Celebrating Scott’s work in his centenary year 22

In anticipation and with desire: from the Love Pavilion to the Corrida

I move now, from the relatively straightforward novels Paul Scott wrote in his younger days, to the more complex productions of the period in which he worked as a full time writer. The first of these is my favourite, a skilful precursor to the Raj Quartet. But it is a very eccentric work, full of abstruse symbols which one is never quite sure of understanding.

22 The complexities of the Chinese Love Pavilion

In 1960 Scott resigned from his job to devote himself to full time writing. His work from then on is more complex than before, making use of heavily charged symbols and different layers of narrative. In a sense the four novels before the Quartet are the hardest of his work to pin down, because the perspectives from which they are presented are so unorthodox and the subjects carry so much more thematic significance for the characters concerned than in themselves they would suggest. Thus in the Quartet or in the earlier novels the emotional responses of characters arise fairly naturally from the situations presented; in these four novels reactions are extravagant, simple occurrences prompt histrionic outbursts. A simple consideration of some of the images the books present will indicate the excesses that concern Scott here: an army officer engaging in initiation rites with his subordinates that involve courtesan dressed as dawn and day and sunset, a man with a parrot on a South Sea island recovering from a divorce, a novelist who appears to have committed suicide after his wife called off an affair with a younger man. Scott’s virtue is that he convinces us of the emotional processes that have contributed to these absurdities; but so compelling are his accounts that it in occasionally necessary I think to stand back and register them for the absurdities they are.

A couple of other general points should be noted before we begin examining these works in detail. Three of them are autobiographical in form, but as I have mentioned with regard to A Male Child it would be dangerous to assume that Scott identifies with the narrators. Rather, though this takes concentration since Scott does not force his narrators to stress their own weaknesses, we should register those attitudes that are presented which are to be judged adversely. A factor that may help in this regard is the second point to be noted, that though these novels vary considerably in their subject matter, they could all be described as being concerned with hopes and desires that do not find fulfilment; and this to some extent is because there is nothing to be given in return by the characters concerned, on account of their own inner deprivation.

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The Chinese Love Pavilion, the first of these novels, is I think the most complex. This is because, where the other three are primarily concerned with a single individual, this has more than one personal centre of interest. In this it resembles the novels that preceded it, but whereas in those the major characters interact with each other within relationships that carry the themes of the novel, here they function in isolation and only come together as it were for major cataclysmic events. Thematically of course they are connected, which is why for instance when the narrator Tom Brent says that Saxby stands behind Teena Chang’s death we can credit this even though he had died the day before and could not have been involved in whatever motivation lay behind it; but in tracing the connections between the three major characters I think we have to go beyond their interaction with each other to what they have in common and where they differ in their internal make-up.

I say three major characters, because I am concerned here with the three protagonists: Brent, who was helped by Saxby to find some meaning to his life in India but later felt rejected by Saxby, and then after the war was involved in the hunt for Saxby both to stop him endangering others and also because he felt he had accepted the rejection too easily and thereby abandoned Saxby in his hour of need; Saxby, who could help Tom Brent find fulfilment for his dream but was himself searching for a meaning to his life which seemed to him too full of people and empty of ideals, and who later during the war did find an ideal which involved him killing people; and the old soldier Reid who kept trying to fulfil his ideal through the young soldiers committed to him.

Compared with these the two characters who act out the climax of the book are less noteworthy, the young recruit Sutton who almost certainly kills Teena Chang, and Teena herself who may be the most positive character in the book and who certainly breathes a spirit that contrasts forcibly with that of the others, but who cannot in the end have any lasting effect because the forces that destroy love are too powerful.

Though it might be straining Scott’s symbol overmuch, I think indeed that it would be illuminating to see the three parts of the book, sandwiched between ‘The Door by which men enter’ into the pavilion and ‘The Door by which men go’ , as representing both the three rooms within and the three main characters: dawn stands for the young Brent, ‘The God Hunter’, seeking for fulfilment of an ideal, the green room of day represents Reid, in his ‘Garden of Madness’, working out his obsessions through his subordinates, and the red room of sunset symbolizes Saxby ‘The Flower Dreamer’, sending people up in flames in a strange perversion of a dream. On this account it is wholly appropriate that the prologue is about Teena, for she represents love that is the way in which men can enter the pavilion of love; and the epilogue relates the manner in which Sutton kills her because he is incapable of love. This last interpretation I shall argue for later, but the point is valid even if the alternative is accepted, that Teena killed herself, because the reason given for that in the epilogue is the inadequacy of Brent’s commitment to her so that she killed herself because her love had been betrayed.

