Even the most massive multivolume biography—Michael Holroyd’s life of George Bernard Shaw, for example—must be ruthlessly selective. After all, James Joyce devoted the hundreds of pages of ULYSSES to a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. The best biographies, though, manage nonetheless to convey the passage of time with all the dense particularity and swarming detail of personal memory. Instead of merely telling about a life, the biographer re-creates it.
Hilary Spurling does just that in her biography of Paul Scott, best known to American readers as the author of the Raj Quartet (THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN, THE DAY OF THE SCORPION, THE TOWERS OF SILENCE, and A DIVISION OF THE SPOILS). Five years after Scott’s death in 1978, this sequence of novels was dramatized for television as “The Jewel in the Crown,” an immensely popular production that brought more attention to Scott’s work than it had enjoyed during his lifetime.
Almost all of Scott’s novels grew out of his wartime experience in India between 1943 and 1946. Many of his readers assumed that he had been born and reared there. Scott himself observed that “When I write about the India of the raj, as I do, I’m using it, always have used it, as a metaphor.” Elsewhere he noted that “writing fiction is of course the act of an imposter.” As one who from childhood had identified himself as an outsider, Scott found in India the terms in which to express imaginatively the conflicts that absorbed him throughout his life.
Spurling’s portrait of Scott is a fascinating character-study. From his childhood years, shadowed by extreme class-consciousness and the threat of poverty, to the vindicating triumph of the Booker Prize, which he received for his novel STAYING ON just before his death from cancer, Spurling treats each phase of Scott’s life with equal assurance and zest. Not only Scott himself but also many others—family members, friends, colleagues—are rendered here with novelistic flair. The text is supplemented by abundant photographs, notes, and an index.