Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet

The New Republic has a wonderful appreciation, by Peter Green, of Paul Scott and his Raj Quartet (available in two handsome volumes in the Everyman’s Library here and here).

Green met and became friends with Scott during the war, in Calcutta, then later, back in London and interviewing for a literary agent in the ’50s, he found himself, purely coincidentally, seated across a desk from him. Scott served him as agent for six years, at which point – in 1960 – he became a full-time novelist. Several years later Green moved with his family to Greece for eight years, and then took up an academic post in the US (he is an esteemed classical scholar). So for the most part their contact during the last 15 years of Scott’s life was limited to letters.

The essay well captures what is so monumental an achievement in the novels:

What has always astonished me about The Raj Quartet is its sense of sophisticated and total control of its gigantic scenario and highly varied characters. The four volumes constitute perfectly interlocking movements of a grand overall design. The politics are handled with an expertise that intrigues and never bores, and are always seen in terms of individuals. Though Paul always saw the inevitability, and the necessity, of an end to the British occupation, and exploitation, of India, he still could see, and sympathize with, the odd virtues that the Raj bred in its officers. No one—certainly not E. M. Forster—has ever produced a subtler, more nuanced, picture of the Raj in action during its last fraught years, or of the seething, complex, and wildly disparate nationalist forces arrayed against it.

Evidently the ten-year process of completing the book took a shattering toll on Scott’s health; terribly sadly he didn’t live long enough to receive the full appreciation that would eventually come his way. Green’s essay spends some time pondering the mystery of the Quartet’s origins. In particular, he wonders how so great an achievement suddenly appeared, fully formed, out of the author’s previous corpus of work, which he describes as “good, but not in any way really exceptional.”

The Quartet remains a tour de force virtually without rivals. The question is, how? How did this middle-class suburbanite—who left school at fourteen, had no experience of diplomacy or the civil service, in India or anywhere else, and never set foot inside a British university in his life—suddenly, after a solid but hitherto no more than middling literary career, acquire the vision that brought the world of the fading Raj to unforgettable life, in a quartet of novels that for range and power have been compared to Tolstoy? Suggestions have not been wanting, most notably that his experience on the wrong side of the rigid social divisions operating in pre-war London suburbia gave him a sharpened insight into both native caste distinctions and the even more absolute British color-bar that he found in India. Others have pointed to his sexual ambiguity… There may be some truth in both of these theories, but since both stem from Paul’s early life, why did they not have the same transforming effect on his early fiction as they are alleged to have done on The Raj Quartet? The difference is as total, and as extraordinary, as the still not fully understood process by which a chrysalis becomes a butterfly.