Coronavirus reading 11

Swedish morbidity

Back today to a detective novel, one that I borrowed recently from Sarath Amunugama when I saw him after ages. Since last year he has been a great source of books, generally thrillers of which he has a superb collection, but also fascinating life stories, recently Noel Coward and before that Gore Vidal.

The book I read first of the four I borrowed this time was by a writer I had not known before, a Swede called Henning Mankel. He seems an interesting character for he worked as a theatre director including in Mozambique and was on a ship which tried to breach the Israeli embargo on Gaza. And it seems that the famous film director Ingmar Bergman was his father-in-law, though for how long I have no idea for Mankel was married four times.

His hero is a policeman called Kurt Wallender who is devoted to his work but generally finds life gloomy, not least because he does not have enough time for the women in his life, wife, daughter and later a girl-friend after his divorce. And the book I read, The Fifth Woman, is unusual – though I would suspect the others in the series are similar – in not being a whodunnit, in the sense of a murderer being found from amongst the various characters presented to us.

Rather the interest lies in the manner in which the detective works out who the murderer must be by looking intensively at the crimes, and in particular the characters of the victims in what seem initially murders without motives. Wallender has to plough through much evidence, not being sure whether what he is exploring is in fact evidence, before he works out what the victims have in common.

Needless to say, the motive turns out to be a social ill, namely the abuse of women. Mankel recreates vividly the world of seemingly ordinary men who abuse their wives and other women, through rage or as a matter almost of policy. Fascinatingly the two first victims are devoted to nature, one to birds, the other to orchids, but underlying this is a grossness towards women they deal with, in passing or in marriage.

This might have created some sort of sympathy for the avenger, but she is presented as horrendously cruel, and Mankel underlines the point by showing the growth of vigilante groups, reacting excessively to what they see as the failure of the police to protect society.

The novel is set in the autumn in a small town in the south of Sweden, which adds immeasurably to the bleakness of the exercise. Mankel creates a sense of desolation in his descriptions of the countryside, but more powerful is the sense of desolation in society that he relentlessly portrays. He makes no bones about the fact that the affluent society he describes has lost its human element, the connections between people that he indicates through his depiction of the different members of the police team working together.

The book grips one for there is an urge to find out what really happened, and why. But it does suggest too why Mankel spent time in Africa too, in what seems the greater creativity of founding a theatre.

Celebrating Scott’s work in his centenary year 21

I have noted the very positive account of love in A Male Child but I should note too that we see this enacted only at a distance. The character of Alan sometimes seems just a sketch, which is why it can be misunderstood, and presented as passive, as the critic Patrick Swinden does.

This arises from his understanding of the importance of what Alan has been through, in that he had a bullying elder brother. But it should also be recognized that that relationship was very different from what we had seen with regard to Joe Mackendrick in The Alien Sky. Joe had been scarred by his brother, but in this novel Alan has no hang ups because from the start he registered his own strengths in contrast to the inadequacies of his brother Edward. Evil, as Scott shows with regard to Merrick in The Raj Quartet often springs from insecurity, something with which Alan Hurst was not afflicted.

There were no films of A Male Child so I had thought to upload pictures of critical works, far too few of them. But for some reason the blog will not take pictures today, so all I can do is add one that appears properly, the first critical study which came out in 1980. There are some others, including my own, but one can hardly see them.

21 Domination and Resentment

The trouble however is that we do not really see all this in action. We are aware of course of Alan’s capacity to commit himself from the fact that he takes in Ian; it is suggested that this might have been the more difficult for Alan in that Ian resembles his elder brother Edward, who had not treated him very well; but the effort cannot mean very much to us, for we are also told, ‘“Alan never showed resentment. Edward once said it was as if Alan was apologizing to him for treating him badly.”’ (pp. 176‑7) Again, though Ian’s appreciation of him above indicates that he might have thought that Ian was getting too close to Stella, and though this might have been insinuated to him, the impression we have of Ian as well as what we gather of Stella’s feelings for Alan make the notion so unlikely that we cannot really give Alan much credit for continuing to let Ian stay.

In a sense this is understandable. What Scott is concerned with is showing a character who has no sense of deprivation, who is without self-pity, who begins by being ‘free’. What is remarkable about Alan is that he is all these things, despite his upbringing; despite his mother who neglected him for Edward; despite his Coles relations who live an arid life, Adela, who has a series of affairs with boys she knows she cannot hold, one of whom was Alan, his uncle Rex who has a series of affairs with women he generally despises but sponges from; despite the bullying he had to undergo from Edward.

