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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, June 11, 2007

Battle of the Quartets: Scott vs. Durrell

I don't read much fiction these days, so I feel that when I do, as now, I should probably talk about it. This blog is devoted, after all, to a work of fiction. What are my thoughts about fiction? What am I looking for in a novel?

I've started reading, I think for the third time, The Jewel in the Crown, the first in Paul Scott's four-part Raj Quartet. Kimmie got a Granada mass-market paperback edition of the book in 1986, when the British miniseries based on the books was recent and popular. I'm glad, personally, since the mass-market paperback is still my favorite format of book, even though the contents of most mass-market paperbacks now I find completely unappealing. This copy has a kind of cameo image on the cover of Art Malik and Susan Wooldridge, the actors who played the characters Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners in the miniseries. It was first published in 1966, when the author was 46 (he died in 1978).

Paul Scott's style is grave and meticulous. He himself served in the British Army in India and Malaya between 1940 and 1946--the period of which he writes--and so knows the world of his story at first hand. Each page and each sentence is impregnated with his authority over his fictional world--one mark of excellence in a novel.

The book, 576 pages long, is divided into seven parts. Part One is called simply, "Miss Crane". Let's take a look at the first sentence:

Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but also in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.

This sentence, 75 words long, is also the whole first paragraph. Its size and complexity signal that this work will make certain demands of the reader, and in fact I find the sentence somewhat involved and hard to grasp. I always have to read it two or three times to get the meaning from it, which, in my opinion, tells against Paul Scott as a stylist. There is a heaviness, a portentousness, a certain sense of the juggernaut of history trundling forward, ready to crush all in its path.

It opens with a direct address to the reader, emphasizing the literary, "told" quality of the work. I personally find the use of the word then, after Imagine, to be kind of artificial--trying to inject a sense of being in the middle of a story, rather than at the beginning. As though the narrator were retelling the story from a different viewpoint--something like that.

The sentence contains drama--"a girl running in the still deeper shadow"--but drama seen from a detached, godlike perspective. The narrator seems to be stressing not the girl running, but the "immensity" and "distance" of the landscape on which she runs, and perhaps, by extension, on which we all run.

In short, for me this sentence has problems. Nonetheless, if I were encountering it today for the first time in a bookstore, I would keep reading. It more than passes my first-sentence test. Why? I think for two reasons: 1) the content of the sentence is not trivial or frivolous, and 2) the author is addressing me as an equal, showing respect for my intelligence. That's more than enough reason for me to keep reading.

I was going to comment on a certain quality in the sentence of being overwrought, over-precious, and over-subtle, and perhaps try to blame that on Scott's seeming admiration of Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandria Quartet; but when I pulled out my copy of Justine, the first of the Alexandria Quartet novels, here is what I found as the opening paragraph:

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes....

The longest sentence here is 24 words. It is not ponderous or portentous. Scott's writing has the quality of a deep, searching report, but Durrell's narrator here is first of all a poet. His choices of word and phrase are fresh, original, and striking at every turn. I remember when I first read the phrase "A sky of hot nude pearl", knowing I was reading a writer of the top class. It's as though Durrell's narrator is searching for a way to convey how intoxicated he is with the sensuous deliciousness of the world.

Paul Scott is no poet. But for all that he is, in my opinion, a better novelist than Durrell, or anyway one more able to sustain my interest and attention. I remember being excited at how vivid and sensuous this opening of Durrell's was, only to find that my attention flagged in a welter of short scenes that did not add up to a strong story. Scott clings tenaciously to his thread, sticking with it for dozens of pages on end, which tenacity communicates a sense of confidence in the importance of his story. He's never in a hurry, because what he's talking about matters.

I became tired of Durrell. His aesthetic rhapsodizing wore thin. Now, 80 pages into The Jewel in the Crown, I'm finding depth, subtlety, and continuity. Those things will keep me reading.

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