Archive for January, 2013

Consider the Lilies

January 30, 2013

consider the lilies

Probably the most famous Scottish novel of the Highland Clearances remains Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, originally published in 1968. Consider the Lilies is a much slimmer and more focused novel that Butcher’s Broom, as much a character study as a historical novel. Both novels, though, have an elderly woman as a central character, perhaps Smith deciding like Gunn that this is an appropriate way to embody the old life of the Highlands. Smith, however, as his title demonstrates, is more concerned with religion, and the novel is in part a scathing attack on the Christianity that encouraged submission to authority and did nothing to aid those in need.

The novel begins with the visit of Patrick Sellar, factor to the Duke of Sutherland, to Mrs Scott, an elderly woman who lives alone since the death of her husband and her son’s emigration to Canada. (Unlike Gunn, Smith makes no attempt to hide the names of historical figures). Mrs Scott’s incomprehension at being told she must leave her house intensifies when she is told that the church will also be pulled down;

“But what had he just said? Something about the church being pulled down. That of course was untrue. He must be joking. Who had ever heard of a church being pulled down?”

Sellar’s contempt for the Highlanders is obvious, but Mrs Scott herself is not the easiest character to like. Her religion has made her hard and unyielding, something that has been exacerbated by the years she spent looking after her bed-ridden mother:

“In self-defence she let a part of herself die. How otherwise would she have survived?”

Smith alternates chapters in the present following Sellar’s visit with glimpses into Mrs Scott’s past. We see her marriage fall apart as a result of her reserve, her husband driven to join the army and later killed fighting in Spain:

“You hate everybody,” (he tells her) “You hate to see anybody enjoying themselves.”

Mrs Scott’s comfort comes from her religion in what is by and large a religious community, with the noted exception of her neighbour Donald McLeod (another historical figure Smith co-opted for the novel, making him an atheist to fit his overall purpose):

“She remembered that when the first of Donald McLeod’s children had died after great agony at the age of one he wouldn’t allow the minister into the house…The trouble was he read too many books and had ideas above his station.”

It’s not unexpected then when both the elder and the minister let her Mrs Scott down, turning out to be simply an extension of the Duke’s power, and it is McLeod who helps her. In many ways Smith’s primary intention is to critique the church rather than the land-owners, or the unfettered capitalism which caused the Clearances. Religion is seen to be both personally oppressive and complicit in state oppression. Whereas Gunn’s anger was directed at the destruction of the Highland way of life, Smith sees that life already damaged by the church which then betrays the very people who have most faith in it.

This is most evident from the novel’s conclusion, ending as it does before the houses are burned and the land is cleared. Instead the climactic moment is Mrs Scott’s refusal to betray McLeod and her decision “that never again would she go to that church and that her Sundays were forever her own.”

The Guard

January 27, 2013

the guard

Over at the excellent Winstonsdad’s Blog there is a celebration of the wonderful Maclehose Press, five years old this week apparently. As one of my many New Year’s Resolutions was to read more unknown authors from smaller presses, this seemed an ideal opportunity. Maclehose press was set up by Christopher Maclehose after he left Harvill; Harvill are probably the publisher who can take most credit for my interest in translated literature. Even now a glance at the back of their older books where they used to print a numbered list of all their publications makes me wonder about those I haven’t read yet.

I chose The Guard, Peter Terrin’s first work to appear in English (translated form the Dutch by David Colmer, though Terrin is also described as “the Flemish winner of the 2010 European Prize for Literature”) as it had an interesting premise (and I was able to get a cheap second hand copy). The premise is: two guards never leave the basement of the building they are assigned to protect. The building is a block of luxury flats inhabited by the super-rich (servants are included in the rent). One day almost all the residents leave. They are followed soon after by the servants. (Some kind of apocalyptic event outside is postulated but never conformed). Only the guards remain resolute, ever alert in their daily routine, with no contact with the outside world to explain the exodus.

Even before the residents leave the situation is tense. Here Harry, the more experienced guard, tells the narrator, Michel, about how they will deal with being resupplied:

“He’ll open the gate and drive the van into the basement. You take up position at Garage 3. In clear view. Keeping him covered at all times.”

In a succession of short chapters narrated by Michel, Terrin ratchets up the tension by alternating it with scenes of boredom, like the regular counts of ammunition:

“I pick up the first box. Its weight in my hand feels right, familiar. It opens easily. After all this time, the box is loose around the flap. Gleaming cartridges, upright and neatly aligned, showing me multiple reflections of my silhouette. My index finger counts one row of five, then ten rows.”

Throughout this time much of their energy is focussed on waiting: they wait to be tested; they wait to be promoted to the elite guard; they wait for the third guard who might be sent to them. Like all novels based around waiting, the author has a choice as to whether it ends with nothing having changed or whether whatever is expected finally arrives. In this case the third guard appears half way through changing both the direction and tone of the novel.