In assessing Alan’s relation to Edward, Swinden writes with regard to his taking Ian in that ‘he is almost deliberately withdrawing into the background, taking upon himself the status of the passive, dominated younger brother.’ (Swinden, p. 27) It is this view presumably that led him to make the connection with the MacKendricks. My own view however is that the two cases are singularly different. It is true that in both two brothers are involved, but I would suggest that what was more important for Scott was the wider phenomenon of two men of different temperaments brought together, not by mutual choice, into an uncomfortably close relationship; there had too to be a hierarchical element to the relationship, which could lead to abuse or resentment or both, and it is in this regard that brothers are useful because a hierarchical element could be very simply supposed.

The vital difference between these two case however, the only ones in which the fraternal relationship is an issue, is that Dwight MacKendrick abused Joe and Joe resented this whereas Edward abused Alan and also resented him. This latter is the phenomenon that concerns Scott more often, the resentment of the ostensibly superior figure in the relationship, as in the case of Gower with Steele or Merrick with Hari Kumar, because of what he sees as advantages the other possesses that lie outside the relationship. In both those cases there are sexual elements of sorts, and so with Edward too, though all we actually hear about ‘“what sticks in my throat”’ (p. 177) is Alan’s failure to resent him, we are aware throughout of his comparative sexual inadequacy, of the fact that Stella preferred Alan to him. In short, Alan was neither passive nor dominated; rather from his position of strength, the fulfilment he was able to find, he could treat Edward with respect and Ian with committed affection, aware that dark abysses had to be bridged, but nevertheless prepared to keep faith.

Yet as I said the problem is that we do not see the mental or emotional processes that have led to this condition, that have allowed Alan what might be termed healing graces where Joe MacKendrick seems equipped with quite the opposite. His sexual self-confidence clearly has something to do with it and perhaps, given the several contrasting characters in Scott’s work, as cause rather than symptom; but, apart from the fact that it would be trivial to suppose so, there are enough sexually capable characters in Scott who are not in the same league as Alan to indicate that that was not the only nor even the principal cause.

Perhaps the point is not important. It is the sick after all who require analysis, not the healthy. The omission is interesting however, in view of Alan’s similarities to Scott himself, in being a younger brother, in having trained in accountancy before the war and indeed in having married before going to India. Swinden claims that ‘The depths of the book, however, are locked away by Canning’s mind’ (Swinden, p. 29), but if he is right about the book being autobiographical surely it must be Alan who represents Scott. In that case it is conceivable that the vision of love and commitment that Scott, counterfactually as it were, recommends with regard to India arose or perhaps was confirmed through personal experience. Putting aside speculation however what is important for our purposes here is the enunciation of an ideal of free commitment, arising from self confidence.

John Buchan at Kirk Oswald

For some reason I have vivid memories of reading the books of John Buchan in different places. Prester John which I read in Milan in 1972 was amongst the last of his books which I read, for I had got hooked on him seven or eight years earlier.

The first book of his that I read was The House of the Four Winds, the last adventure of his most unlikely hero, a retired Scottish grocer called Dickson McCann. He still remains my favourite, and when his grandson – who had been married to the daughter of my tutor George Cawkwell – came to Sri Lanka in March, just before coronavirus struck, he brought as I requested the first Dickson McCann novel, Huntingtower – which I will write about in the companion series to this, which appears on this literary blog on Thursdays.

Buchan’s best known hero was Richard Hannay, whose first appearance was in The Thirty Nine Steps which was made into a celebrated film in black and white by Alfred Hitchcock. It starred Robert Donat but took several liberties with the plot, as did a later colour version, until finally a more accurate version was produced in the seventies. That, and the next two books about Hannay, relate to the First World War, and are very well known as is the fourth in the series, The Three Hostages. This too is centred on London life, though as with the other three there are wonderful adventures in far flung places.

Relatively unknown is the fifth and last book about Hannay, The Island of Sheep, which is set in a remote Scottish island. Buchan was Scottish and much loved the landscape of the country, particularly its mountains which feature in the climax of Hostages as well as in a whimsical novel called John McNab. That is about another unlikely hero, an elderly lawyer called Edward Leithen who poaches in the Highlands for a dare.

I was astonished to find The Island of Sheep in the library at Kirk Oswald Estate in Bogawantalawa where I had gone on a family holiday to stay with our friend Derrick Nugawela. I suspect it had belonged to a long ago British planter, for it did not seem the sort of book Derrick would have acquired, and it was certainly not amongst his books when I stayed with him many decades later in his house in Kandy.

I could remember nothing of the plot though I did think it was eminently forgettable, and reading about the book convinces me that the story was not one of Buchan’s best. But I do recall the bleak scenery of that distant Scottish island on which the denouement is reached, and how odd it was to read that strange book in the comforts of a tea estate with a thoroughly Scottish name. 

