Climbers on a Stair

Though the most famous example of a novel centred on characters living in the same block is undoubtedly French (Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual), a tradition of ‘tenement’ novels also exists in Scotland, from Iain Crichton Smith’s The Tenement (1985) to Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth (2021). Another example is Elspeth Davie’s Climbers on a Stair from 1978. Although Davie is best known, if known at all, for her short stories, this was her third novel. As with most tenement novels, it deliberately avoids a central character, and, in fact, goes out of its way to characterise the building itself as the focal point in a Prelude:

“It is a tenement stair with eight houses on it – a building which probably in the 120 years of its life have never been cut off from the outside world for more than an hour or two.”

It is the stair that connects the building’s homes and, potentially, those who live in them. As the opening sentence suggests it is also connected to history, but equally to the contemporary world outside the front door. It has a permanence (“a single, sculptured spiral of solid stone worn into deep, smooth moon-curves at its foot”) but is also mutable (“there is a cycle of change on the stair like the organic cycle in an organism”).

The inhabitants of Davie’s tenement are a similar mixture of characters – those in the process of change and those who fiercely remain the same. Davie cleverly makes one of her characters, Neilson, a town planner, thus introducing the topic of buildings into the narrative. He feels himself blamed for every disliked concrete construction, of which, in the seventies, there were a few, and yet he is also aware that planners like himself have produced imperfect results:

“It was Neilson’s luck to have found a flat which… had a magnificent view of the city for miles around. He had also the ill luck to see for the first time what he and his kind had done to the horizon over the years.”

Other inhabitants of the tenement include Thomas Baird who, since heart problems caused him to give up his job, now spends his time weaving, a passion he discovered by chance when recuperating. Art is also represented by the aptly named Miss Winterfield, a retired music teacher, who can, indeed appear frosty in conversation. Both represent the possibilities of new beginnings: Baird because he has found the craft which he loves late in life; Miss Winterfield because she sees age as no barrier to learning:

“I think I can say that some of my greatest achievements have been with my older pupils.”

Yet they are two characters who have no intention of leaving the tenement. In contrast, Neilson is planning to go down south, and Steven Singer, a student of orthoptics, similarly does not intend to be a permanent resident. Miss Winterfield is perhaps the most developed character, never short of an opinion, and verging on a Muriel Spark creation, as, for example, when we are told that once she would have hidden her bottle of wine from prying eyes but now:

“She took a certain pride in leaving the bottle standing on the hearthrug like an unruly friend who was not to be dismissed simply because other visitors had arrived.”

Singer’s back story is revealed thanks to a remark of Miss Winterfield’s when she comments he is too young to think about death. He makes a point of visiting her later to tell her:

“I knew this boy… He was nineteen. He was killed. Hit by a lorry. Knew him well. We’d done endless walks together. And we had talked. We had talked a great deal.”

These few short sentences suggest the depth of the relationship, perhaps even something more than friendship, and it will be returned to throughout the novel though without adding much in the way of detail. Miss Winterfield is also influential when it comes to Clara Kirk, who is introduced as follows:

“Though Clara Kirk had never crossed a border there was a great deal of luggage in the cupboards and wardrobes of her first floor flat.”

Clara seems to belong to those who are in permanent residence. Though she talks knowledgeably about “a remote mountain village in Bavaria” or St Peter’s gallery in Rome, that knowledge comes for guidebooks and travel brochures. Her desire to travel is one of the small dreams that inhabit the tenement alongside its residents.

Climbers on a Stair is an unassuming novel much like the tenement itself, but Davie not only brings its characters to life, revealing dreams and passions, hopes and regrets, as powerful as any protagonist, but also illuminates their lives with small moments – for example when they observe a man struggling to raise a kite on a windless day. Its stories (and its storeys) are to be cherished.


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6 Responses to “Climbers on a Stair”

  1. buchpost Says:

    It sounds right up my alley. Thanks for this review about an author I‘ve never heard about. Unfortunately, it doesn‘t seem easy to get hold of a copy.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m glad you like the sound of it but, yes, apart from a selected stories published more recently all her work is out of print, although the novels are often cheaper than the short story collections.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I like the sound of this a lot, Grant, and I’d not heard of it before. Thanks!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Love the sound of this one, Grant. There’s something very appealing about tis type of fiction, lots of different characters living in close proximity to one another, crossing paths every now and again as their lives intersect. I’m going to keep an eye out for this on my rounds of the charity shops. Many thanks!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it’s not dissimilar to boarding house novels, although there everyone is traveling through. It’s refreshing to read a novel without a single main character.

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