Mulk Raj Anand, as a young man.
Mulk Raj Anand, author of the epic novel about sepoys on the Salient, Across the Black Waters, was not only an interesting man, but surprisingly well-connected.
He was born in 1905 in Peshawar, the son of Lal Chand, coppersmith and soldier, and early in his life became a rebel. In 1919 he was at school in Amritsar, at the time of the uprising. I’m not sure of the extent of his involvement in the riots, but he was sentenced to seven strokes of the cane, a punishment whose indignity rankled with him for long afterwards.
Some time after taking his degree at the University of Punjab in 1924, he came to England, and continued to study philosophy at Cambridge and London. By this time, he was determined to become a writer, and made contacts in the literary world, beginning with E.M. Forster, but later meeting most of the literary elite of the late 1920s.
Some of these are described in a most engaging book, first published in 1981, Conversations in Bloomsbury. Each of its twenty chapters describes an encounter between Mulk and one or more of the people he met in London. Most of these are writers or artists, though one of the pleasantest chapters recounts his conversation with an ex-Tommy bus driver and his friend, a well-read bus-driver.
It’s a great bit of social and literary history, whose scope is indicated by the second chapter, in which a friend takes Anand to a sherry party at Harold Munro’s poetry bookshop. T. S. Eliot is there, ‘ a handsome figure, with a pale cast of thought on his face, relieved by a demure smile,’ (but he turns out to have a limp handshake). Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence are there (and Edith Sitwell’s sincere warmth breaks down Lawrence’s defensiveness.) Laurence Binyon hardly speaks to anyone at the party, but looks intently at the books. Bonamy Dobrée introduces Anand to Eliot, who immediately begins enthusing about Kipling, to the young nationalist’s discomfort.
All the conversations are represented in direct speech, so that one wonders slightly about their reliability, since they were published fifty years after the event. Still, Anand kept a diary at the time, and these sketches are probably worked up from diary entries; but as his friend Alastair Niven wrote in an obituary: ‘the distance of years between the conversation recalled and the commitment of it to paper is sometimes so long that one suspects it should be read as an annexe to his prolific short stories.’ The ‘I’ of these sketches does seem to win rather a lot of the arguments.
Eliot gave him work at The Criterion, writing short notices of books, but he was far less relaxed in Eliot’s presence than he was with most of the other figures he chats with. Perhaps part of the trouble was that he always wanted to leap into talk about deep philosophical issues, while Eliot kept his defences up. (By the way, if this book is reliable, gossip that Eliot was ‘driving his wife nuts’ was commonplace in Bohemian circles at the time.)
Several of those he meets belong to what we now think of as the Bloomsbury set. Clive Bell is rude, and doesn’t want to talk to the young Indian. When Lytton Strachey takes the young man’s hand, ‘He pressed it warmly, too warmly, I felt.’
Anand likes Leonard Woolf, whose experience in Ceylon gives them a sense of common ground, and he worked occasionally correcting proofs at the Hogarth Press. When he meets Virginia Woolf (who exudes ‘the fragrance of grace’) she has been reading a draft of Anand’s novel, and is charming about it. He apologises for the style, claiming that he was too influenced when young by the long sentences of G. M. W.Reynolds. Woolf has never heard of Reynolds, and Leonard has to explain about his sensational pop serials. She asks:
Why have I never heard about The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Courts of London? I thought the only popular writers were Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells, with their old wives’ tales, about tables and chairs and haberdashery stores.’
There is a great thesis to be written about the connection between modernism and snobbery.
Anyone who wants an outsider’s view of the insiders of the literary scene in the twenties should take a look at this book. It’s fun.