And it was there too that I read Buchan’s Autobiography, Memory Hold the Door. That was on a later holiday when I went by myself to stay with Derrick, and occupied the best guest room which was at the end of the guest wing, far away from the family rooms. I remember feeling a bit scared to be there by myself, and startled when I heard bells rung in the night when I stayed awake late reading, reassured the next morning to learn that it was simply the watchman doing his rounds.

The book was fascinating, for it described a poor village boy who made good, whereas I had thought of Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir as he became, and Governor General of Canada, as a grandee. But he was simply a clever boy who made good, and after going to Balliol became very much part of the British establishment. But he never forgot his roots, and they are picturesquely sketched in the book I could not lay down so it was very late before I switched off my light in that luxurious room which was I believe the first I slept in far away from anyone else.  

Celebrating Scott’s work in his centenary year 20

Scott’s third novel, A Male Child, published a couple of years before The Mark of the Warrior, takes up in a very different way from his other work a few themes that resonate with regard to his understanding of the British relationship with India and Indians. First, and most important, Scott looks here at love, but in terms of the simplest of relationships, that between a man and his wife. And though there are hiccups in the relationship between the hero of the novel, Alan Hurst, and his wife Stella, it is clear that there is deep love between them, through which – and not against which as she sometimes imagines must be the cast – he works out his vision of what he is.

The relationship is seen through the eyes of his friend Ian Canning, who has been through a failed marriage himself, the symbol of which is the child he lost when his wife got rid of it, early in their marriage. For in a sense what Scott indicates here, and elsewhere, is that love for fulfilment requires a commitment that goes beyond oneself.

Such commitment is not easy, and it is through the spaces that develop through distancing, in the pursuit of other goals, that love can fade or be destroyed. Fortunately for Stella Ian is there to assuage her doubts, and we are left at the end of the novel with a sense of close communion, sealed by the birth of their son.

This book, understandably enough, was not made into a film, so the pictures are just of the covers of various editions, none of them encapsulating the substance of the book.

20 A Male Child

There is much less to be said here about Scott’s third novel, A Male Child, which reverts to having a single dominant theme. It is to some extent an obscure novel which, as Swinden puts it, ‘leaves the impression of being one of the most secretive of Scott’s books, skating over depths of private obsession that remain for the most part inscrutable and mysterious’ (Swinden p. 26) What is relevant for our purposes however can I think be readily recognized and briefly expressed.

A Male Child is Scott’s first novel to be set in England though, like its counterpart in Scott’s middle period The Bender, it includes a note of regret for the opportunities now lost that the East had once presented to English youths. Here indeed the notion has a practical application in that the two principal characters have been out in India during the war and think quite seriously about getting back there in the hope that it might offer them something better than what they have in Britain. However there is a note of irony in that the narrator, Ian Canning, is dying from an infection he had picked up in the East; and his hope is born of despair, in that his wife has left him and he has nothing to live for in England, and his view is that since nothing else answers he might as well try to fight ‘“this bug on its own ground… Kill or cure.”’ (p. 39). His friend Alan Hurst has also been left by his wife; and though he thinks about the sort of job he might do out there, he evokes this with the name of John Steele, whose death had been described in Scott’s previous novel.

We have I think in effect to see India as a desperate substitute for love. When Alan’s wife Stella returns to him he stops thinking about it. Nor is this the only sort of love that will satisfy, for though Ian had been on the brink of suicide when Alan found him, his despair too lessens after he has been taken to Alan’s home and found a place there in Alan’s family. At the same time he is aware of what he lacks. He can appreciate, his own wife having got rid of the child that was to be born to them early on in their marriage, the importance of the heir Alan can look forward to – ‘a child; something substantial, something to look forward to: a male child, a projection of yourself into a future you would not otherwise know’ (p. 188). More importantly, he can appreciate the importance of love itself in Alan’s life, and can reassure Stella when she worries that Alan ‘“feels himself utterly free. Free to cut loose at any moment he wants to”’: Ian enunciates a philosophy that contrasts strongly with the notion of love which appears in The Corrida at San Feliu, which I have quoted previously but which is well worth noting again. There  Scott has his narrator Thornhill claim through one of his creations that ‘“There is no love without compassion, no compassion without self-pity and no self-pity that hasn’t sprung from deprivation and a terrible lust for possession.”’ But in A Male Child Ian assures Stella that that is ‘“The way a man should feel… So that he can assume his bonds voluntarily as Alan does… He goes voluntarily into prison, Stella, because that is where love is”’ (p. 211).

