MAN BOOKER PRIZE 1977
Booker club: Staying On by Paul Scott
An English couple outstay their welcome in post-Raj India in a novel that foreshadows this year's Booker winner
Monday 22 December 2008
Sadly, Paul Scott was unable to attend the ceremony at which he was to be awarded the 1977 Booker prize. He was too ill. Aged just 57 and at the height of his powers as a writer, he was suffering from the cancer that would kill him within six months.
Scott probably didn't know he was dying when he wrote Staying On, and it does little good to speculate on whether intimations of mortality influenced him. All the same, the fact of his demise does take on an eerie resonance in the context of the novel. It's one of the most final books I have read. Final in the practical sense that it marks a definite end to all the stories he started telling in the Raj quartet, but also as a depiction of the last days of the last generation of British colonials to have served in the Raj, and as a prolonged and profound reflection on death.
The loss of life that gives the book its shape is that of Tusker Smalley, whose "massive coronary" we learn about in the book's first sentence. Aside from his wife, Lucy, he was the last English person still living in the small hill town of Pankot. All their compatriots left after India became independent in 1947, but these two (who had small roles in the Raj quartet, where they were described as "slight bores, but very useful people") chose to remain.
Scott traces the days leading up to Tusker's death, showing the Smalleys leading lives of quiet desperation in their confined world, cut off from the English – who had treated them with snobbish contempt – and bullied by the Indian capitalists who have replaced them. Their lonely, precarious existence ("hanging on rather than staying on" as Tusker puts it) is wonderfully described, and Scott builds up such a strong sense of doom that Tusker's coronary starts to seem like the easy option. When Lucy asks Tusker, "What is to happen to me if you die first?" her sense of desolation is overpowering.
Contradictory as it may sound, this melancholy is only deepened by Scott's talent for comedy. Tusker is a selfish old curmudgeon – a foolish, petty man who treats his loyal wife appallingly – but he's so amusing it's impossible not to warm to him. There's something almost heroic about his habit of getting drunk at inappropriate times, his dignity after a pratfall and his near-total refusal to engage with the world around him. He is someone who can watch his wife struggling over the knitting of a jumper for months, and only complain about the pattern and colours when he gets it for Christmas.
Their relationship may be founded on a platform of almost constant bickering, but we come to understand why Lucy loves Tusker: why she reaches for his hand in the night when she wants to laugh, why she can't bear to be without him, and why she treasures the one "love letter" he gives her, even though its only admission of affection is, "You've been a decent wife to me."
As a portrait of a marriage, the book is a triumph. Less effective is the investigation of the new capitalists in India. The Indian woman who represents them, Mrs Bhoolabhoy – the landlady who has the Smalleys under her control – is a caricature. Enormously fat, greedy and interested "only in the here and now and how this might be arranged to her advantage", she is often amusing but never entirely believable. She's no more unpleasant than her English predecessors, but is too absurd and shallow to resonate.
It's a small flaw in an otherwise compelling book. And even if the treatment is slightly clumsy, this remains a vivid portrait of the final servants of the Raj written by one of their last (near) contemporaries. As Philip Larkin, that year's Booker prize committee chairman, noted: "Staying On covers only a few months, but it carries the emotional impact of a lifetime, even a civilisation."
When read in the light of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, a Booker winner that deals with similar power issues 30 years later (with the vital distinction that it is all Indian), this impact is even greater. There are few better demonstrations of literature's ability to mark out the different stages in a nation's development than these two books taken together. Nor, incidentally, of the occasional historical value of prizes like the Booker.