Archive for the ‘Iain Crichton Smith’ Category

Lost Books – My Last Duchess

July 2, 2021

Iain Crichton Smith is not unusual among writers in being defined by his first novel, Consider the Lilies, set in the time of the Highland Clearances, which made its way, perhaps fittingly given the years Smith spent as a teacher of English, into the Scottish curriculum (though less frequently taught now, his short stories remain among the Scottish Text choices). The contrast between that regularly reissued debut and his later novels, most of which have never been reprinted, is, however, stark. Of course, Smith did not primarily see himself as a novelist – according to Angus Calder, he spoke of writing novels “to fill the gap between poems.” Despite this he wrote ten (and two in Gaelic), of which My Last Duchess, published in 1971, is the third.

My Last Duchess is the first, but not the last, of Smith’s novels to deal with a man in crisis. Mark Simmons finds himself, at 42, a failure: his job as a teacher at a college is not the university post he longed for, the book he has been writing for many years is still unfinished, and his wife, Lorna, has left him:

“There had been Lorna and before that there had been his parents and now there was nothing but the statement, ‘I have nowhere to go.’”

The novel opens with what we might take as a last desperate gesture, a visit to an author he has long admired (ironically, or perceptively, one whose name was made with their first novel which they have never equalled) in the “expectation of a monologue dense with wisdom and knowledge of life.” He is, of course, disappointed, sitting in silence as he listens to the writer and his son:

“Who are these guiltless people, he wondered, what sinless world, cold as stainless steel, have they emerged from, fully formed? They speak with conviction of the profoundest matters and what they do not speak of they consider unimportant.”

Mark spends the night in a hotel room and, as he thinks back, we begin to see the tensions in his marriage. At the centre of his relationship with his wife, which we later learn began when she was a student of his, is his need for superiority (“She never read much and nothing very deep”), but with this comes a pressure to succeed, as well as a worry that, with her insight into other people, “in her own wandering disorganised way she might not be brighter than himself.” A meeting with an uncle of hers early in the marriage demonstrates the difference between them: Lorna sees the man as an individual who was once kind to her; Mark sees only his politics. At this point in the marriage she can tell him:

“Anyway your book will be good and they’ll make you a lecturer or something fabulous like that.”

As the years pass, this looks less and less likely. The next morning, in the present, he retreats further into his past, taking a train to the city and the university he once attended:

“What could he find in this place? Himself? Penetrated through and through by self-disgust he waited as for some saviour, as if out of the library directly ahead of him there should emerge a figure who might tell him that his life had not been wasted, that art and poetry were in fact still present even in the middle of this desperate winter, and that the lighted windows were sending out meaningful signals into the darkening evening.”

He visits the family where he once lodged, and the home of a woman he meets on the train, searching for comfort and understanding. “You’re very unhappy,” she tells him at the end of the first part.

In the second part we learn of Mark’s early life, and of his marriage to Lorna. We see Mark develop a contempt for those around him – Wilkinson, his superior at the college (“incomprehensible”), Lorna’s friend Mrs Carmichael (“to him she represented the bourgeois”), and her attempt (with Lorna) to help a hermit in the village:

“If he’s a real hermit he shouldn’t want you and in any case how do you know you’re making him any happier?”

A change occurs when Mark meets a young writer, Hunter, who has worked in city slums – in Mark’s eyes he has “gone into the inferno with no weapons but his concern and courage.” But as Lorna tells him: “You don’t want to help anyone. You just want a thrill.” Not only does Lorna’s belief in Mark dissipate, so does his belief in himself.

My Last Duchess can seem dated at times – particularly with references to contemporary culture such as Dixon of Dock Green and Monty Python, as well as an advert spotted at a book stall for John Updike’s Couples – but the issue it faces – how the dreams of our youth interact with the reality of our middle-age – is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Smith manages to simultaneously sympathise with Mark and shine an unforgiving light on his flaws. Unlikely now to be reprinted but available as an e-book, the novel remains worth reading for Smith’s ability to see Mark’s journey through to the end without ever entirely losing hope.

Lost Books – Goodbye, Mr Dixon

September 27, 2014

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There has been some discussion recently about the dangers of book blogging, and, in particular, how it can confine you to reading only what is new and neglecting older, less fashionable, novels you may want to read or reread (for example from Simon Savidge and Marina Sofia).  A good time, then, to revive my Lost Books section, though I have used it in the past to consider those unexpectedly reprinted as well as those which seem destined never to be seen again. Iain Crichton Smith has featured already as an author of Lost Books (with A Field Full of Folk) but as all but one of his novels are out of print (the classic Consider the Lilies), he has plenty of Lost Books to choose from. Goodbye, Mr Dixon, like its predecessor, has not only been unavailable since its publication in 1974, but never made it out of hardback. It also shares the distinction of being a perfectly good novel, with the added interest that it is largely about writing.

The titular Mr Dixon is not the novel’s main character but the creation of the novel’s main character, Tom Spence. Spence describes himself as “an embryo novelist”:

“He was one of those people who live hand-to-mouth on practically nothing at all, but with the determination to have book, especially a novel, published.”

Spence has had the odd job – for example, delivering mail – but is largely without skills and has bet all on his career as a writer. Unfortunately he has “never brought a novel to a successful conclusion” never mind had one published, and, unable to live the dream, has instead dreamed it through his protagonist, Drew Dixon. This, however, creates its own problems:

“He didn’t even know very much about the world of Dixon who, unlike himself, had been writing novels for a considerable period and living from their sale.”