These points are I think important for our understanding of Scott’s view of the Imperial relationship for they suggest the need, which I have expressed before with reference to Forster, for love to be based on freedom from which alone any commitment that is made can have validity. My belief is that here, as in The Bender, Scott was trying to stand back from India and examine the need for love and for other people in a neutral setting. and he shows its triumphant fulfilment in the person of Alan Hurst, the least flawed of his male protagonists. The fulfilment comes, as we see in Ian’s most emphatic appreciation of him, through an unswerving commitment to others in despite of doubts and resentments that might arise – ‘Perhaps in all the years he had responded to life according to his code of upright dealing, it was the first time another man had shown he recognized the charitable understanding the code demanded; the dark abyss it bridged; the doubts it overcame.’ (p. 208)

Coronavirus reading 10

Huntingtower

The next book I will deal with was also, as with Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders,read before curfew set in, but I finished it just a week before I was under lockdown at the cottage. And there is another reason for including it here, for in the companion series on this literary blog, dealing with places where I read, both earlier this week and for two weeks more, I look at books by John Buchan, read in Milan and at Kirk Oswald Estate in Bogawantalawa and at the Government Agent’s Lodge in Kandy.

But as I note in those posts the affection I developed for John Buchan when I first read The House of the Four Winds has never waned. That book was about his most unlikely hero, a retired Glasgow grocer called Dickson McCunn. It was the third and last about him, and was a splendidly Ruritanian romp, set in the mythic east of Europe which Anthony Hope had immortalized through The Prisoner of Zenda in 1894.

McCunn had first appeared in a book called Huntingtower which Buchan published in 1922, following it with Castle Gay in 1930, both set in Scotland. I had read both of them in the sixties, but never again unlike the Richard Hannay books, some of which I still have. Unfortunately my copy of Four Winds was amongst those swept away in the S. Thomas’ debacle.

I was lucky to get a copy of Huntingtower this year. This happened because Buchan’s grandson David came to Sri Lanka, shortly after we met in November at the launch University College hosted for my collection of essays about his father-in-law George Cawkwell. We had first met way back in 1973 when he had just married George’s daughter Sarah, and the couple came for Christmas dinner, where I was included by the Cawkwells over six wonderful years.

That was also the last time I saw him until last year for he and Sarah soon divorced. But he turned up for the launch and said he would be coming to Sri Lanka shortly. When he emailed with dates he asked me what I would like and, though initially I said nothing was needed, I thought about it again and said I would much appreciate one of his father’s books, preferably one about Dickson McCunn whom I had lost as it were for so many years.

He thought the request unusual, for McCunn is almost forgotten, but he obliged with in fact the first American edition of Huntingtower. He gave it to me when he and his present wife came to dinner, and we had a delightful evening.

That was in early February but I did not start to read it for a couple of weeks for I went away in between to South Africa. And when I began it I realized the old magic had not faded, so much so that to relish the book thoroughly I confined myself to just a chapter at a time.

The story begins with McCunn deciding to take a long walk in the hills after he retires, and then being drawn into in essence a Ruritanian adventure on the Scottish coast, involving a Russian princess, an itinerant poet and a corrupt lawyer. McCunn plods solidly through it all, getting valuable jewels to safety through splendid ploys.

And most joyously we meet the Gorbals Die-Hards, urchins whom McCunn had aided, who happen to be camping in the neighbourhood, and who prove invaluable allies. They can clamber energetically over hills and also imitate the police which helps to rout the villains, the seal on a plot that is wildly improbable but quite gloriously enjoyable.

The pictures include one of a poster for a 1928 silent film of the story, starring Harry Lauder whom I had heard of previously only as a singer. But he would have been ideal to play Dickson McCunn, for as the article on him in Wikipedia puts it, ‘Lauder usually performed in full Highland regalia—kiltsporrantam o’ shanter, and twisted walking stick‘. But this act obviously served him well for ‘By 1911 Lauder had become the highest-paid performer in the world, and was the first British artist to sell a million records’. The film had a Russian lady called Vera Voronina playing the Russian princess and the itinerant poet, played by Pat Aherne, took the romantic lead instead of her Russian cousin.

Exploring with Ena

Review published in the Island 

on January 6, 2021

by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

published by S. Godage & Bros, 661 P de S Kularatne Mawata, Colombo 10

This is a very unusual book, hard to characterize as to genre but encompassing a sweeping and illuminating description of Sri Lanka: its outstanding physical beauty, social change over the years, political history (and declining standards) and a range of fascinating personal relationships. These involve a host of exciting individuals though easily the most enthralling is the bond between Ena de Silva and her not so closely related grand nephew, the author.

The narrative itself proceeds like a journey, albeit not an onerous one and one that moves with ease. Its characters breeze in and breeze out, with the author and the Ena character staying fixed and giving what would otherwise seem mere entertaining fluidity much required shape. So they remain its anchors, as it seeks to explain the ease of life and pace of a country blessed with natural beauty, history and culture.

