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The Corrida at San Felíu, 1964
The most unusual of Paul Scott's thirteen works of fiction is this one, the eighth, written at the age of 44, the year after he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. After publishing The Corrida at San Felíu Scott began a decade of immersion in the masterpiece of his maturity, the four magnificent novels of the Raj Quartet, followed in the year before his death by the bitter-sweet Staying On (1977), which was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction. In many ways the Corrida marks a pause for reflection, and a practice-ground for the multi-viewpoint narrative techniques Scott was preparing to employ, before he confronted the exacting challenge posed by the epic series that concludes his distinguished literary career.
The Corrida is the story of an author, Edward Thornhill, who dies unexpectedly, along with his wife, in an automobile accident in Spain, leaving behind an assortment of unfinished fragments of apparently unrelated stories, including two abandoned but well-written attempts at the opening of a novel about a couple who "turn up somewhere in disgrace." The reader peruses these with puzzled interest, feels disappointed when they are discarded just at the point of becoming absorbing, and tentatively begins to draw connections, aided by a preface describing Thornhill's life that is based on autobiograpical notes found in the dead author's desk. It seems likely that Thornhill is obsessed by certain events in his personal life and is unsuccessfully trying to exorcise them through his fiction, projecting traits of his own character at various ages, and the characters of others, on invented personages made to re-enact the significant roles of a real drama disguised in his writing by different settings and circumstances.
Balked by these inadequate measures--and several years have passed since Thornhill was last able to work productively--he finally solves the problems preventing him from making progress on his projected new novel about the disgraced couple by penning a ruthless account of the actual dilemma that was privately engaging him in Spain. In this frank journal, written with white-hot urgency in the six weeks following Thornhill's attendance at a bull-fight in the nearby town of San Felíu, the artist unravels his symbols, reveals his truths, and through an amazing exposition of the corrida itself produces a powerful treatise on the generosities and betrayals of love, its costs to oneself and others, and the nature of a writer's creative processes.
The first specimen of Thornhill's prose that the reader studies is a short story about a leopard-hunt in Africa; here the author's attention focuses sharply on two men, one of whom has taken everything the other valued, humiliating his weaker rival. Next comes a tale called The First Betrayal, set in India in 1925 and inspired by a true occurrence in Thornhill's past, where a callow young Englishman ineptly attempts the seduction of a ferociously introverted girl named Lesley, backs off upon recognition of her utter inexperience, and nonetheless awakens her sexually. This story, later reworked and turned inside out in Thornhill's journal, also introduces a mysterious older couple, trailing vague clouds of undefined disgrace, as peripheral actors irrelevant to the protagonist. It concludes abruptly with a disturbing intrusion of Thornhill into the narrative to admonish one of his characters: "You should not have waved, Lesley. You should not have stood there waving in the morning sunshine. You should have stayed in your room in the dark with all the shutters down." But the reader is not yet able to discern whether Thornhill is addressing his fictional Lesley, the remembered real girl masked behind her, or both.
Thornhill may have abandoned Lesley where she stood because compelled to explore the emerging theme of a man and woman burdened by questionable events of their past, for he now turns decidedly to his idea of two such people "turning up" in new surroundings. It is uncertain whether the young Thornhill really observed a similar couple in India, and routinely included them in his background scenery for Lesley's story, or whether his imagination suddenly placed them there under the urging of his subconscious mind--if he has in fact borrowed a visual image from old memories and is now investing it with the significances demanded by his fiction. Whichever, the couple whom Thornhill names Bruce and Thelma now become his chief characters.
He tries first to bring them onstage in the Spanish seaside resort where he and his wife Myra are staying. In The Arrival in Playa de Faro Bruce and Thelma step confidently off a tourist boat as an impossibly attractive pair and the only real hint at their "disgrace" comes in the chapter's concluding sentence: "For a second or two, as they looked at the villa, arm in arm, the smiles they wore constantly in public faded." Unsatisfied by this version, Thornhill returns to the source of his original inspiration, or perhaps merely to a setting he has already comfortably defined in the Lesley story, and brusquely intercepts Bruce and Thelma in the midst of a bitter quarrel among their packing crates at Panther House. Here Bruce is much older than his wife, and instead of being beautiful like the Playa de Faro Thelma (and Thornhill's own younger wife Myra), she is plain and wracked by punishing misery. But The Arrival in Mahwar plunges too abruptly into the disgraceful episode, which turns out to be Thelma's adultery with a younger man named Ned, who committed suicide when their affair was discovered and left behind an outraged widow named Lesley.
"But Lesley exists only on the periphery of this tale," Thornhill asserts, interrupting his story to consider rather than develop it, "although without her there might have been no tale to tell, which is why she enters now... and then, with a shriek of incredulous rage at his infidelity, his adultery with a woman as old, as plain as Thelma Craddock, of whose like by this world she had never been warned, she is gone, back into the creating chaos..." But the Mahwar exercise proves sufficient to reveal to its author what he is truly striving to accomplish, including the fact that he seems better equipped to do that imaginatively on a sheet of paper than with positive personal action in the real world outside his own head. He carefully dates his draft, "Playa de Faro, April-September, 1962" and sets it aside with a cold observation about the interplay of fact and fiction: "In describing their circumstances to each other and to themselves, people are endlessly inventive. It is they who set the precedent, not the storyteller who, as a consequence, is bound only by his version of the truth and by the words he can muster to record it."
Between September 10th and October 16th Thornhill writes the long, and this time completed, narrative he entitles The Plaza de Toros. Taking the corrida as an all-encompassing metaphor, he creates a dazzling tour-de-force interweaving the bull-fight he reluctantly witnesses in San Felíu, Thornhill/Bruce/Ned, and Myra/Thelma/Lesley into a seamless whole. Blending a chronicle of actual events with the rich artistic inventiveness he is unable to suppress, Thornhill analyzes a series of loves and betrayals: how he stole his younger cousin's fiancée, married her, and is now called upon to confront a crisis occasioned by Myra's flirtation and probable adultery with a handsome young man she has encountered on the beach at Playa de Faro.
"In the crowded plaza de toros, I sit alone," he states towards the end of his remarkable account of a corrida considered from the vantage-point of the spectators, the matador, the picadors, and even the bull. "A two-legged animal with opposed thumbs and a tragic inheritance of speech; waiting for the personal revelation of what he really means when he says, as he has said so often, so glibly, for nearly sixty years: I love, I care, let justice be done, teach us to forgive; hoping that once, today, through the medium of this art that is unique because it defies the law of life arrested by artifice, there will be a glimpse of the reality behind the illusion that man can care for someone other than himself."
But the spectacular final section of The Corrida at San Felíu is to be experienced, not described at second hand. Often overlooked now that Scott's fame and reputation are so solidly anchored on the splendid Raj Quartet, this earlier novel would appear to be out of print. Search, readers: find it by any means fair or foul.
© Wordreign, October 1999
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