Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Raj Quartet

"Was there ever anything yet written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, except Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and the Pilgrim's Progress?" - Samuel Johnson
I'm now willing to add The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. I've finished it, and that's left me a little sad.

The four volumes are already 2000 pages in my Avon paperback edition. Scott makes good use of all that space. One of the things that long novels allow the novelist to do is complicate our understanding of character, to build up one picture of who someone is, and then in a moment tear it all down again. This happens repeatedly to Ronald Merrick. But a good example are the sisters Sarah and Susan Layton. Sarah Layton is the older sister, dutiful, pragmatic, pretty but not as pretty as Susan. Boys who are possibly interested in Sarah at first later are put off by her intellectuality and then become interested in Susan. This is, in the popular view, how Susan got her husband Teddie, who was first interested in Sarah, but later proposed to Susan. It's a believable, if somewhat conventional, portrait of older and younger siblings. We know this to be true.

But then Susan's new husband dies in battle. Susan is pregnant and widowed just months after her marriage, and two thirds of the way into the second volume, there's this, a conversation between Sarah and Susan:

"You won't be alone, Su--"
"But I am. I am alone."
Abruptly she sat up, doubled herself over her folded arms and began to move her body in a tight rocking motion. "Just like I was before, just as I've always been, just as if I'd never tried. But I did. I did try. I did try."
"What did you try--?"
"You wouldn't understand. How could you? You're not like me. Whatever you do and wherever you go you'll always be yourself. But what am I? What am I? Why--there's nothing to me at all. Nothing. Nothing at all."
Sarah sat quite still, watching that rocking motion, held by it, and by the revelation, what seemed to be the revelation of what had lain behind the game that seemed to have ended, the game of Susan playing Susan. Susan nothing? Susan alone? She pondered the meaning of: Whatever you do and wherever you go you'll always be yourself: and recognized their truth.
What we have here is the amazing double-whammy revelation. Not only is Susan more complicated and more self-aware than we had realized, but Sarah is less so. Up until this point, what we see of Susan is mostly the idea of her in local society. The flirtatious, fun girl, and Sarah, who's fond of Susan in a close, older-sister way, is perfectly capable of disapproving. The revelation is Sarah's, who was supposed to the sensitive, aware sister.

And this happens again and again. Mildred Layton, Barbie Batchelor, Mabel Layton, Ahmed Kasim, Nigel Rowan. And particularly Ronald Merrick.

Clearly Paul Scott also felt the Quartet ended too soon: it comes with a fifth book, Staying On. One last chance to change around again who these people are.

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