It is a deeply personal tale of a developing relationship between a great aunt and a grandnephew. At the conclusion this has seasoned into a bond of friendship that has transcended the generation gap. It is perhaps the maverick in the Ena make-up so clearly illustrated by the author that allows her to flow through the generational divide, touching and influencing the like-minded no matter whatever their ages were. The author’s flirtation with politics and his losing battle to short-sighted politicians when aiming for educational reform, and the sense of frustration arising therefrom, highlight the degenerating standards and outlook of a changing society.

It is also semi-biographical of the life and times of Ena De Silva, although it is not written in the form of a biography but as a series of amusing trips, journeys, visits, escapades or call them what you may which the author delighted in with the iconic Ena De Silva as a more than willing accomplice. Her character, traits, humour, wit and accomplishments all get conveyed in the various episodes from an early account of her eloping with her future husband even as a minor to her deeply evolved creative commitment and her colourful sense of fashion.

This led her to foster and ameliorate different traditional arts and crafts from her own little perch in Aluvihare. The pioneering of the Batik tradition for which Ena became a household name, and her singularly creative imagination, are highlighted throughout.

There are also splendid set pieces such as the outdoor wedding scene in the gardens where little bells are hung about so that they could ring out melodiously, even long after the wedding was over, even to the day the grand old lady breathed her last when the final bell hanging loosely somewhere decided it was time to slip off.

The changing political landscape itself, not for the better but for the worse with the creeping in of authoritarianism, opportunism and chauvinism, is represented through actual historic events and occurrences. Ena’s deeply critical outlook towards the Presidency of J.R. Jayawardene resonates with the author’s own views but remains outlandishly unpopular with their almost blindly loyal UNP families.

Yet neither the author, and even less Ena, has the slightest reticence in either containing or confining their views, which needless to say is the cause for much consternation in their family circles. The collection of other prominent Sri Lankan characters woven into the account through their interactions with Ena and the author lends an additional sparkle to the narration. The sudden appearances of Richard De Zoysa, Michael Ondaatjee, Laki Senanayake, Nigel Hatch and Geoffrey Bawa, to mention just a few, opens up additional interest to a Sri Lankan audience.

The author’s frequent mention of beautiful scenery and wonderful natural and cultural experiences, alongside gastronomically extravagant feasts that Ena brings on almost effortlessly, recreates in the mind of the reader the zest for life and living which the late Ena De Silva shared with the author. The staff such as Suja, who tends to grow in girth as Ena’s banquets get grander and grander still, and Karim the chauffer excellent at all things except driving, add subtle humour which is infused almost carelessly.

This book records an exceptional Sri Lankan of yesteryear and is primarily for a Sri Lankan audience or at least one with a more than passing acquaintance of the island. But then some stories are for the world, and others for a privileged few. This book falls into the latter category.

Celebrating Scott’s work in his centenary year 19

As I have noted in the last few posts about The Alien Sky, it is a remarkably inchoate novel and there is little clear connection between its subject, a host of individuals marked by the imperial relationship when it is about to end, and the theme of inadequate commitment it introduces through so many characters. But it does raise interesting questions which will be addressed more satisfactorily in Scott’s masterwork.

The pictures are of the actresses who played Judith Anderson and Dorothy Gower and Cynthia Middleton in the television version of the book. As may be noticed, they are all British whereas the first two had mixed blood. These are followed by two covers that emphasize the exotic, which was how the book was sold.

19 Commitment and delusions

Though in a novel that packs so much into so short a compass the character is not thoroughly developed and it takes careful attention to grasp its significance, MacKendrick’s relevance to Scott’s fundamental concerns cannot I think be gainsaid. At its broadest, his original purpose in appearing in Marapore, to replace the dead Dwight, has its historical parallels, as early on in the book Cynthia Middleton reminds us – ‘“The British are going and now it’s your turn. Whether you like it or not, all they’re doing here is exchanging the Union Jack for the dollar sign.”’ (p. 24) Related to this is the difference between Dwight’s methods and what could be thought of as a new dispensation, though not necessarily – ‘“Dwight streamlined himself for success and cut his way through anything and anybody… We’d all be like Dwight if we knew how, but because we don’t we cook up a lot of hooey about truth and honour and decency and fair-play when all the time the only thing that adds up is our own goddam selfishness.”’ (p. 79) Most importantly, MacKendrick diagnoses too another similarity, that can be seen as underlying the hollowness of his ideals of which he is aware – ‘It was easy for him to see the likeness between Gower and himself. Both their skins bore the smell, the taint of defeat.’ (p. 73) My argument therefore is that we have to see MacKendrick too as symbolizing an aspect of Imperialism, exemplifying a diffidence due to deprivation elsewhere and for that reason doubtless needing to overcompensate in its hunger for possession; in spite of its rationalizations and justifications still determined to dominate, because of them driven to compulsiveness and artificiality.

