Thursday, 30 October 2008

2008 Reading Challenge: The One That Made It All Worthwhile

I'm still a bit behind with this year's reading challenge, but I'm slowly catching up. For September's book, which I didn't actually start until this month, I picked The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. Like most Brits my age, I have vague memories of the ITV adaptation from 1984. Other than that, I knew little about the book, or its author. And it's unlikely that would have changed... if I hadn't found all four books of The Raj Quartet going for £1.38 for the lot in a local charity shop, and thought they might be worth a go.

I should have come to Scott sooner. My favourite non-genre writers are Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles and Anthony Burgess, all British post-modern literary writers who came to prominence in the first two decades of the latter half of last century. As did Scott. There are other similarities - all four spent time abroad and later set fiction there: Burgess in Malaysia (The Long Day Wanes); Fowles in Greece (The Magus); Durrell... well, take your pick: he was a professional expat and set novels pretty much ev
erywhere he lived; and Scott, of course, in India. Further, all four are known chiefly by the general public for only one of their works - The Raj Quartet for Scott, A Clockwork Orange for Burgess, The French Lieutenant's Woman for Fowles, and The Alexandria Quartet for Durrell.



But on to the book itself.

Not having read anything by Scott before, I'd expected a relatively traditional narrative, something like EM Forster's A Passage to India, perhaps. But the first page proved me wrong. Rather than pull the reader into the story of The Jewel in the Crown, Scott explains it: "This is a story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened." The next forty pages then relate the life of Miss Crane, who moved to India as a governess in 1907 but stayed on when her employers were posted back to Britain. She became a teacher in the mission schools and, by the time the rape occurs in 1942, she is Superintendent of Schools in Mayapore, where The Jewel in the Crown is set. But she doesn't actually have anything to do with the rape.

But then neither does Lady Lili Chatterjee. Or Sister Ludmilla. Or Mr Srinivasan. Or Brigadier Reid. Or Duleep Kumar. Yet these are all viewpoint characters in The Jewel in the Crown, and it is through them, and their stories, that Scott builds up a picture of the events sparked off by the rape of Daphne Manners by a group of Indian men. These viewpoints are written in a variety of narrative styles. Some are third person, some are first person. Some are presented as the spoken recollections of a character - and Scott's handling of each character's voice is impressive - to an unnamed listener. There are some lovely bits of prose, such as :

With all the chicks lowered the house is dark and cool even at midday. The ceilings are very high. In such rooms human thought is in the same danger as an escaped canary would be, wheeling up and up, round and round, fluttering in areas of shadow and crevices you can imagine untouched by a human hand since the house was rebuilt by MacGregor.

The Jewel in the Crown is by no means an easy read. Scott maintains voice so rigorously that the narrative rarely sticks to the story, and often detours into areas - such as the backgrounds and characters of his cast - which do not actually advance the plot. Duleep Kumar, for example, is Hari Kumar's father, and Hari is one of the men accused of Daphne's rape. Duleep's story explains Hari - the Indian who is more English than the English - but it's peripheral to the story.

Of course, India is as much a character in the book as Hari, Daphne and the others. It is represented by the invented city of Mayapore. Scott has not stinted on the details, nor on the thoughts and feelings of each of the various characters to the town and the country. The most damning is Hari, an Indian brought up in England and educated at the best schools, who does not feel Indian, but is treated as such. He thinks of himself as invisible: too Indian for the English, too English for the Indians. He's the pivot about which the plot of The Jewel in the Crown revolves.

The Raj Quartet has been criticised for perpetuating prejudices and racial stereotypes. In a 1984 essay 'Out of the Whale', Rushdie pointed out that if Daphne Manners' rape was a metaphor for the British exploitation of India, it should have been the rape of an Indian girl by white men. Which completely misses the point. The Jewel in the Crown is not about the exploitation of India. Scott is not writing about the Indian experience, about being Indian under the Brits. He is writing about two societies crashing together, each driven by an imposed agenda. The rape is merely the trigger for the reactions of the characters in the book, and those reactions are specific to those involved.

Nor is it surprising that The Jewel in the Crown perpetuates racial stereotypes. The story is told through its characters, and it is their sensibilities which are on display. Miss Crane, Brigadier Reid, Sister Ludmila, and Daphne Manners are all white. Brigadier Reid, for example, is offensively patronising because he epitomises the attitude of his generation of India hands. A reader who doesn't understand that is missing the point. If Scott wanted to depict a balanced viewpoint, he would not have used Reid.

