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31.8.05

Staying On - Paul Scott

This outstanding novel is a superb read as a stand-alone Booker winner (1978) and it was as this I first read it but I have re read it as a sequel to Paul Scott's outstanding Raj Quartet (The Jewel in the Crown), which I have just completed. Re visiting albeit in hearsay main characters from the Raj Quartet was quite wonderful, how the author blends the old characters in , introducing them so that even if one hasn't read the Raj Quartet you can easily follow the story . His theme in this book is again India but this time in the 1970's from the perspective of a retired Colonel "Tusker" Smalley and his long-suffering wife Lucy. These characters made half paragraph appearances in the Raj Quartets third book "The Towers of Silence". When I read their names there I was astonished at how perfectly Paul Scott was able to weave a completely new story. Full of wit and pathos it takes in several new characters both Indian and British in the small hill station (Pankot- scene of much of the Raj Quartet storylines) largely forgotten after the end of the British Empire. Street scenes and areas used in the Raj Quartet (even the evocative "Rose Cottage" much used in the Third of the Quartet) reappear one last time to beautiful effect.

Opening in the hill station with the death of the Colonel the story is told in flashback - the long suffering Wife of the Colonel, a man who has served all his life in the Indian army but didn't go home after Indian Independence hence the title "Staying On". Their manservant and bearer Ibrahim a proud man who has seen the Raj in action and now sees how India has changed, the comic observations he makes of the irascible Colonel and the various Indian doctors and officials are genuinely hilarious yet told with great understatement. There is the grotesque yet powerful Indian wife and henpecked husband running the next-door hotel, a hotel far past its best and crumbling. Add to this an overgrown garden and a conspiracy with a young gardener to tend it and the story takes off on its own. A simple story often told in flashback it's really superb how Paul Scott brings the story together yet never forgets this can be read as a stand alone novel - I read it as such the first time and was stunned then by the quality of the writing and storyline.

Each character goes over their lives and we see by what means they ended up in the mountains forgotten in time, often in comic storylines but often quite sad and touching, lost lives, wasted youth and unfulfilled dreams. Moving away from the oft used Imperial storylines the novel shows how the world turns round and things usually end up reversed to where peoples expectations are. Beautifully written and paced yet evocative, this is an appealing novel well worth the time as a stand alone novel but as a final closing chapter on the Raj Quartet it is outstanding in every respect.. I loved this book and I shall miss the characters I have grown to like over the last five books I have read by Paul Scott - sadly Paul Scott died in 1978 but the Raj Quartet and the final closing chapter - Staying On are surely fit memorials to this superb writer.

28.8.05

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

Four impressive books make the Raj quartet, "The Jewel in the Crown" (480pgs) "The Day of the Scorpion" (495 pgs) "The Towers of Silence" (397pgs) "A Division of the Spoils" (720pgs). A lot to read - over 2000 pages - but of such quality, such perfectly interlocking storylines spread over the four books . Characters and situations in the first book carry through to the last in a beautifully natural way. The huge cast of characters become familiar over the four books so as a reader you get so involved, so engrossed that you really begin to care about these people. Such superb intricate detail is described throughout the novels that the beauty and magnificence of India is brought to life. Set in India during the British Empire - The Raj - it spans a time from the early 30's throughout the war to Independence of India and the partition in to Pakistan and India. It’s a series of events told from several different perspectives both British and Indian. We get intricate backgrounds of the many characters in scrumptious detail then intricate plotting that intrigues and entertains. It is both warm and heartrending yet through provoking as it explores the many facets of the Indian Empire ruled by really only a handful of British civilians and soldiers. We are taken into their lives and we see all sides to them as they try to react to events and history unfolding around them.

