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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oxford DNB Literary biography of the day: Paul Scott

Paul Mark Scott (1920-1978)

The Raj Quartet, Volume 3: The Towers of Silence (Phoenix Fiction)
A while back some blogger (the inestimable Graham Beattie?) asked for names of Books that Changed Your Life.   I would have to include Towers of Silence by Paul Scott, because yes, reading it changed my view of the British Raj in particular and colonization in general, and it has certainly influenced all my reading about India since.

Today, the Oxford Dictionary of Biography features Hilary Spurling's  very well-written and perceptive account of the agonizing that went into "The Raj Quartet" (televised in 1983 as "The Jewel in the Crown"), of which Towers of Silence is volume three.

The son of a clever commercial artist and a romantic, restless working girl from London, Scott was a contradiction from the start.  An accountant's clerk at the age of 14, he spent his lunch hours tapping out poems, and his leisure observing the rigid class distinctions and ruthless social codes of suburban Southgate (north London), where old mansions were increasingly crammed in with massive housing developments. This, he vividly understood later, was how the colonial caste system worked in British India.

His close association with the sub-continent was triggered by a posting as an officer cadet in the Second World War.  Initially appalled by the poverty and overcrowding, he came to love the place.  On return to London, however, he stayed there, first as accountant to two publishing houses, and then as a literary agent, representing writers of the stature of M.M. Kaye, Arthur C. Clarke, John Braine, and Muriel Spark.  In 1960, having had mild success with a series of novels, he left, to take up the highly uncertain life of a fulltime writer.  Four years later, he staked everything on India, flying there to immerse himself in Indian culture, at the expense of his bank account and his liver.

The first of the Raj series, The Jewel in the Crown, was published in 1966, to be followed by The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971), and The Division of the Spoils (1975).  Known collectively as "The Raj Quartet," as Spurling says, they "achieved an epic sweep and power rare in the English novel and quite unlike E.M. Forster's Passage to India, with which they were unfavourably compared".

A fifth in the series, Staying On, won the Booker Prize in 1977.  Unfortunately, Scott could not accept it personally, as he was in hospital, terminally ill with cancer.  He passed away in March 1978.

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