Now, obviously, my perspective on The Jewel in the Crown is going to differ from Rushdie's. But I'm not reading it as a Brit, I'm reading it as a British expat - or rather, an ex-expat - who grew up in the Middle East as a "privileged white". Of course, the parallels are not exact; the Gulf was not the Raj. Also, by the late 1960s / early 1970s, attitudes and sensibilities had changed a great deal. But I went to English speaking schools (I'm a founding pupil of two English speaking schools in the Gulf), I mixed with other European kids, and I rarely if ever socialised with Arabs or people from the Indian subcontinent. When I returned to the Gulf to work in the early 1990s, things were different. At one point, I was the only Brit in my employer's Systems Development department (and I was also the only male). And yet in many respects, things had not changed: when I asked an Indian colleague why she was filling in a membership form for a bar, she told me it was so she wouldn't be turned away at the door. I replied that I'd never been refused entry. "You're white," she said.

There is a particular British expat experience which The Jewel in the Crown (and Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet) both make use of. Neither mirrors precisely my own experiences growing up in the Gulf, but there's a... shape in the text, in the life and interaction of the characters which comes close to emulating it. It's not as arrogant as:

In his heart he also shares with that old ruling-class of English he affects to despise a desire to be looked-up to abroad, and shares with them also the sense of deprivation because he has not been able to inherit the Empire he always saw as a purely ruling-class institution.

... But there is certainly a shadow of Empire colouring the experience, as well as an understanding of Britain which is filtered through the perceptions of those who were once ruled by it. It's Britishness informed by the culture of its surroundings, a microcosm of Britishness - almost a siege-mentality in some respects - but one which has subsumed some aspects of its environs. It no longer maps directly onto the culture of Britain. It's an experience I suspect is slowly vanishing as the world grows "smaller". Since the alternative appears to be McDonald's, Cocoa-Cola and Hollywood, then I'm not convinced its disappearance is a good thing.


Of the books I've read so far this year for my reading challenge, The Jewel in the Crown has easily been the best. I certainly plan to read the remaining books in The Raj Quartet - The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils. And I shall be adding Paul Scott's other novels to my wants list. Oh, and I want to watch the television adaptation again.

4 comments:

Cliff Burns said...

Excellent, in-depth review and analysis, Ian. As per usual. I would've said before reading your piece that JEWEL wasn't the type of book I'd be interested in but now I think I've had a change of heart. Of course, regardless of the subject matter or era, one should approach a book because of the excellence of its prose and, clearly, you have found much to admire in this offering. I'm willing to take you at your word...

Ian Sales said...

I seem to recall you prefer a more direct prose style, which The Jewel in the Crown certainly isn't. Scott's prose is perhaps more considered than Durrell's - it's certainly better controlled - but where Durrell appeared to have an organic approach to plotting (as, I suppose PK Dick had too), Scott paints around his plot in The Jewel in the Crown but never quite fills in the centre of his picture...

Chris said...

Certainly I had no idea the book was experimental along Durrell / Fowles / Burgess lines - and those three are certainly his coevals (if that's the word). It's surprising possibly given the sentiments in _The Magus_ that Fowles spent most of his life in Lyme Regis - perhaps he realised that too many expat writers find that these faraway places are friendly to their own but not to outsiders. Byron set the bar high for an excessive expectation of Greece; so many were disappointed. Lawrence Durrell's brother Gerald, arriving very young and without many expectations at all, seems to have got the best of it, finding not a mystic romantic land but a country of friendly rurals.

Ian Sales said...

The Jewel in the Crown is told by an unnamed narrator - presumably Scott himself - with some of the background "fictionalised", some of the characters directly adressing their reminiscences to him (and in one section, he makes direct observations and draws conclusions himself), while other sections are the texts of letters addressed to him. That's as postmodern as The Alexandria Quartet or The French Lieutenant's Woman. I can't think offhand of anything by Burgess which plays similar narrative games - The End of the World News is experimental, but not in the same fashion.

I don't think that expats writers find abroad unfriendly. If anything, I suspect their writerly natures makes them more willing to engage with their surroundings, and so often makes them more welcome than those who refuse to do so. That much is as obvious in My Family & Other Animals as it is in The Jewel in the Crown. On reflection, Lawrence Durrell seemed to engage with the place, but not with its people - many of the personalities in, for example, Reflections on a Marine Venus are expats like himself. Um, but then there's the Hosnanis in The Alexandria Quartet. Not to mention Justine herself...