Review: Staying On by Paul Scott
by Paul Scott
University of Chicago Press
List Price: $17.00
It’s been nearly a decade since I read Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet. I read the first two novels in Beate Ruhm von Oppen’s preceptorial at St. John’s College, Annapolis during the final semester of my first M.A. program. Before finishing the program in December 2003, I also bought the remaining two novels as well as Scott’s Booker Prize-winning coda to The Raj Quartet, Staying On.
I took these books with me when I moved that Christmas to England. With the momentum of The Jewel in the Crown and The Day of the Scorpion under my belt, and under my skin, I right away read The Towers of Silence and, then, the final novel of the series, A Division of the Spoils.
But despite my tutor-friend Beate’s having told me back then that she’d read the whole of Staying On during a flight from Britain to the U.S., unable to put it down and laughing much of the way, I’d started reading this much-slimmer book right after having finished the whole of The Raj Quartet, but then, myself, did put it down — never to pick up again until having seen an early (Panther) paperback edition, well-yellowed, on a friend’s bookshelf a couple weeks ago while house- and cat-sitting for her and her husband.
This time I did finish it, and recall not having done so the first time round for reasons having far more to do with my wanting, after months of carefully reading The Raj Quartet, to move onto something new, something non-Raj-related.
But with a weeklong house-sit ahead, and no book of my own on hand to read, it took me about a nanosecond after noticing the book on Ruth’s bookshelf to decide to finally read Scott’s follow-on to The Raj Quartet, his final book, first published in 1977 and winning the Booker Prize in November of that year. A few months thereafter Scott died of colon cancer.
And while he’s reported to have had a number of unfinished writing projects left at the time of his death (what writer doesn’t?), the completion of Staying On was the culmination of an especially fine literary career, and served as the final capstone perfectly fitted to round off the whole of The Raj Quartet, a likewise especially majestic edifice carefully crafted from 1964 through to 1977. Others have said, too, that Scott’s earlier novels were part of the writing process that would ultimately give birth to The Raj Quartet.
But while Staying On follows on from The Raj Quartet, the couple who serve as the story’s protagonists — retired colonel “Tusker” Smalley and his wife Lucy — were plucked from obscurity as minor characters in the latter to take the lead in this book, set after India had gained its independence and most British had long ago returned home, particularly the better heeled amongst them.
You can read scores of synopses of the story via Goodreads and Amazon. Suffice to say, here, that Tusker and Lucy are scarcely getting by, Tusker, we learn in the opening sentence of the book, dies of a heart attack, and Lucy — just as she suspects throughout the brief sweep of time covered in the novel — is destined to be left not only alone, with no heartfelt friends in the hill town community within which they’ve spent Tusker’s retired years, but, too, with little money to live on.
I’ll bring this brief review to a close by adding that Staying On seems a beautifully appropriate novel for Scott to have written shortly before his own death, as a carefully considered study of one’s final days, complete with the rough edges of regret, a life trajectory leading to a place far afield from one’s early-on hopes and ambitions, and the twin horrors of impoverished circumstances and existential isolation from one’s own spouse, still living alongside you but separated by a vast canyon carved out over the course of decades by way of an almost imperceptibly slow tectonic shift brought about not by earth-shattering revelations but by the daily grind of dreams gone unfulfilled, communications gone awry, and thoughts, aspirations and feelings gone unspoken, left too late to do anyone any good. That said, there are redemptions of sorts, a certain coming to terms with one’s self and lifelong partner, for all their and one’s own foibles and frailties, just before the final curtain draws to a close.
Sean M. Madden is a writer-educator, photographer and slow traveler. A digital nomad, he’s also co-founder of Creative Thunder, helping creative individuals and small businesses to fire up their online presence and prowess. To get a free copy of the inspiring Creative Thunder Manifesto, click here.