Monday, July 18, 2011

The Day of the Scorpion

According to his biographer, Paul Scott decided not to be homosexual. The risks in 1940s England were too great. With a significant act of sustained will, it was submerged, repressed. He married, had children and took to drink. He was borderline abusive as a result.

This tragic personal circumstance was transformed into art. In his masterpiece, the Raj Quartet, one of his central characters: Ronald Merrick is a repressed homosexual and manipulatively abusive. He is one of the great depictions of sustained 'evil' in literature and great precisely because Scott shows, from many perspectives, how he was formed with a sympathy and engagement that betokens a certain knowingness on his part.

I am happily making my way through the Quartet, now on the second volume, 'The Day of the Scorpion". This is my second reading, companioned by being a devotee of the Granada television series of the 80s that is a miracle of both compression and faithfulness.

The books are a thoughtful combination of the prosaic narrative and the experiment with form - narrators shift, journals and letters are included, different voices offer themselves - yet the language always remains utterly accessible, and rarely becomes lyrical.

I am struck that two of the most compelling novels of Britain's engagement with India (of the twentieth century) were both written by men, Scott and Forster, whose 'identity' remained hidden, and persecuted, and both chose 'rapes': actual and problematic to symbolize the relationship. There was an immediate sympathy with oppression on both authors part for which 'rape' is a meaningful sign. However, both complicate the rape with an another set of relations that evoke a different, more positive ordering of the relationship.

Daphne Manners in The Jewel in the Crown is in love with Hari Kumar. Their love is despoiled by Daphne's subsequent rape that Hari is powerless to prevent. Their child offers possibilities for the future but not one unclouded by doubt of her origin.

India and her past colonial masters are held in a complex relationship of love and hate.

It is this relationship that Scott tries, with consummate skill, to evoke and in the process illuminates history and its potential lessons through characters marvelously composed.

My favourite remains Count Vronsky, the premier of Mirat a small princely state. He is a force for good, reforming the state at a wise pace, and an acute observer of relationships both personal and political. He is, I think, a positive pole to Merrick. He is contentedly gay, and allowed to be so by his position - a Scott wish fulfillment perhaps...

2 comments:

  1. I do have to read this. Finally I'm reading Rebecca West, so the Raj could be next. We loved the tv series and Virginia did read the Quartet.

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  2. Andrei abandoned Rebecca West for The Jewel in the Crown in Montenegro! He is greatly enjoying it. It remains one of my great reading experiences, and the second time around is only confirming the impression of the first.

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