Archive for February, 2013

Sunset Song

February 24, 2013

sunset song

Unlike Fionn MacColla, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was prolific – so much so that it might be said to have been to his detriment – but he too can be said to have been lost to Scotland by his early death at the age of thirty-four. By that time he had produced ten novels, as well as a number of other books. His range was astonishing – from the historical novel Spartacus to the science fiction of Gay Hunter and Three Go Back. His continued fame, however, rests on the trilogy A Scots Quair, which he began with Sunset Song in 1932. The novel has since been adapted for stage and screen and embedded itself in the Scottish curriculum.

Sunset Song is also set at a time of change for Scotland, that of the First World War. As the title, and the recurring song in the novel (almost a theme tune), the elegiac ‘Flowers of the Forest’, suggest, this is a time, like that of the Highland Clearances, when an old way of life will disappear. That way of life is intrinsically connected to the land: Gibbon divides his novel into sections moving from ‘The Unfurrowed Field’ to ‘Harvest’. These section represents not only the rhythms of the land (though the novel is set over a number of years) but the maturing of its central character, Chris Guthrie, who begins the novel as a young girl, but ends it as a widowed mother. (It will not surprise you to learn that she has a child in ‘Harvest’, but this is also the section that deals with the war, presenting harvest as an entirely different kind of metaphor).

Chris Guthrie is one of the most important (and loved) characters in Scottish literature. So realistic was Gibbon’s portrayal of a female character that some (apparently) though the pseudonym disguised a female writer. It seems likely that Gibbon chose a female protagonist to create some distance in a novel that was clearly very personal for him (he had previously written under his own name, and had written an earlier semi-autobiographical novel in The Thirteenth Disciple covering much of the same time period). But Chris also represents Scotland itself, and allows Gibbon to show us not the First Word War, for example, but its effect on Scotland both on an individual and national level. When her husband, Ewan, appears on leave prior to being sent to the Front, she finds him a changed man:

“But it wasn’t Ewan, her Ewan, someone coarse and strange and strong had come back in his body to torment her.”

Other characters we have come to know over the course of the novel like Chae Strachan are also victims of the war, as is the land itself: the woods are cut down for a quick profit ruining the land for farming.

From the beginning Chris also demonstrates that recurrent theme of the tension between education and family, something that has haunted Scottish literature throughout the twentieth century linked as it is to language:

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

Like many of those characters who find themselves in this position, Chris also suffers from a tyrannical father who puts his lust before his wife’s life and drives his son to emigrate. But Chris is a character who makes choices, choosing to marry and stay on the land after her father’s death when she does not need to.

What makes this novel revolutionary, however, is the way it is written. Gibbon not only adopts a register that allows him to integrate a number of Scots words into the language, but a point of view that permits him to roam from a communal voice (which is frequently gossipy and cynical) indirectly into the consciousness of Chris. The communal voice adds a strain of humour to the novel and allows Gibbon to demonstrate both the camaraderie and small-mindedness of the place, which becomes a character in itself.

The novel ends with the unveiling of the Kinraddie war memorial by Chris’ new husband, Robert Colquohoun, a minister – well, there had to be one – allowing Gibbon to take his trilogy forward into its second part, Cloud Howe.

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The Mussel Feast

February 20, 2013

mussel feast

It is perhaps the fact that Peirene Press deliberately select novellas, stories which encourage, if not demand, an uninterrupted reading, which allows them to forsake cheap gimmicks such as page-turning plots and immediately sympathetic characters in their choice of texts. Instead we are given something to immerse ourselves in, something where mood can be as important as action, and where the ordinary can slowly grow into the extraordinary. Their latest publication, The Mussel Feast by German writer Birgit Vanderbeke (yet another author brought into English for the first time, on this occasion at the hands of Jamie Bulloch) is no exception.

Its very title is the antithesis of thriller, and although the mussel feast is to some extent symbolic, the mussels are very real, opening the novel and only vanishing at its conclusion, “the shells rattling” as they are emptied into the dustbin. The story begins with a mother and her two teenage children preparing for their father’s return. Their father has gained promotion at work and the mussels are part of a celebratory meal:

“We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion, though in a very different way from what we’d had in mind.”

As the family await the father’s return, we learn more about him and the influence he has on the rest of the family:

“…when my father was on business trips the thee of us told each other the most fanciful stories… Before my father came home, however, all these fanciful ideas vanished, especially my mother’s…switching to wifey mode when he came home.”

The father seems something of a tyrannical figure, imposing his values on the rest of the family, and the novella can be read as an allegory of East Germany before the wall fell, or as a critique of patriarchy. The father, we learn, has had to work his way up from poverty, whereas the mother is a teacher. The children are prevented from any activity they enjoy – for example the narrator can only practise her piano playing when the father is absent – and are frequently told how they disappoint him. He is not beyond punishing them physically:

“…he tried to use violence to knock the stubbornness out of me, just as he tried to use violence to knock the wimpishness out of my brother.”

