A clash of two cultures, a rending of lives

The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott: ``The Jewel in the Crown,'' 452 pp.; ``The Day of the Scorpion,'' 484 pp.; ``The Towers of Silence,'' 392 pp.; ``A Division of the Spoils,'' 598 pp. New York: William Morrow & Co. $25. Paul Scott's masterpiece was the product of an obsession: not a private, hallucinatory obsession of the sort portrayed by Poe or Joyce Carol Oates, but a public, political, and moral obsession with unravelling the mysteries of what, for lack of a better term, must be called objective reality: in short, an obsession with ferreting out the truth.

Scott spent only three years in India while serving in British Army intelligence during World War II. But he couldn't stop thinking -- and writing -- about India and the British in India. In the 1960s he began a series of return trips which helped fuel his vast literary undertaking.

``The Jewel in the Crown,'' the first novel of ``The Raj Quartet,'' appeared in 1966; ``A Division of the Spoils,'' concluding the group, in 1975. Scott wrote nine other novels, including a coda to ``The Raj Quartet'' called ``Staying On.'' It was published in 1977. He died the following year.

To coincide with the PBS airing of Granada Television's masterly 14-part adaptation, Morrow has reissued ``The Raj Quartet'' in a single, surprisingly convenient volume. (The four novels are also available in paperback from Avon Books.)

Everyone who has made a New Year's resolution finally to read ``War and Peace'' this summer may now add ``The Raj Quartet'' to the list. It is a magnificent, serious, and rewarding work of art, sustaining the comparison to Tolstoy often made on its behalf. Both artists work on a huge canvas, the size of which allows the accomplishment of two rather disparate tasks: to offer a vast, synoptic overview of history's crosscurrents, while providing a group of sharply focused, psychologically intimate pictures of individual human beings.

To many who have immersed themselves in the richly detailed world of ``The Raj Quartet,'' Scott's signal achievement is to have revived the splendid, ``old-fashioned realism'' of the 19th-century novel. His concern with broad social issues is hailed as a welcome change from what one British reviewer terms ``the private rigmaroles of modern fiction.'' Scott's manifest seriousness seems to offer a relief from the ambivalent irony of much modern writing. His achievement, alas, will probably give false hope to hearty advocates of good old popular fiction, who mistakenly assume that long, tedious sagas, despised by ``snobbish'' critics but adored (presumably) by large portions of the reading public, will be recognized by posterity as 20th-century classics in the line of Dickens.

But this is to misunderstand Scott -- as well as Dickens. Although ``The Raj Quartet'' is engrossing fiction that holds our attention because it seems so very real, it has little in common with the novels of, say, Irving Wallace. It is a complex, elaborately wrought work of art, a stunning amalgamation of diverse narrative voices. Indeed, insofar as the four books of the quartet relate many of the same events from different viewpoints, the effect is a little like ``Rashoman,'' except that the varying perspectives of Scott's characters do not cancel one another out. They move, instead, toward a point of convergence, refining, modifying, and reinforcing one another, to reach an overwhelming conclusion.

Tolstoy, who would renounce art, remains a great artist because of his uncanny ability to capture in words the vibrant and mordant quality of felt life. Scott, however, has the Tolstoyan gift of creating individual characters whose dilemmas and responses are equal to the weight of the historical context in which their lives are played out. The difficulties of achieving so successful a marriage of history and fiction are evident in the work of Herman Wouk, whose compelling and thoughtful novels make the same brave attempt with less artistic success. But Scott's characters are equal to their histories -- indeed, as at least one of them reflects, history ``gets in the way of a lucid explanation of us.''

The lives of these characters, in fact, illuminate history: the conflict between what is right for Britain and what is right for India; the painful sense of betrayal on both sides -- Britain's broken promises, Gandhi's ``Quit India'' campaign; the thin line between dominion and domination, control and contempt; the ignominy of racism.

All this is mirrored in the microcosm of human relationships: the rape in the Bibighar Gardens, epitomizing the confusion of love with contempt; the self-immolation of the missionary Edwina Crane, whose faith in her life's mission is shattered; the destruction of Hari Kumar, whose faith in his future proves equally misplaced; the slow fire of envy consuming the policeman Merrick, who sees fear and contempt as the ultimate grounds of relationships between individuals and nations; and the tragic love of Daphne and Hari, who do not wait for a bridge to be built, but step directly into the flood.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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