Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Paul Scott saga does not show its age.

I am continuing with my reading of The Raj Quartet. These novels are as compelling now as they were when they were first published.

The Day of the Scorpion

Paul Scott’s The Day of the Scorpion (292 pages, University of Chicago, $22.50), the second volume in The Raj Quartet, deepens and intensifies matters that were raised in the first volume.

Daphne Manners has died and her mixed-race daughter has been taken in by her mother, the elusive Lady Manners. Lady Manners, for this claiming of the child and for her other eccentricities, is labeled an outcast by the English culture of India. She seems unaffected by this judgment and seems to circulate in a world of which these other English women are unaware.

A new family that comes into our ken is the Layton family. The father of this family is in a German prisoner-of-war camp, and the mother is in India with her two daughters, both of whom have grown up on the subcontinent. Sarah, the elder of the two, is plainer and more intelligent, than her bright, pretty, and unstable sister Susan. When making her way to her family’s station, Sarah finds herself in a houseboat next to that of Lady Manners. She secretly makes an acquaintance of that lady and finds that there is a true sympathy between them.

We also meet Mohammed Ali Kasim, a senior Moslem political figure who has been working for Indian national unity. He is one of the figures who was arrested on the night of the violence in volume 1, and we now hear his story and begin to understand more of the political implications of those arrests and the status of Indian independence in the middle of World War II.

Also, we have occasion to meet up with Hari Kumar in prison. Lady Manners has arranged to witness an interview in order to help her determine whether he is the father of the child that Daphne has left behind. No one knows the truth of what happened that night—no one now except Hari Kumar himself—but he still protects those intimate details from the prodding of even these sympathetic questioners.

All these threads are woven together as Susan Layton marries Teddi Bingham, and Gordon Merrick emerges as her husband’s off-hand choice of a best man. Merrick's motivations are reviewed once more—he is his own worst enemy for in defending his own actions, he digs himself into a deeper hole of ignominy. It only gets worse when, shortly after the marriage, he and Susan’s husband Teddie go off together on a military exploit at the Burmese border and Teddie is killed. Merrick himself is maimed—he is burned badly and loses an arm—but when Sarah visits him to convey her sister’s thanks for helping her wounded husband, she is upset to recognize the degree to which he gives her the creeps.

For me, Merrick is a weak link in the novel. He is so bad to be almost unbelievable. And he is “bad” first of all because we recognize his suppressed homosexuality and secondly because he is so clearly marked by class. I think it is far too easy for Scott to make the lower class queer the source of everything that is wrong about the British Indian empire. But he knows it is not that simple and the novel makes it clear that he sees further complications.

This volume ends powerfully and provocatively. Susan barely survives giving birth to a boy, and Sarah feels that her own life has changed almost as profoundly. Prisoners are being released and there seems some chance that England is being pushed toward an end-game in India. How that is worked out will be the subject of the next two volumes.

Paul Scott

The Day of the Scorpion
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Iris Murdoch writes a grim but engaging urban tragedy.

I said I would read a few more Murdochs, and this one is as great and even more chilling than the others I have read.

The Black Prince

Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince (408 pages, Penguin, $16) was first published in 1973. It tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a well-respected but little-published writer who has resigned his position on the Tax Board in order to write full-time.

Bradley is in a sort of competition with his friend Arnold Boffin, a much more prolific writer who has dozens of titles in print and a great deal of public accolades. Arnold is married to Rachel, and early in the story Bradley is called in when Rachel has been injured. But it turns out that Arnold had belted her with the fireplace poker, and Bradley is deeply concerned for her safety.

Soon after the novel opens, another woman appears on the scene. This is Bradley’s ex-wife Christian, who has returned from a sojourn in America, where she lived with her second husband and managed to amass a great deal of wealth. Bradley hates her, but she seems determined to get back into his good books, and she does everything she can to get him to admit that he would like to be friends again.

Other characters include Francis, Christian’s feckless brother, who also seems committed to bring the formerly married couple together; Priscilla, Bradley’s sister, who leaves her husband Roger just as the story begins and moves back and forth between Bradley and Christian, who likes her and wants to help her. There is also Julian, an androgynous teenager, the daughter of Arnold and Rachel, who is fascinated with Bradley and asks him to give her lessons to help her become a writer.
All these characters stir a rather rich and wonderful brew. Bradley is narrating, and his ability to capture his emotional responses to people is deeply impressive.

As he is busy fighting off Christian’s well-heeled assault and Rachel’s tears—Rachel has made her love for Bradley clear almost from the first—and Priscilla’s whining about the things she left at her husband’s home, Bradley falls deeply in love. This state of being in love is simply sublime, but the implications are horrific because he is in love with the only sixteen-year-old Julian. Bradley is fifty-eight.

At first Bradley isn’t going to tell Julian anything about the love he feels for her. It is something precious and all his own, and she need never know. But of course he is about to explode with his feelings, and when he finally does talk to her about his love, after an aborted attempt to listen to Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera, she does not seem as immediately put off as he expects her to be. In fact, she seems willing to return his love.

When she does, and when she announces this love affair to her parents, well, needless to say, all hell breaks loose.
The last section of the novel is an extended battle between Bradley and Julian’s parents, and to say it ends badly is a ridiculous understatement. What is clear is that everything is culturally conditioned to forbid a relationship like the one Bradley and Julian are trying to establish and they fail. In fact they fail miserably, and Bradley pays the price for being willing to try to establish such a relationship in the first place.

The story ends unhappily, but there are various post-mortems that try to make more sense of it. Even they fail, and at the end the reader has to wonder what it has all been about.

Iris Murdoch

The Black Prince is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.