It is the father’s non-appearance when he is expected that allows the family to experience a sense of freedom. The longer they wait for him the more they resent the effect he will have on them when he walks through the door. Vanderbeke’s ending emphasises, not the fate of the father, but the family’s will to resist him. If a novel is a banquet and a short story is a snack, The Mussel Feast is the perfect meal.

Every Short Story – ‘The Crank that Made the Revolution’

February 18, 2013

‘The Crank that Made the Revolution’ seems to me a title in search of a story. Not only is the phrase itself so wonderful you are almost convinced it has some historical provenance, but it contains not one, but two puns: literally it is about a mechanical crankshaft that works through revolution, but its inventor is also something of a crank, and the originator (according to Gray) of the Industrial Revolution.

You don’t have to scour the web very far to discover someone asking whether this particular story has any basis in fact, and not much further to find someone else who swears it does. The crankshaft, however, was not invented in 18th century Cessnock, having been around since Roman times. An early clue to the story’s unreliability as a historical document is the inventor’s unlikely name, Vague McMenemy. Vague is not the Gaelic version of Alexander, as Gray tells us – that would be Alasdair.

The story is a satire of industrialisation. McMenemy’s first invention seeks to make ducks more efficient. A duck “is not an efficient machine” being not particularly world-leading at any of the things it does: flying, swimming or walking. McMenemy enhances its swimming ability through use of the crankshaft, and then repeats the experiment with a flock. Though they attain great speed, this only leads to them hitting the opposite bank, capsizing and drowning. McMenemy then repeats the process with his granny, utilising the energy she uses to rock her rocking chair to power even faster knitting.

Gray’s distrust of ‘progress’ for its own sake is clear. (We will see this reoccur throughout his career, for example in the wonderful ‘Near the Driver’). Even McMenemy himself becomes so much a part of the machine that he no longer has time for invention.

Every Short Story – ‘The Problem’

February 16, 2013

‘The Problem’ is a slight, humorous story in which Gray joins that long list of writers who have personified the sun. In this particular story she is an ageing, insecure woman who worries about her spots:

“Why can’t I have a perfect heavenly body like when I was younger? I haven’t changed. I’m still the same as I was then.”

There’s little more to the story than that, though it does contain a particularly amusing moment when the narrator attempts to reassure the sun by pointing out that, “the moon has spots all over her and nobody finds those unattractive,” only to be greeted with:

“You’ve just admitted seeing other planets when my back is turned.”

It does highlight, however, the way in which people’s own insecurities can damage their relationships with others.

And the Cock Crew

February 10, 2013

and the cock crew

Our third novel of the Highland Clearances is Fionn MacColla’s And the Cock Crew, originally published in 1945. Like Iain Crichton Smith, MacColla was a teacher, but unlike Smith, he also falls into that unfortunately common category of Scottish writers: those who publish little. Enrique Vila-Matas has written a whole novel (Bartleby) about writers who only publish one book, and indeed, if only he had known, Scotland provides numerous examples (we may come to some of them). MacColla was lucky enough to publish two novels in his lifetime; another two appeared posthumously. Despite this, he was strongly associated with the Scottish Renaissance (a revival of Scottish writing during the first half of the twentieth century most associated with Hugh MacDiarmid, with whom he shared strong nationalist views).

As the title makes obvious, And the Cock Crew is a novel of betrayal. As with Smith, MacColla is most scathing of what he saw as the Highland people’s betrayal at the hands of the church. Religion takes an even more central place as the main character is a minister (it’s not a proper Scottish novel, of course, unless there’s a minister in it somewhere). Maighstair Sachairi first appears heroically at a gathering of the community ordered by the Factor (frequently referred to as the Black Foreigner, a satanic nom-de-plume which also suggests his distance from the Highland people). He is seeking to punish those who he claims chased a “sheep man” away from their land; Sachairi speaks up strongly for them:

“If he was pursued it was by his conscience jabbering at him, and the fear he was in wasna bodily.”

However, in his own conscience, Sachairi is tormented by the problem of whether the Clearances are a punishment from God as the other ministers believe. This doubt leaves him helpless when he discovers the Factor setting fire to the heather, an act he knows will leave no grass for cattle:

“So long as he saw this calamity which threatened his people as no more than a wrong conceived in the proud hearts of wicked men, so long he had been able to act with vigour and decision, for he saw his duty clearly…But meeting the Factor at the very moment when he did not know whether he ought to regard him as the instrument of Divine vengeance, he had found himself deprived of all decision.”

In the meantime, his congregation continue to believe he will protect them.