Each of the four novels could be read as a stand-alone novel but to really appreciate what the author Paul Scott (who died in 1978) was trying to achieve a back-to-back read of all four is necessary. I was lucky having spent many months finding these novels in matching covers then being able to read them as a holiday read all together. We are taken in the storyline through a series of key events small and large that shapes the lives of those concerned against a backdrop of war and forthcoming Indian independence. Forbidden relationships between a white British woman of the ruling Raj class and an educated Indian who has been to the best British boarding school have a tragic outcome and set in turn a series events that follow key characters around India till independence. Key events and characters dip in and out of the novels - someone in the first novel may reappear in the third yet it all happens seamlessly and not at all contrived. The massive groundwork done in the first novel is carried through to fruition in the final three works. The first novel (The Jewel in the Crown) is told a lot of the time in flashback giving the tragic events that unfold a view from several different perspectives. This admittedly slows the pace somewhat in this first novel but the strength of the narrative and the beauty of the descriptive passages carries the day. Having set the tragic scene we move on a short while in the second novel (The day of the Scorpion) and introduce a lot of the later characters on which the consequences of the first novels outcome rest. This is a truly fantastic read setting out the early life of many of the characters - young men and women whom the fall of the British empire in India would affect the most. A whole exotic world of hill station life and people going out to India form England is recreated here all of it now passed into history. The author gets right into the mind of the characters with all the certainties and doubts of the British empire that come apart at the seams when war breaks out in the far east. A gripping and entertaining novel it was a superb unforgettable read that I could not put down - never dull for a moment the story and evocation of life in India just flowed of the pages. The third novel (The Towers of Silence) brings in extra but vitally important characters that are themselves on the periphery of Raj life which was hopelessly class ridden yet held together only really by the idea that white British people were chosen almost by god to rule India. Yet not having the "correct" background or money meant there were layers within white society that were hardly acceptable - this novel explores these concepts in riveting detail. Moving yet amusing in places this really gets to grips with the whole Raj experience of Empire and the different classes of people who administered it. Yet whilst it explores these levels of snobbery it also links all the other characters stories together so when in the final novel the strands come together it all becomes clear. The fourth and final novel "A Division of the Spoils" is concerned with the coming Independence of India and its partition. The people whose lives have been spent in India ruling and administrating face the twilight of the British Raj with uncertainty as the Muslims and Hindus that make up India's population battle it out in dreadful intercommunity slaughter. With all the previously certain things in their lives turned upside down the problems affect ruling Indians too in the princely states whose existence was guaranteed by British rule. Political intrigue and betrayal as well as a coming together of threads fist started in the first novel all occur in this the final novel. For me this last novel cleared up many of the uncertainties but still left a few enigmas. By far the most gripping of all the novels mainly because of the finalisation of the story the many twists and turns of the saga carried on right until the end. At no time throughout the books could I have foreseen the outcome or the reasoning behind it.

Power, Love, Sex, Betrayal, War, wasted lives, dashed hopes all set in an exotic world long forgotten, a powerful moving gripping saga that I feel has been overlooked in recent years dealing as it does with the largely forgotten British Empire in India. At no time does this glorify Empire - in fact it is damning in its criticism of both sides of the racial divide, the central tenet of the whole work is absurdity of those in the British community who see their role in India far too seriously, as if God had ordained them to rule and the tragic consequences of this to themselves and those around them. Altogether a superb read rich in detail, beautiful narrative and a wonderful sense of an on going story. A beautiful touch was the inclusion early in the third book of a couple of ancillary characters that later went on to be the basis of Paul Scott's Booker prize winning book Staying On six years later along with other characters form the Raj Quartet. I'll recommend the Raj Quartet for a superb holiday read - it is available as a large all in one volume, I read mine as the Granada paperbacks from the early 80's that were republished to compliment the 14 part TV series "The Jewel in the Crown".