            Later, in The Corrida at San Feliu, Scott has his narrator Thornhill claim through one of his creations, ‘“There is no love without compassion, no compassion without self-pity and no self-pity that hasn’t sprung from deprivation and a terrible lust for possession.”’ (CSF p. 145)[i] My view is that, some years before it was examined in that novel, The Alien Sky had already suggested the inadequacy of that sort of love. Though he is seeking his own fulfilment through Dorothy, MacKendrick’s own diffidence holds him back. One might indeed argue that the conclusion of their relationship suggests that Dorothy represents not merely the deprived Eurasians, but India itself, which can be loved while the notion of patronage lasts, but which cannot he endured when it reveals its own ‘terrible lust for possession’. In effect what all the various attitudes that proliferate in The Alien Sky have in common is that they do not permit, indeed cannot cope with, reciprocation. At the level at which it would be otiose to attribute guilt, Steele is bewildered when he is asked to subscribe to a new code where he is not the obvious beneficiary of loyalty without understanding but is instead himself to be exploited without understanding. More seriously, Gower, who realized that ‘“All we understand is that individual kindness isn’t enough. But perhaps our strength lies in the fact that we don’t understand what is enough. Perhaps we don’t want to understand.”’ (p. 142), tries after Dorothy leaves to kill himself, having achieved a terrible recognition –

And then his cry died away and his hands fell, for he understood, quite suddenly, that they were each a reflection of the other.

She saw that he had understood, at last, and nodded.

“Yes,” she said, “It’s your turn now.” (p. 197)

The message Gower leaves behind him is the Biblical verse ‘Jesus wept’; this is followed, as he may have noticed in rereading it before attempting to cut his wrists, by the lines ‘Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him’; Gower’s tragedy, though he survives, is that there is no possibility of resurrection for the relationships he had imagined he could inspire, but which the ambiguities in his own character preclude him from achieving in himself.

My view then is that The Alien Sky is a very ambitious work, and full of substance relating to Scott’s major concern. It is not a wholly successful novel because there is too much bundled up together, and the various strands are not strung together tightly enough to give a totally clear view of Scott’s account of the Imperial relation. Yet there is a lot here that illuminates that relation; and though, as I have mentioned, the characters he examines here are not for the most part repeated, the publication of this book thirteen years before the first volume of the Quartet indicates that Scott’s ruthless analysis of that relation, and the inevitability of its failure because of diffidence and the consequent inadequacy of commitment, was coherently formulated from the start.


[i] My account of Thornhill in the next chapter should, given the description of Gower above, make clear the connections between the two.

Places where I read 7

  1. Prester John at the British Council in Milan

During my second vacation while at Oxford I hitch-hiked in France. I must have taken some prescribed reading with me, and I believe this was the Aeneid, the Latin counterpart of the Iliad, but I have no strong memories of this.

I do have a lovely memory of a day spent at a tiny cottage on a hillside in the Central Massif, which passed muster in those days as a Youth Hostel. It was not I think in my book of Youth Hostels, but one of the drivers who picked me up pointed it out, and I loved the place and the view. It was run by a rotund lady who was I think the wife of the local farmer, and I shared the place with a dreamy youth from Scandinavia who spent most of his time meditating. So I stayed there for two nights, and remember reading in that deserted sylvan setting, but what it was I read I cannot be sure.

What I do remember reading occurred at the very end of this trip. I had arrived exhausted in Milan, and gone to the flat of the Bertolottis, where I had stayed on my own the previous summer when travelling to England. She was Sri Lankan, the sister of my mother’s good friend Thilaka Hitchcock, who had urged me to visit her, but when I arrived unexpectedly it turned out that the family was on their summer holidays.

But the concierge called me up, and Sara, Saraswathie, told me I could stay, which was incredibly kind of her. When I turned up then the following April she said the same, but added that she had thought I was a nephew of hers. But the mix up did not seem to matter, and she and her husband Pietro were lovely hosts.

After a few days I set off to hitch-hike back but after a windy morning standing at the exit to the autostrada I realized this was not going to work. Nor did going to trucks heading back to England, which were not inclined to take a passenger. So I then went to the station and found a train back was not too expensive, and would perhaps work out cheaper given the cost of accommodation and food on the way back.

But though the Bertolottis had told me to come back if I did not get a lift, I decided to spend the rest of the day at the British Council, and I read in the warmth till I went back for the night. And the book I read, though I think I could not finish it, was John Buchan’s Prester John.

I had loved his work from the time I found The House of the Four Winds when I was I think just ten years old, and I read whatever I could find of his from the two series involving the war hero Richard Hannay and the very different Scottish Grocer Dickson McCann. But I had heard of what was Buchan’s first popular novel so I was decided to find it in the Council.