His novel has ground to a halt because he has decided Dixon will “meet a girl of twenty-five or thereabouts whose entry into his world was to change his life” but has no idea how to write it. Believing that all experience should be placed in the purpose of art, when he meets a young woman at an art gallery he immediately thinks of his novel:

“Dixon needed her: why couldn’t he think of something to say?”

And when she leaves he is angry because “now he wouldn’t be able to proceed with his book.” Fortuitously he meets the young woman, Ann, again and, as their relationship develops we begin to sense that it will be Spence’s life that is changed rather than Dixon’s. As Spence’s isolation ends he revisits his past, attempting to contact the mother he hasn’t seen in years and returning to his old school to see the English teacher who he believes encouraged him to write. Increasingly his admiration for Dixon turns to hatred:

“He hated him really because he was inhuman and brittle. He realised that there was nothing Dixon had veer really loved, not with any depth, not for itself alone.”

The novel also contains extracts from Spence’s novel where we see this change taking place: initially Dixon replays scenes from Spence’s life with greater success, but slowly his inadequacies become evident.

If at first the novel may seem satirical, Spence’s loneliness is too palpable to make him entirely ridiculous. Smith seeks not to ridicule Spence, who is ultimately a sympathetic characters, but his idea of the artist looking at the world “coldly and inhumanly.” Spence is forced to choose between life and art. Interestingly, the final chapter is told not from Spence’s point of view, or Dixon’s, but Ann’s, as if Spence’s perspective looking out at the world has been replace with the world looking in on him.

It’s possible to question whether a writer writing about a writer who rejects his character (a writer) and writing would regard this as a happy ending. At both the beginning and end of the novel Spence talks about writing as a bottle of Parazone (a brand of bleach):

“The yellow was bright and almost sunny but the liquid inside was acid and harsh.”

This seems very in tune with Smith’s own craft and for this reason we should perhaps be careful not to take the conclusion entirely at face value.

It seems unlikely that Smith’s novels are suddenly going to be reprinted, but an enterprising publisher could surely make them available electronically.

Consider the Lilies

January 30, 2013

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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.”

Lost Books – A Field Full of Folk

September 15, 2012

It would be unfair to describe Iain Crichton Smith as a neglected Scottish writer as his poetry and short stories are still widely anthologised and taught, but almost all his novels (of which he wrote eleven) remain out of print. Only his first, Consider the Lilies (about the Highland Clearances) has established itself as the kind of classic that remains always available. A Field Full of Folk was published in 1982 in the middle of his novel writing career (Consider the Lilies appeared in 1968, and his final novel, An Honourable Death in 1992). It might be described as more accomplished than spectacular, creating a picture of vanishing rural life with a mixture of cynicism and sentimentality.

As the title indicates, this is a novel with a large cast and no central character. The villagers do assemble in a field at one point for a church picnic, but the field full of folk also represents a wider vision of the world where disparate individuals manage to coexist. It wouldn’t be a Scottish novel without a minister, and the first character we are introduced to is Peter Murchison who feels his faith fading, though he does not connect this to the news he has incurable cancer:

“It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, it’s rather that I’ve lost my faith. Not only that. But I feel that I’ve not lived. I do not understand the world.”

In many ways, the novel attempts to provide an answer to Murchison’s questions. Its short chapters introduce us to a variety of characters, most of them elderly. There is Mrs Berry, a widow who had “not allowed herself to become sad and mournful:”

“She would meet Angus, her policeman husband, when the time came for her to do so.”

In contrast, David Collins has never married and regrets his lost youth (“In those days it seemed he was a giant who would never be slowed by old age or anything else”); he lives alone with his memories of the war and his prejudices against Catholics and the Germans. Annie, although eighty, still searches for spiritual truth: having given up on Christianity she is now looking to the East. Murdo is an ex-postman who tends his garden and notes standards dropping. All give the impression of a dying way of life, something that is highlighted by the novel’s only real action:

“That girl Chrissie had run away from her husband and had only taken her radio with her…It was said she had gone to Glasgow with that fellow who had sometimes visited her husband during the tourist season.”

Chrissie is fleeing from the boredom of village life. The fact she takes only a radio with her suggests both her loneliness and her attachment to modernity. The novel then follows two journeys, both of self-discovery: Chrissie’s discovery of what kind of life she wants to live; and Murchison’s rediscovery of his faith.

Not unsurprisingly, Chrissie decides to return home:

“After a while the train moved again, and in a strange way she knew she was going home. It wasn’t anything she could put into words. The feeling must have emanated from the familiarity of the landscape but she knew that it was deeper than that. In spite of her fear she felt a rightness in the place that she was.”

On returning to the village she goes to Mrs Berry rather than her husband. Her earlier condemnation (“Why, she wouldn’t have left Angus for a million pounds”) disappears as she immediately reassures Chrissie that “everything will be alright.” Smith’s central theme of compassion is also highlighted towards the novel’s conclusion when the village picnic, symbolic of the village’s unity despite their differences, is ended by one of the villagers receiving news that her son has been killed in Northern Ireland. For once Murchison feels no doubt:

“And then he himself was there, he was in the sacred ring of pity and help, he was holding out his hands for the telegram, he was reading it, he was putting his hands on hers, he was saying, ‘We must take you home.’”

A Field Full of Folk now seems a curiously old-fashioned novel – its rural setting, elderly characters and omniscient narrator – but its final words offer a riposte to those early Thatcher years:

“…we are each in the care of the other.”