to write about the final years of British domination in India and the effects of its cessation. Although for a time he abandoned this theme, he returned to it in the voluminous "Raj Quartet."

Mr. Paul Scott is never content with the mixture as before. From The Birds of Paradise to The Bender represents a leap within the compass of only the most agile and venture-some of novelists. Tropical islands have sunk well below the horizon. This is a London novel…. The emotional climate has changed, too, from twanging and lyrical to muffled and partially atrophied. The atmosphere, not long ago so hot and thunderous, is now authentically damp, gin-hazy and metropolitan.

A natural accompaniment of this restlessness of Mr. Scott's is his love of experiment, of testing new techniques. The story is most artfully expounded. The central action runs for a bare twenty-four hours yet contrives to illuminate the frustrations of three generations….

This is a subtle, unemphatic novel, beautifully composed in a minor key. The dialogue, sometimes exactly pointed and contemporary, sometimes stylized and other-worldly, blends with and heightens the shifting moods. Broad comedy holds its place in the book just as sure-footedly as the laments which are prompted by defeat and despair. And money, that nowadays neglected Balzacian theme, is here given its proper importance. It is rare to find the intrinsically trivial bits and pieces, which form the groundwork of any novel and which can try so direly its assimilative capacities, fused as successfully as they are here into an harmonious whole.

"Tensions and Despairs," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1963; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 12, 1963, p. 245.

The Corrida at San Felíu … is a novel about a man trying to write a novel….

All this fascinating Chinese box of novel within novel and story within story Mr. Scott handles with a deft professionalism which is admirable. The essential theme—the one that lies at the centre of the artichoke when the outer leaves have been stripped—is a study of the creative process as it applies to writers of novels. One can think of no more effective method of demonstrating the process than the necessarily involved one chosen here. The crispness and vivid imaginative resource of the writing keep the reader fresh…. Everything in it except for the tauromachy which is a bit "got up" … is worthy of the highest praise….

[Mr. Scott] has always shown himself to be adept in the imaginative handling of character, and has steadily increased his range. Both his last two books, The Birds of Paradise and The Bender, were in their very different ways works of great distinction. The present work is a virtuoso piece, appealing perhaps more exclusively to a professional and technically concerned reader than the earlier novels did, but none the less adding an inch or so to his already considerable stature as a writer.

"Toro Agonistes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), August 27, 1964, p. 761.

What stops this ambitious and serious book [The Jewel in the Crown] from being a major novel? Partly Mr. Scott's reliance on disquisition rather than demonstration, which gives us pages and pages of all too solid discussion about the condition of India past and present. Certain sections of the book are very much too long…. The ingenious devices used to avoid a straightforward chronicle of events also slow down the narrative considerably. But the book's real limitation is that the rape of Daphne Manners is given a symbolic importance, in its contrast with the rape of India by the British, that is never justified….

The weakness of this affair as a central theme for the book is that it seems such a very special case…. The rape and its consequences are of such importance to the book's general theme of British-Indian relationships that the scales appear to have been heavily weighted…. Solidly powerful as a creation of Mayapore and its shifting society, the book is a little disappointing as a study in depth of Anglo-Indian relationships.

"The Rape of India," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 21, 1966, p. 629.

["The Day of the Scorpion"] is a cogent dramatization of how World War II and India's rising demand for home rule flushed some of those strange types out of the officers' mess and let the natives get a good look at their quality. [It] is classical and complex in structure, with a mystery at its center and enough interesting characters to drop a few every dozen pages and still keep going….

The overtness of the action and the explicitness of the character portrayal will appeal to many readers unresponsive to the more subtle intonations of such writers as Forster, Mehta or Markandaya. Though the story is compelling, it never overwhelms the recurring theme of the British in India as wandering players. Only in their awkward pauses between their set speeches and their stage business did they catch themselves wondering why the show must go on.

P. Albert Duhamel, "Twilight of the Raj," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1968, p. 60.

Of those writers who have attempted to distil the last years of the British in India in fictional form, the most ambitious and the most successful is undoubtedly Mr Paul Scott [with the Raj Quartet]…. For the literary critic a series of long novels which presuppose each other, but though dealing in part with the same set of characters do not remain bound by chronological rigidities and treat their fates in a complicated counterpoint, raises interesting questions of technique. Was the whole design conceived as a unity from the beginning? Did the characters present themselves to the author in the round, or did they take hold of the author's imagination and develop along their own lines? Is there a version of the events themselves that the author keeps in reserve and never wholly reveals, so that all we ever get are the conflicting versions of the participants in them, or of those who get to know about them through the gossip of club or bazaar?…

Has Paul Scott succeeded in making Britain's retreat and the partition of India that followed it—the preparations for which form the "political" background to the just-published A Division of the Spoils—more directly intelligible than these events might otherwise be to us? Can he convey both what these events meant to those affected directly by them and their wider significance? Has he succeeded—where many Indians would argue that E. M. Forster failed—in apprehending true Indian feeling about relations with the British?

