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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, June 14, 2007

another one bites the dust

Yesterday, during my afternoon reading period, I started by reading the novel I had on the go (I always start my reading period with the novel if I'm reading one--which I'm usually not), in this case, The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. I made in to page 124, then thought, "Nah, I think I'm done with this."

What made me decide to pack it in?

In a word: story. It's not that the story is bad--it's very good. But Scott prosecutes it much too slowly for my taste (and I can tolerate a very slow-moving story). My theory is that Scott, writing in the 1960s, was a victim of the 20th-century reaction against storytelling. With such literary masters as E. M. Forster and James Joyce inveighing against story and the "go-ahead plot", story became uncool--at best a distasteful chore for a serious novelist. Story was for lowbrow, commercial works of fiction.

Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet certainly deviated from a straightforward narrative, telling his "story" by means of a kind of collage of images and scenes, which no doubt were thought to be more aesthetic than a lead-footed, sequential reportage of events. I myself, as a beginning writer, inspired by these writers, briefly experimented with a nonsequential approach to narrative in my second "serious" short story (the title of which I can't even remember). Then, inspired by Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, I sought to push the envelope of plotting by creating a story that was complex and farcical.

Those efforts eventually died a natural death, both for me and for other 20th-century rebels against story. When it comes down to it, any movement or idea that's based mainly on reaction or rebellion is necessarily short-lived, lacking any positive underlying purpose of its own. There's something of the juvenile in it, indulging in the luxury of criticizing those who have come before, without offering anything concretely better. One seeks to be avant-garde, different from one's teachers and predecessors. In my view, it amounts to a basic and relatively immature way of coping with what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence"--the fretful desire of the new writer to get out of the shade of his teachers.

So: Paul Scott. Part One, "Miss Crane", was pretty good from a story perspective--not bad, anyway, since he is narrating the life of an English spinster missionary in India, with tremendously sympathetic insight into her inner world as well as knowledge of the exotic world of India under the British Raj; plus he narrates the exciting event of riots in Mayapore in 1942, and what happens to Miss Crane when she is swept up in this social convulsion. The account is slow (taking us to page 85) but effective.

Part Two, "The MacGregor House", is more a collage of pieces written from the first-person point of view of at least three different individuals. Forty pages in, it has not told much story (we learn that Miss Crane caught pneumonia after her ordeal in the riots, and later burned herself in despair), but rather has given a great deal of backstory about the Indian character Lady Chatterjee and exposition about the stately MacGregor House where she lives. Yesterday, when I found myself reading a passage describing every fixture in the bathroom of the MacGregor House, I thought, "All right, enough already."

The intent, no doubt, is to steep the mind of the reader in the essence of what it's like to be there--to feel and smell the place. But I couldn't help thinking about Stephen King's advice to fiction writers: set a scene by giving three telling descriptive details--three, and only three. Why are we dwelling on this bathroom? Maybe something important is going to happen here, eventually, but do we really need a full page of description of it now?

Scott's ability to describe and evoke his world is powerful. In the midst of that bathroom description on page 119 is this image:

At the opposite end of the bathroom--fifteen paces on bare feet across lukewarm mosaic that is slightly uneven and impresses the soles with the not unpleasant sensation of walking over the atrophied honeycomb of some long forgotten species of giant bee--there is an old-fashioned marble-topped washstand...

The striking, far-fetched, and rhapsodic metaphor of the honeycomb might not be out of place in, say, Gravity's Rainbow, but in my opinion would be much more powerful as the passing thought of a character, say, Daphne Manners, the girl who stays at the house and uses the bathroom. It should be a thought flickering through her mind while she is on her way to doing something--preparing to go out on a date with the District Superintendent of Police Ronald Merrick, say. But Scott takes us on a long museum-tour through the house, with no story in process, which eventually strained my patience to the breaking point.

So there it is. Paul closes up another novel unfinished--a novel he has finished before, and admired before. It's not that I no longer admire it--it's just that, now, I can't seem to finish it.

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  • I think that some of your comments may be unfair to Scott. The passage you quoted IS in fact told from the perspective of a character who is doing something. As the book unfolds, the reader comes to discover that that the story is told from the point of view of an investigative reporter trying to find out the truth of Daphnes rape and the reprocussions.

    Jewel in the Crown is one of my favorite books, but the circumstances of my coming to read it were somewhat particular (lots of time to read and focus on in single stints), so I can probably understad someone losing interest.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 17, 2007 7:24 AM  

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