I remembered nothing of the plot, save that it was about a white boy who quells a rebellion. But I did remember descriptions of wonderful landscapes, and in checking on the plot I find that it came to a climax in an isolated cave high on a hill. Schoolboy stuff, but wonderful.

Celebrating Scott’s work in his centenary year 18

Oddly, Scott presents in The Alien Sky as his principal protagonist, an American, which precludes the imperial subject. But the theme of resentment of domination, and the insecurities to which that gives rise is woven in, with particular reference to sexuality.

I juxtapose in the pictures the characters, though in other roles, who played MacKendrick and Gower, in effect mirror images of each other.

18 Coping with inadequacy

Finally, with the American Joe MacKendrick, we are introduced to what Swinden describes as ‘a subject that was absent from Johnnie Sahib, but which is to play a very large part in the later novels: the perverse, often sadistic relationship which can develop between elder and younger brothers.’ (Swinden, p. 21) As will be clear from my discussion of A Male Child I do not think the fraternal relationship itself is that important, and Swinden himself grants this when he refers to the absence of a blood-relationship in what he describes as ‘the most deeply explored example – Ronald Merrick’s relationship with Hari Kumar in the Raj Quartet’. Rather I think Scott’s presentation of Joe is more important in terms of its thematic significance, which relates to Scott’s primary concern with the Imperial relationship. In this respect I would argue MacKendrick has closer affinities with other characters rather than the ‘younger brothers’ Alan Hurst or Bob Ramsay or Hari Kumar; and closest of all, as Scott himself suggests, with Tom Gower in the very same novel.

The importance of Joe’s brother Dwight lies in what he has contributed to the character of Joe as it is exposed before us. Joe comes to Marapore initially in pursuit of Dorothy Gower because he has discovered from the dead Dwight’s letters that they had had an affair but that, despite the urgency of her love, Dwight had abandoned her. This moves Joe because it seems typical of the brother who had bullied him, who had been set up for him as a standard, but whose values he deplored; or perhaps whom he hated simply because he could not keep up with him. Joe is aware of both these possibilities, so that though his primary motive in coming to Marapore is to recompense Dorothy by offering himself as a substitute for Dwight, he is aware also of his need to prove to himself that he can do what Dwight did. There is about him throughout an air of anxious sexuality, as when he thinks of Gower at their first meeting as ‘the man he had, in his heart, already cuckolded’ (p. 53), or in his dealings with Cynthia Mapleton, to whom he gives money, whereupon

they both wondered whether he had purchased the right to sleep with her. They treated one another with a wary respect… He knew that to possess her would be for him at once an act of revenge and an act of surrender; revenge for what had been withheld, surrender to what he had tried to escape. An affair with Cynthia Mapleton would bear the hall-mark of his family: no risk, a sure thing. And, of course, he had paid for it already. (pp. 98‑101)

All this however comes to nothing, and it becomes clear at the end in the scene in which his attempt to go away with Dorothy fails conclusively that Dwight had been as much an excuse for him as an inspiration (my stress) –

She stood up and he was so close to her, so challenged by her anger and his sense of shame that he gripped her shoulders and pressed his mouth on to hers, not in physical passion but in a desperate attempt to show he was not afraid of her or of himself, to show that he could make a decision, take control, smash down opposition. But as he was about to push her away she suddenly arched her body, pressing her thighs against his, shooting her tongue up and into his mouth, pressing her hands into his back. For an instant his body responded and, with urgency, he lowered her on to the bed, to go through preliminaries of an act of union, but as he did so, the urgency dissolved into the slow humiliation of impotence. He took her head between his hands and tried to recapture the moment of fever. But the fever had been in his mind, not in his blood… He was repelled by the physical hunger he had awakened in her. He felt her body relax and go taut with scorn… He said, with the inspiration of stricken pride, “You were thinking of Dwight. That’s why it wasn’t any use. You’ d always be thinking of Dwight. It’d never be me. It’d never be any use.” (p. 205)

Dorothy’s awareness of his inadequacy is clear from her last words as she leaves him –

“Just keep on telling yourself I’d always have been thinking of Dwight or that I’ve always got to have someone to hate so that I don’t hate myself. If that doesn’t work then keep on telling yourself I can’t be judged like an ordinary person by ordinary standards. Keep on reminding yourself that I’m a freak, like something in a sideshow.”

When she closed the door and left him alone the formula was already beginning to work.

And so finally, in one of those telling codas with which Scott ties up his novels, MacKendrick goes to one of the dancehalls where the Eurasian girls gather, looks inside, and then leaves without entering: as always.