The last of these questions is one that only Indians can answer. It is a challenge that Paul Scott only tackles obliquely, since his principal Indian character Hari Kumar (Harry Coomer)—British educated to the extent of partial alienation from his own community's values but rejected by the British as belonging to the "other side" of the divide—is too special a case upon which to base an answer. Still, in the minor rulers and the Congress politicians of the last book and in minor figures in the earlier volumes there is ample material for anyone trying to assess Paul Scott's achievement in this respect.

Nevertheless, the book is to a much greater extent about the British in India and their view of their role there…. (p. 66)

Paul Scott does convey the full tragic significance of the combination between a sense of duty and a sense of permanent alienation from those to whom the duty was owed that is at the heart of the matter. Paul Scott is perhaps even more successful when he deals with the women in this situation. The stereotype of the memsahib has now been destroyed once and for all, one would hope. For the portraits that he draws of British women in India—whether missionaries, or serving in the War effort, or as simply occupied with the conventional trivialities of cantonment or hill-station society—are all individually etched. They respond to India in different ways: with devotion, affection, indifference or even hatred, but it is an individual not a collective response.

Nor is this elucidation of the feminine element a diversion from the main theme. It is a commonplace of social historians of India that it was the coming of the white woman to what had been "an Englishman's world" that brought about that social division between the communities which so complicated the political problems of British rule. And even when social constraints were a little loosened the reluctance to contemplate the sexual involvement of British women and Indian men remained a rooted one. Thus while is might be easy to mock Paul Scott by asking why it needed four long novels to deal with the question of whether Hari Kumar raped Miss Manners (and why, if innocent, he was punished for it) it is also true that this central incident in the story is at the same time its crystallising factor. For, in his prosecution of Kumar, the policeman Merrick reveals how personal feelings of class as well as of race—unlike Kumar Merrick is not "a gentleman"—can distort and envenom what should be the processes of impartial justice. So that the British social scene with its own internal frictions and enmities is transported into India and adds yet another complication to the unnatural relationship between the races (of which Merrick's own homosexual inclinations directed towards young Indians illustrate or symbolise yet another facet). (pp. 66-7)

What concerns Perron [in A Division of the Spoils] and presumably his creator Paul Scott is the relative insensitivity of Britain (and of Britain's new rulers in 1945) to their own responsibility for the human tragedies on a major scale that were the product of Britain's precipitate departure and of the abandonment of their implied pledges to the rulers of the Indian States and their peoples. Could we escape so easily all guilt for the massacres of Hindus by Moslems (and vice versa) of which in A Division of the Spoils we are given a horrifying glimpse, all the more telling because of the narrator's restraint? (p. 69)

The historian is always concerned with what happened and so tends to see what happened as inevitable, and from that it is only a short step to justifying it. Few historians have treated the fall of the British Empire as something that did not have to happen in the way it did—and as an episode in which some important values (as well as many lives) were sacrificed for motives only partially pure…. But the novelist need await neither the opening of the archives nor the working out of the political and social consequences of actions past. Imagination can supply what we lack provided the groundwork of study is solid enough. One cannot read Paul Scott's quartet of novels without being moved; and what is the sense of studying history if it is not to move one and to widen one's moral sensibilities? His achievement is on any count a major one. (p. 70)

Max Beloff, "The End of the Raj: Paul Scott's Novels as History," in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), May, 1976, pp. 65-70.

Paul Scott's latest novel, "Staying On," provides a sort of postscript to his deservedly acclaimed "The Raj Quartet," a series of four novels dealing with the closing stages of British rule in India in the 1940's…. [The] quartet has made Scott's international reputation as the chronicler of the decline and fall of the Raj. He has, as it were, summoned up the Raj's ghost in "Staying On,"… so that in it we may observe how the ghost continues to walk in some of its old haunts. It is the story of the living death, in retirement, and the final end of a walk-on character from the quartet….

The difficulty I found with "Staying On" was to work up sufficient sympathy with any of the characters to care about what happened to them. In any case, Mr. Scott's characters are doubtless intended to be dim figures belonging to a limbo between a dead empire and a nation not yet reborn. The triumph of Gandhi and his Swarajists has proved to be only the afterglow of imperial glory; before dawn can break, night must fall.

With "Staying On," Scott has completed his task of covering in the form of a fictional narrative the events leading up to India's partition and the achievement of independence in 1947. It is, on any showing, a creditable achievement…. (p. 36)

Malcolm Muggeridge, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 21, 1977.