A slowly narrowing routine (that includes, for example, removing all the lights from the garage floor as they have learned their route in the dark) now becomes more dynamic. Eventually they begin to search the building for the one remaining resident. However, by this time the reliability of the narrator is severely challenged by the suspicion he might be insane. The reader increasingly suspects that not everything we are being told is actually happening.

While the second half was still an engrossing read, I found it less interesting. In the first half we have a commentary on the separation of the rich from the rest of us, in the second half we discover that living in a confined space for months will drive you mad. As the guards search the upper floors, we also feel that the author is searching for an ending. The one he finds is not quite as satisfying as the novel’s opening will have you hoping for.

Every Short Story – ‘The Comedy of the White Dog’

January 25, 2013

‘The Comedy of the White Dog’ is the first story of any length. The central character, Gordon, is, like many of Gray’s protagonists, fiercely unimaginative, perhaps to off-set the fantastic content:

“Somebody once pointed out to him that the creation of life was mystery. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘and it’s irrelevant. Why should I worry about how life occurred? If I know how it is just now I know enough…”

This dullness, however, doesn’t prevent him from falling in love with a girl he hardly knows, Nan. He is delighted when she asks him to take her home with him, seemingly unconcerned that this request originates from her fear of a white dog that has just carried one of her friends away into shrubbery. All revolves around the legend of the white dog, which is apparently “associated with sexually frigid women.” Myth and reality coincide when the white dog comes to claim Nan the night before her wedding. While the ending is again rather foreseeable it at least has a certain thematic logic.

The story also contains perhaps the first Gray cameo:

“At first sight he gave a wrong impression of strength and silence, for he was asthmatic and this made his movements slow and deliberate… As soon as he felt at ease in a company he would talk expertly about books, art, politics and anything that was not direct experience.”

2012 Catch-up – The Yellow Birds

January 19, 2013

yellow birds

Kevin Powers’ debut novel, The Yellow Birds, was another that passed me by last year despite the fact it was extensively praised on publication. There was the worry that its timeliness was as important as its quality in the reception it received: here was a novel at last about the Iraq war written by someone who was there. In fact, there was no need for concern: this is a finely crafted novel both well written and carefully structured.

Powers’ ambition can be seen from his opening sentence:

“The war tried to kill us in the spring.”

This is a sentence that seems designed for quizzes on ‘famous opening lines’, as well as to immediately give us a sense of the oppressive threat that surrounds the soldiers. He continues:

“As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.”

Of course, this almost poetic tone does not continue unabated – that would be wearing – but here is a writer who can write. He neither overdoes it nor pares the prose to an artificial simplicity. In this way, Powers conveys the experience of the ordinary soldier without patronising. Above all there is the constant threat of death. The narrator, Bartle, and the younger soldier he has made himself responsible for, Murphy, do not want to be the thousandth fatality:

“It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our lives. That each one of those deaths belonged to a time and therefore that time was not ours. We didn’t know the list was limitless. We didn’t think beyond a thousand.”

This retrospective view, with Bartle looking back on his experience, also enhances the narrative, as does the novel’s structure.

Though it begins in Iraq in September 2004, the second chapter takes us back to the previous December when Bartle and Murphy met for the first time. The Iraq chapters then alternate with those set after Bartle’s tour of Iraq is finished. This works narratively as we learn that something has happened in Iraq which Bartle regrets – he confesses to a priest, for example, “I just made a mistake is all.” It also makes clear that Powers is not interested in simply describing the war to us, but also in demonstrating how it affects the soldiers. It would obviously spoil things to reveal what that mistake is, but when all is revealed there is no sense of disappointment or artifice. Most surprisingly, I found the novel as interesting out of Iraq as I did when set there.

For anyone interested in the modern experience of war – and shouldn’t that be everyone as we are all connected to these conflicts somehow? – this is an important book.

Butcher’s Broom

January 13, 2013

butchers broom

Butcher’s Broom is Neil Gunn’s novel of the Highland Clearances, an event that changed the landscape of the north of Scotland completely and did much to destroy a way of life. This is a much more successful novel than Sun Circle as Gunn is able to recreate events with greater accuracy, and it is clear that representing the history of that time is important to him. The novel feels carefully researched, and also wide-ranging in an attempt to provide background to the Clearances, including a visit to London where the estate’s owners reside.

This is clear from the early pages where Gunn is keen to recount the historical background of Napoleon’s domination following the French Revolution. This provides not only a reason for the young men of the Highlands to be recruited as soldiers, but also explains the need for Britain to become more self-sufficient in food (as well as driving prices up and making sheep farming more profitable). Gunn’s main focus, however, is the Highland community of Riasgan and Dark Mairi who comes to represent that community and way of life – indeed, she is almost at one with the land:

“…in her steady unthinking darkness, she might have walked out of a mountain and might walk into it again, leaving no sign.”

