A Self-Divided Writer

Sensitive biography portrays 'The Jewel in the Crown' craftsman

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.

FAME and fortune came posthumously to Paul Scott, author of the monumental four-novel sequence known as "The Raj Quartet." Five years after his death in 1978, Scott's meticulously researched, boldly conceived saga about the failure of British rule in India was made into a 14-part television series called "The Jewel in the Crown" (the first novel's title).First shown in the United States on PBS during the winter of 1984-85, the series aired in more than 70 countries. It was a huge success, bringing Scott's intricately plotted, historically and psychologically penetrating portrait of Indians and their British rulers on the eve of independence to an audience, most of whom had never before read these novels nor heard of their author. Scott grew up in the London suburbs, knowing nothing of India. But when he was sent to India by the army during World War II, he experienced a strange shock of recognition. India was a distant mirror of the lower-middle-class world of his boyhood. In the exclusion of "blacks" (Indians), he saw another form of the suburban attempt to isolate itself from the working class. In the plight of Anglo-Indians, welcome in neither world, he saw a reflection of his own family, uncertain as to where they fitted into the British class system. The second son of a commercial artist and a working-class mother with aesthetic aspirations, Paul grew up in an atmosphere of high hopes and declining expectations. His mother firmly impressed upon him the importance of dedicating himself to literature and the equal importance of achieving financial security. On one hand, he was to be a flowing-haired poet; on the other, a sober, responsible breadwinner. Hilary Spurling, author of a critically acclaimed life of the English novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, employs the image of a mirror as a kind of Leit-motif in telling the story of this gentle, self-divided man whose ability to examine himself enabled him to understand and portray other people. To further complicate his self-dividedness, Scott also had to cope with the conflict that came from recognizing himself to be primarily homosexual but deciding to repress that side for a life as a husband and father. An incident in the army appears to have played a key part in Scott's decision. Spurling speculates that the incident, which had Scott in fear of being imprisoned or institutionalized, may have involved betrayal and blackmail, not unlike the story Scott would later tell in "The Raj Quartet" a bout the sadistic officer Merrick's treatment of a nervous recruit named Pinky. Returning from the war, Scott supported his family by working in a publishing house, then, as a literary agent. He wrote a number of plays and novels, none of which brought in enough money to enable him to consider writing to be a full-time job. He was an exemplary agent - considerate, tactful, supportive, assiduous - qualities that also made him a delightful friend. His family, however, saw an increasingly dark side to his character. He could be evasive, withdrawn, self-destructive, at times almost viol ent. Heavy drinking and smoking also took their toll. Spurling's treatment of her subject's problems is exemplary: She manages to be honest - not brutally honest, but sensitively honest - and her sensitivity provides what is probably a more truthful picture. In 1959, Scott quit the agency to devote himself to writing full time. But the turning point in his career was his decision in 1964 to revisit India, which had haunted his imagination since 1945. Scott's extensive research and long pondering of the subject convinced him that the chaotic violence that broke out at the birth of the modern Indian state and the division of the subcontinent into two countries, India (predominantly Hindu) and the Islamic state of Pakistan, could be largely attributed to Britai n's irresponsibility. Having made up their minds to relinquish India, the British were determined above all to get out quickly. The desire for a quick exit took precedence over the need to find workable solutions to the country's ethnic conflicts. Scott's trip to India clarified his perceptions. A number of the people he met furnished starting points for characters in "The Raj Quartet," from the "black Englishman" whose British education makes him a stranger in his native India to the warmhearted white girl who shocks her fellow colonials by falling in love with him. Scott's insight into his characters was further enhanced by his ability to project himself into their situations. Spurling provides a fascinating account of how Scott's side trip to a primitive Indian village gave him a severe case of culture shock, reducing him to a state of near-paranoid suspicion about his Indian hosts. He emerged from this harrowing experience with a deeply personal understanding of the fear behind racism. The four novels of the "Raj Quartet" appeared at a time of mounting racial tension in Britain and continued political upheaval on the Indian subcontinent, including the birth of Bangladesh. "The Jewel in the Crown" appeared in 1966, "The Day of the Scorpion" in 1968, "The Towers of Silence" in 1971, and "A Division of the Spoils" in 1975. They excited some critical admiration but were only moderately successful commercially. As Spurling deftly suggests, there is a certain poetic justice in the way that television would ultimately contribute so much to Scott's renown. From his childhood experiments as an amateur "filmmaker" (cutting out pictures and pasting them into filmstrips), throughout his 14-novel career, Scott always began with a strong visual image projected on the "screen" of his receptive mind. His determination to discover the stories behind these images - and later, when writing about India, to probe for the truth behind received versions of history - was the motivating force behind his writing. Even though Scott's place in the literary pantheon has not yet been firmly established, Spurling manages to convey the magnitude of his achievements without resorting to the tendentious techniques of biographers who feel it necessary to argue the case for the subjects' importance. Her graceful writing, cool judgment, and instinctive empathy make this a very compelling portrait.

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