The centre piece of the novel is a long conversation that Sachairi has with the Poet who led the community before his arrival. The Poet acts rather obviously as a vehicle for MacColla’s own views. He points out to Sachairi that no man can really know God’s intentions through a series of probing questions. He also comments on the relationship between Scotland and England:

“For consider…Conquest is not only a matter of defeats in battle. If a nation gives up its ways and its language and the things that belong to its nationality, and takes the ways and language of another nation, then it can be said to have been conquered by that other nation.”

It comes as little surprise, then, that when Sachairi is injured during the clearing of the glen, he wakes to find himself being cared for by the Poet. Though this might make the novel seem overly didactic, Sachairi is treated sympathetically as a character throughout, though MacColla is less forgiving of those responsible for the Clearances than either Gunn or Smith. It is ironic, however, that in a novel so fierce about the vanishing Highland way of life, it features so little.

2012 Catch-up – Seven Years

February 8, 2013

seven years

No sooner had I tracked down Peter Stamm’s Seven Years in January as one of those books I had meant to read last year but had never got round to, than there was his name (which I had previously been quite unfamiliar with) on the short list for the Man Booker International Prize. Not only do I discover that he has written a number of novels prior to Seven Years but that Michael Hofmann has done an admirable job of making him available in English. Even this novel was originally published in America in 2010.

Seven Years is, I suppose, a novel about love, but one in which its main characters seem unusually unacquainted with the emotion. Its narrator, Alex, spends the novel torn between two women: fellow architect Sonia, whom he marries, and Polish illegal immigrant, Ivona. On the surface there doesn’t seem much of a choice. Ivona is described as follows:

“She was probably our own age, but she was completely unattractive. Her face was puffy and she wore her midlength hair loose…Her clothing looked cheap and worn.”

As Alex points out:

“Sonia was the absolute opposite of Ivona. She was lovely and smart and talkative and charming and sure of herself.”

Yet despite this Alex finds himself attracted to Ivona, a girl he only meets as one of his friends invites her to join them as a cruel joke. He is not won over by her personality, which is difficult to decipher in her long silences, nor her sexuality, as she refuses to sleep with him or even let him undress her initially. For this very reason, however, Alex finds himself desiring her:

“I hadn’t been so excited in ages, maybe because I so completely didn’t care what Ivona thought about me.”

After their first meeting, Alex has no intention of ever seeing her again, yet within a few days he is searching her out. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the novel: more than once Alex decides that it is over, only to be drawn back to her, sometimes years later. It becomes clear that the only character capable of love is Ivona, who loves Alex so unselfishly that she allows him to use her whenever he wants.

Meanwhile Alex creates a separate life where he is married to Sonia and they start up their own firm of architects. Professionally the relationship is based on a compromise: Sonia does not leave to work abroad and Alex puts design to one side to run the company. This compromise infects their whole relationship where their marriage seems more a partnership than a love story. Alex first considers a relationship with Sonia when he photographs her sleeping, suggesting the superficiality of his feelings.

Alex and Sonia’s selfishness can be seen most clearly when Ivona falls pregnant. Sonia has not been able to conceive and so they decide to adopt the baby:

“I felt bad about taking the child from Ivona, but I was firmly convinced it was the best for all concerned.”

It’s difficult to know whether the ‘all’ in this sentence includes Ivona. Their daughter, Sophie, is never told about her mother.

The cleverness of this novel is that Alex and Sonia are clearly ordinary, likeable people, but their treatment of Ivona (in which Sonia is complicit as she knows about the affair when accepting Sophie) is monstrous. Stamm doesn’t labour this point but lets it seep into the novel. By the end, when their marriage finally falls apart, and Alex says, “I wasn’t happy exactly, but for the first time in a long while, I felt very light and alert, as though I’d come round after a long period of unconsciousness,” I saw it not as liberation for him but as a further self-absorbed delusion.

Every Short Story – ‘The Answer’

February 7, 2013

‘The Answer’ is the first Gray story which inhabits an entirely realistic world. It reads a little like an off-cut from the Duncan Thaw section of Lanark as it tells of a young man, Donald, being rejected by a girl. This rejection takes place symbolically when he phones her and, after saying hello, she simply places the phone down and lets him speak. However, as he doesn’t understand this until later, he goes round to her house where she tells him that she has realised they have nothing in common. Her description of his character might remind us of Thaw:

“You like books and jazz and ideas…and clever things like that.”

As might his wonderfully Scottish declaration of love:

“You see I’ve come to feel…rather emotional about you.”

The story’s cleverness centres on its varying interpretations of the title: the answering of the phone which is not really answered; Donald’s demand for an answer as to what is wrong; his realisation that the phone call had already provided him with the answer; and perhaps also the true answer as to why she has rejected him revealed in a discussion with a friend. (Where he reveals that they have slept together, but only literally). It all ends rather poignantly when Donald realises his biggest regret is that he knows he will soon get over her:

“I have this ache in my chest, but talking to you has made it less, and it will disappear altogether when I get to sleep.”