Gunn spends the first third of the novel creating a picture of the way of life. He describes a community spirit with much kindness and plenty of laughter, joking and singing without ever seeming sentimental. Typically Gunn absorbs Gaelic superstitions into his novel and as early as page 58, in counterpoint to the general happiness, we have a character known for their visions muttering, “Fire! Fire!”

Gunn’s other central character is also a woman, Elie, who falls in love with a young man, Colin (Gunn clearly felt that at least one love story was compulsory per novel), who unfortunately impregnates her before leaving to join the army (to be fair, he doesn’t know she is pregnant). Despite such an apparently supportive community, Ellie heads south in secret to have the baby; by the time she returns with a child the old way of life is already deteriorating and the ‘clearance’ of the glen is not far away.

Gunn describes the clearance of Riasgan in all its horrific detail, largely based on historical accounts. The houses were all burned to prevent them being rebuilt, and everyone, from babies to the bed-ridden elderly were forced to leave – on foot of course. The Highlanders’ helplessness is easy to understand:

“What was the sheriff saying now? Why the devil doesn’t he speak in Gaelic? Can’t you speak in Gaelic? We don’t know what you’re saying.”

Soldiers are brought from Ireland to protect the evictors. Heller, who intends to rent the land, is based on the real-life Patrick Sellar who famously said that an old woman should be left to burn in her home – the line is also used in the novel.

The Highlanders are given land at the coast where they must make a living from fishing, but in the final section of the novel we see that much of their old way of life has disappeared and the young men and women are looking to emigrate. Dark Mairi is symbolically killed at the end by a shepherd’s dogs.

Though Gunn’s central characters often seem too blank (it would be difficult to say what distinguishes Elie or Colin from the other young men and women in the novel), this is still a fine novel of an important event in Scottish history that still shapes the Highlands today. Perhaps more important is its depiction of a way of life now lost to us. It’s not, of course, the only novel of the Highland Clearances, and next I hope to look at two more.

Every Short Story – ‘A Unique Case’

January 12, 2013

‘A Unique Case’ concerns the Reverend Dr Phelim McLeod who is involved in an accident with a glazier’s van in which “a fragment of glass sheered off a section of skull with his right ear on it.” The effect of this accident is to reveal that inside the head there is:

“…tiny rooms with doors, light fittings and wall sockets, all empty of furniture but with signs of hasty evacuation. There was also scaffolding and heaps of building material suggesting that repair was in progress.”

There is little more to the story apart from an ‘anything is possible’ type discussion with a doctor. Gray’s inspiration may well be bombed buildings from the war with their fronts or sides missing, as explicitly mentioned in the story, but the accompanying illustration brings to mind The Numskulls, a long-running comic strip in the Beano in which a group of tiny men live in a boy’s head. See what you think…


gray head

2012 Catch-up – Train Dreams

January 11, 2013

train dreams

Every year books slip past me unread: those I read or hear about (often immediately thinking, “I must get hold of that!”) but never quite get round to seeking out; those I buy and then stack up in piles which by December I still haven’t reached the bottom of (these are often anything exceeding 500 pages which I put aside for when I have ‘more time’); and, a more recent category, those I download but never open (they’re so easy to ignore…). This year I made a little list of those books that had particularly aggrieved me by escaping – and then I hunted them down during the post-Christmas sales…

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams was not a book I had heard much about during the year, but it did appear on a number of ‘Best of…’ lists in December and sounded intriguing. Johnson was a writer I had never read before- reading a lot of translated fiction I do have a habit of neglecting Americans. It also had the advantage of being short – which at least meant that I would read it – a novella that first appeared in The Paris Review in 2002 (so I suppose I’d already missed it ten years before).

Train Dreams is written in a lean prose though it has a dream-like quality that perhaps comes from the non-chronological nature of the narrative, a series of scenes from the life of its central character, Robert Granier. Any imagery is drawn straight from nature: “like a weasel in a sack”; “like a seed in a wind”; “like a cornered brute.” Granier makes a living from building railway bridges and felling trees. He is granted little happiness: an early memory of returning home to his wife and baby with sarsaparilla he has bought on the way demonstrates his love and reoccurs when he takes a flight in an early plane:

“He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their little cabin on a summer’s night…”

By that time, however, his wife and child are dead, killed in a bush fire which rages out of control and destroys the cabin completely:

“The cabin was cinders, burned so completely that its ashes has mixed in with a common layer all about and then been tamped down by the snows and washed and dissolved by the thaw.”

Granier settles among the devastation, the mythical outsider in Dante’s version of the American frontier. He is something of a ghost haunting American history: there for the railroads being built, there for that early flight; there to see Elvis; and still there in the 1960s to see another bridge being built across the Moyea River.

