Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Resonance of Literature

The subject is vast like the ocean, and here I’ll simply dip a toe. I want to contemplate two twentieth century authors neither of whom reached top rank as writers because, it seems to me, their vision didn’t resonate with the mood of their times. Now phrases like “top rank” might benefit from elucidation. By that characterization I simply mean fame—thus names known well-enough to have become household words, as it were: Mailer, Updike, Salinger, Roth in the United States—Joyce, Tolkien, Huxley, Orwell in Britain. The authors I have in mind are known to the public, if at all, because of television specials: Fortunes of War, which appeared in 1987, and The Jewel in the Crown, which aired in 1984. Both came from a series of novels written in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fortunes of War is the collective name for six novels by Olivia Manning (1908-1980) grouped into two trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy (1960-1962) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-1980). This highly autobiographical story is that of a couple’s struggles and experiences as British expatriates on the fringes of Nazi Europe during World War II, beginning in 1939 in Romania and ending in Egypt in 1943, with other places in between. I haven’t read these novels myself, which applies a kind of discount to these comments, but the TV series had a great resonance for both Brigitte and for me. It reproduced with unerring accuracy the experiences of our childhood years—not in precisely the same places but in identical border regions, in Poland for Brigitte and in Hungary for me. The dramatic and the human quality of this production is accessible to all people of the requisite sensitivity, but for Brigitte and me it had in addition a depth and magic only accessible because the well of memory is deep, and to have lived a time, however young, vastly increases its re-experience as drama. Manning had an extensive literary career both as a novelist, critic, and non-fiction writer. She had her admirers (Anthony Burgess, alas, was one), but if the Wikipedia article titled “British literature” is a good random sample, her name didn’t make it into the top drawer. (Whereas, I would here note parenthetically, Anthony Burgess managed a perch there for his evil work, A Clockwork Orange.) I find this interesting.

The Jewel in the Crown (1964) is the first volume of Paul Mark Scott’s four-volume The Raj Quartet. Jewel gave its name to the television series as well. The others in the quartet are The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971), and A Division of the Spoils (1974). Paul Mark Scott—the Mark is his mother’s maiden name and sometimes put into parentheses—was born in 1920 and died in 1978. He was a bookkeeper, later a literary agent. In that role he was Arthur C. Clarke’s agent, among others. His experiences in India began as an enlisted inductee into the British Army in 1940; he worked in intelligence. Later he earned a commission and ended his career in the Indian Army Service Corp providing logistical support for that Army’s war against the Japanese in Burma; Japan had taken Burma in 1942. His writing career began in this period and was powerfully influenced by his experiences in India. In this case I’ve actually read The Raj Quartet. I rank the TV show among the very best I’ve ever seen—but reading those books (my copy has all four in one volume) makes me realize both the virtues and limitations of movies. The virtues are that we are physically there; thus when Scott writes that on a clear day in Pankot we can see the Himalayas very far in the distance, as if floating in the air, The Jewel and the Crown shows us what Scott saw himself—and what his greatest character, Sarah Layton, saw as she went riding with her father. The limitation is that The Raj Quartet is vastly richer in content. The experience of seeing and reading both—and both works splendidly done—is one of those gifts only our own age has bestowed on humanity. May we never lose it again.

The book, I think, is a masterpiece of the first order. Someday it may be recognized as such. Reading it now that outcome appears to be a near-impossibility, in part because it seems that reading itself may now by the last flickering activity of a dying generation. But, of course, I know better. No curve ever rises forever; just when it appears as if it had become a permanent state, that, no doubt, is the very moment when it has already begun to plummet again. That a work like this would have had so little resonance—and that it’s author also ended up beneath the salt of literary recognition, thus only as a solid also-ran—has been due, I think, to a brief flare-up in human history that now approaches its demise. In times to come when the burdens or real life replace the frustrations and distractions of modern life, The Raj Quartet may yet be rediscovered.

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The picture of Olivia Manning comes from the Wikipedia article about her accessible here. I am very glad to present here an actual portrait of Paul Mark Scott. This, I believe, is the only other site that has it. I found it on the Facebook page of the Paul Mark Scott Appreciation Society. It has twenty members, of whom I count myself one. There are many web pages on Paul Scott, but no other that I came across had an image of the man.

3 comments:

  1. The pleasure of seeing "The Jewel in the Crown" for a second time cannot, in my humble view, be matched by anything on offer from TV now. And that's a shame in view of ever improving technological skills in this medium.

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  2. You called certain authors "household words" then qualified that statement by adding their birth country. This made me think that those authors are actually household words not depending on the country but the household. For example, in France, "Orwell" will be a household word in certain households in two domains : fiction and cinema. In other households, those of many of my collegues, for instance, the name is entirely unknown. And then some authors, filmmakers and painters are houshold words where ever. I would wager : Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Disney... and not many others actually. I would not wager on any of the authors on your list truly being household words in the States.

    I enjoyed the post and the pictures and the rendition of the wonderful feeling of electing one's own Top Rankers!

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  3. The Jewel In The Crown was one of the defining moments of my life. It did not happen all that long ago, so obviously we keep on growing as time goes on.

    We watch the DVD once a year: in the depths of winter. Squeezing it into one weekend recreates the landscapes of Scott with an intensity that it leaves one gasping for "shape with jam" when it ends.

    Anthony Burgess's early work was head and shoulders above his later. Clockwork incorporates the narrative strength of the early work with the madness of the later.

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