24.8.05

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I was stunned by the quality of this 1939 novel, I could not have guessed at strength both of the writing and the message it gave me. Set in the depression of 30's America it is a powerful and gripping read - goodness knows what the shockwave must have been when it was written in 1939. I realise that it was banned as too controversial in many states - I was stunned by it in places so what vested interests must of made it in the places mentioned in the book is anyone’s guess. It concerns poor farmers driven off their land by a viscous combination of drought, share cropping (growing cash crops usually cotton for the part owners of the land then getting part of the profit - if any), debt from unrealistic lending by banks as part of a wider plan to own vast areas of land so it can be turned over to cotton. Eventually their farms no longer supply a living and the banks foreclose making them homeless. They are simple farmers and many see California as a land of plenty that waits with open arms. Cruel landowners there needing cheap almost slave labour advertise in the debt and drought stricken areas of Oklahoma thus encouraging those poor desperate people to take to the road in a dreadful trek to a supposed promised land. These are the facts that frame this stunning novel - Steinbeck spent time in some of the roadside camps the thousands of disposed people flooded to as their hopes of a new start in California were dashed when they realise they are unwanted and abused as slave labour. Reviled as dirty thieving people abused as “Okies” many died of starvation and disease, a tragedy that influenced writers like Steinbeck to speak out.I was genuinely moved by the plight of the characters, the sheer weight of circumstance building against them is heartbreaking. Poor but proud they hope for salvation but their hopes a cruelly dashed. Steinbeck in one of the most heartrending novels I have read intricately plots the descent to almost starvation and death never flinching from gritty realism that shocks now let alone over 60yrs ago. The sheer excellence of the smallest detail – from cooking in a roadside camp to trying to repair the old worn out vehicles they use (after being swindled when purchasing them) is a testament to one of Americas foremost novelists. Grim it is but fantastically readable – unputdownable is a cliché I can use here and not be wrong. The superb and almost unbreakable spirit of the farmers as they desperately try to work in awful conditions where they aren’t given money but vouchers they can only use in the landowners own shops. Its hard to think this was actually happening in the 1930’s in the USA but it must remembered that the US is a very young country as we know it – this kind of tied labour was made illegal in the UK in the middle of the 19th century with the Truck Acts that required payment in coin only. The indifference of their countrymen to their plight with a few exceptions must have upset a lot of people at the time and the banning of it in some places (looking back from now) was inevitable. A grim read indeed but a marvellous one at that – a quality of writing that some modern novelists can only hint at. I was stunned and shocked in equal measure but at the same time marvelled at the power and quality of the writing. The ending is as shocking as anything I have ever read in a modern novel and must have served as a wake up call to US society then – in fact the novel I believe has many lessons about tolerance and standards in a caring society for us even now 60yrs later. Brilliant and shocking in equal measure this novel must be on any readers list – if only as a benchmark against which other authors work is judged.

'You Shall Know Our Velocity' - Dave Eggers

Starting in America and ending Mexico, this book covers a lot of ground. It's a breathless tour around the world in the company of two truly American travellers who look at the world from the view point of people who rarely leave their own state, let alone their own continent. Don't let this deter you. These characters are well sculpted, dislikable and cruel and at the same time refreshingly and even lovably niave and thrill seeking.
This book is fast paced and slightly psychotic in the way it leaps between the journey they are taking and the mental torture of Will (one of the two main protagonists.) We learn as much about what has happened in the past as about what is going on in the present as the story unfolds. This is one of the strengths of this work - It doesn't dwell for long on any given point or moral before skipping somewhere else - if not to the past then to the inside of Will's head.
Will is troubled, guilt ridden and grieving for his friend and his internal monologues and conversations punctuate the actual dialogue of the book to great effect. Eggers portrays him in enough pain to elicit sympathy, but with enough humour to prevent the book becoming weighed down.
Will is looking for something he knows he isn't going to find, and ultimately this is a book about a hopeless quest. It is as much about tiring yourself out to escape the tortures of your mind as it is anything spiritual. Their is just enough lust for life in the two main characters to allow the actual journey to be more important and more satisfying than the reasons for it. In some ways Will and his companion 'Hand' appear much like crazy characters from a film, pulling stupid stunts and adopting a kind of deliberate ignorance of the world arround them, losing themselves in homespun (but often charming) explanations of events. In other ways, they have enough depth, enough genuine pain and convincing feeling for each other and the world they interact with to overcome this potential flaw.

I'm not entirely sure what this book was about, I do know I really enjoyed it and was rivited by the many diferent stories and settings - which seems such an un-intelectual thing to say but sums up how I felt quite nicely.