Echoing Granier’s loneliness, dogs and wolves form a backdrop to the narrative (even a dog which manages to shoot its owner). When Granier’s dog has wolf pups they soon wander off bar one who will not even howl when it hears the wolves in the distance. It is Granier who howls to teach it its nature, and continues howling having perhaps discovered something of his own. In that early memory of his wife he wonders if their baby daughter knows “as much as a dog-pup?” Later a ‘wolf-girl’ breaks into his cabin and he believes her to be his daughter:

“He hoped that some sign of recognition might show itself and prove her to be Kate. But her eyes only watched in flat terror like a wolf’s.”

All of this feeds into the novel’s under-stated but poignant end.

At times it might seem as if the drop down menu of American fiction has been used – there’s time to fit in a dying hobo and a superstitious Indian on top of everything else – but it is so beautifully written that much can be forgiven. In the end it is both an addition to, and meditation on, American myth.

Every Short Story – ‘The Cause of Recent Changes’

January 8, 2013

‘The Cause of Recent Changes’ is another short, comic story (comedy is Gray’s default mode) which again demonstrates Gray’s ability to let his imagination roam free. I was reminded a little of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomic stories by the ending, but not by the much more down to earth opening where the narrator (an art student like Gray) makes an off-the-cuff suggestion that a bored friend should begin digging an escape tunnel.

The idea is taken more seriously than intended and soon a tunnel is underway, revealing a subterranean world on three levels:

“This one has dormitories and canteens for the staff, and underneath are the offices of the administration, and under that is the engine.”

This idea reoccurs on larger scale in Lanark, but the highlight for me is the result of an attempt to interfere with the engine (which drives the world around the sun) which results in the planet disintegrating. Gray presents this cataclysm in prosaic detail (“I was wakened by…my bed falling heavily to the ceiling”) and the information that on his new fragment he must walk miles if he wishes to experience darkness as it is now perpetual noon.

Gray attempts to turn it into a morality tale by ending with the suggestion that the narrator will in future “Keep my mouth shut”, but the real moral lurks earlier:

“Too many of us have invested too much to stop now.”

Gray’s distrust of ‘progress’ at any cost begins here.

Comic of the Month – Grandville Bete Noire

January 6, 2013


Bryan Talbot’s name has been difficult to avoid recently since he won the Costa Prize for Biography with Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (co-written with Mary Talbot). That would be achievement enough, but he also found time in 2012 to release the third volume in his wonderful Grandville series, Grandville Bete Noire. The Grandville books have become a Christmas treat for me, replacing those annuals of long ago, and this latest album was the first present I reached for once the unwrapping was over.

With each volume Talbot succeeds in adding depth to the world of Grandville and the character of Detective Inspector LeBrock. For those new to the series, Grandville is an alternate Earth where animals are in charge. LeBrock is a badger, for example, and a whole menagerie of animals is featured in every episode. Talbot has particular fun with the villains in this case, a cabal of evil capitalists headed by a toad, but including a vulture and a couple of fat cats. The genre is steampunk which makes some aspects of Grandville seem old fashioned while others are technologically advanced. Humans do exist but are seen as a lower form of life; that they are beginning to protest might hint at plot-lines to come. Everything is rendered in a style that is not in the least cartoony and one of the most wonderful things about Grandville is that it’s difficult to imagine it working in any other form.

Grandville Bete Noir is concerned with art and capitalism. It begins with a classic locked room murder (though the solution is far from traditional) as an artist is murdered in Paris. LeBrock is called from London to help. The artist, Gustave Corbeau (a play on Gustave Corbet and the French for raven) had been working on a design for a mural for the Revolutionary Council – France has recently freed itself and is heading for elections. In the background a sinister group of businessmen are plotting revolution…

The book works as both an adventure and a satire, and in an illuminating afterword Talbot demonstrates its connection to historical events – in particular the link between art and politics. Ultimately Talbot uses his medium to present something that is both thoughtful and highly entertaining – and you can’t ask for much more for Christmas than that.

Every Short Story – ‘The Spread of Ian Nicol’

January 5, 2013

‘The Spread of Ian Nicol’ is another very short story with that same mixture of fantasy and realism. The fantasy comes in its central conceit, that of a man literally splitting in two. What begins as a “bald patch on the back of his head” soon develops a face and ultimately results in two Ian Nicols. Gray’s matter-of-fact prose style is used to comic effect, with few seeming perturbed at events, one doctor commenting:

“Oh, it happens more than you would suppose. Among bacteria and viruses it’s very common, though it’s certainly less frequent among riveters.”

Once separated the two Ians fight over their identity, though even that is logically solved as one lacks a navel. Though amusing the ending is rather predictable as each of them begins to split again. Written when Gray was a student, this is an entertaining though insubstantial story.