Posts Tagged ‘Naomi Mitchison’

Barbarian Stories

October 28, 2022

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific Scottish author of more than forty novels. Barbarian Stories, published in 1929, was her fourth collection of stories in five years (two novels had also been published) and her writing at that time tended to focus on the historical, though she would later stray happily into any genre, including fantasy and science fiction. Her first novel, The Conquered, was set among the Gauls during the time of Julius Caesar; her second, Cloud Cuckoo Land, focused on the rivalry of Athens and Sparta. Barbarian Stories is a collection of stories which centres on peoples regarded as ‘barbarian’, beginning in the early bronze age and moving through time until 1045 – with one final story set in the volume’s future, 1935.

Mitchison’s key aim is to capture the sense of otherness of those distant times. In the opening story, ‘The Barley Field’ we recognise the central character Three-Red’s jealousy of his neighbour, Ash-in-the-Air’s, crop of barley – “the barley shoots were even and thick and very green” – but Three-Red can only offer supernatural explanations of the crop’s superiority to his own, just as Ash-in-the-Air does:

“…the Gods must be, very properly pleased with him… also perhaps also it had been useful to dig deep… a hand deeper than any of the others.”

Here, Mitchison includes a scientific explanation for the modern reader, but this is not always the case. In ‘Niempsor Kar’ Tibar and Lallek go to a magician’s house in search of their father. Even using their swords to nick the doorways as they go through does not allow them to outwit the magic:

“Another door, and this time Tibar was uneasy. ‘I don’t remember that curtain.’ Another door; they were back in the grey room.”

It is only when Lallek agrees to stay behind that Tibar and his father are allowed to leave. In denying the reader a rational explanation, Mitchison prioritizes the story which reads more like a legend and foretells her later fantasy writing such as Travel Light.

Unsurprisingly, many of the stories centre on the experience of women. In ‘Neimpsor Kar’ Lallek goes with her brother to rescue their father – when her long lost sister sees her, she asks, “Why are you dressed like a boy…when your eyes are so much a girl’s?” It is as a ‘girl’ she persuades the magician to release her father: women have their own kind of power. In ‘Steague Fort’ Blackbird, the woman belonging to the tribe’s leader, Mot, is disliked by the other women, and when Mot is captured, her own existence is in danger. She allows herself to ‘passed around’ one drunken night, all the while collecting gold for his ransom, before escaping from the fort. Once ransomed, Mot is able to return to the fort with men borrowed from his captor and wreak revenge. Mitchison does not disguise that women must, at times, use their sex as power – the stories feature strong female characters but they are not modernised as is often the way today.  

But for most women and girls, life is simply dangerous. In ‘A Little Girl Lost’ a child encounters a group of men preparing to attack her settlement:

“There were men standing together, more of them than the finger of both hands three times over. They had swords and spears and wicker shields, the blue war-stain in their faces, and crows’ feathers in their hair…”

Similarly, in ‘Laeta’:

“One of the neighbours’ wives ran out and caught hold of me; she pulled me in behind their door and whispered that the soldiers had come and taken father and mother….”

Overall the stories create an impression of the world as a violent, threatening place, sometimes seen through the lens of ‘civilisation’, that is the Romans, for example in ‘Mascaret’ where a human sacrifice is prevented:

“He faced the crowd, the hate of the Druids who dared not attack, the savage, insane eyes of the worshippers, whose God had failed them.”

Or ‘Maiden Castle’ where impressive fortifications protect only livestock:

“One expects streets of houses and one finds nothing but sheep.”

But there are noble feelings too, such as when, in ‘A Matter of No Importance’, Marcus Trebius returns to Rome with a British slave. Forced to give him to his future wife, he is furious when she sells him and attempts all in his power to find him again. In ‘I’m a Business Man’, the captured title character offers to pay the ransom of another man who has been taken by the same pirates and also offers him a post in his business. The man, however, declines – perhaps a wise decision as, when released, the businessman immediately captures the pirate leader’s sister in order to ransom her. This story is not alone in containing an element of satire.

Satire comes to the fore in the final story, set in the future (at the time the collection was published) – a reminder that Mitchison would later be famous for Memoirs of a Spacewoman. The story tells of a time when one of the ‘owners’ (i.e. the wealthy) is sacrificed in a barbaric form of social justice:

“It came, I expect, of the growing conviction that the rich had really too good a time of it, too much protection, too slow a death-rate.”

As with the rest of the rest of stories, it demonstrates Mitchison’s restless mind and penetrating imagination. Although this volume is unlikely to be reprinted, Mitchison herself is an author worth exploring.

Six Scottish Novellas

November 12, 2021

The Marionette (1927)

Edwin Muir is best known as a poet, and as the translator (alongside his wife Willa) of Franz Kafka, but his repertoire extended to autobiography, travel (Scottish Journey), literary criticism, and fiction. His first venture into the latter was a novella, The Marionette, inspired by time spent living in Salzburg and published in 1927. It is, it has to be said, a rather strange book. It tells the story of a boy, Hans, whose mother dies giving birth to him, whose father, Martin, largely ignores him, and who is regarded as “feeble-minded”. Only when he turns fourteen does his father show any interest in him, taking him into the city for the first time. (That the journey unsettles him may be related to Muir’s own journey from Orkney to Glasgow as a child). Seeing his son’s love of a doll he possesses, Martin takes him to a puppet theatre, and their visits soon become regular, with Hans transfixed by what he sees on stage until an accident leads to one of the marionettes (Gretchen from Faust) being damaged in front of him. Martin asks for the puppet to be repaired and given to Hans as the theatre closes for the summer. Though symbolism is clearly in use, the novella is not schematic, and both Martin and Hans (and perhaps Muir) seem to feeling their way to some resolution which will allow them to bond, and Hans to live his life more fully. The work itself feels east European rather than Scottish and the border between Hans’ dreams and reality is not always visible.

(The Marionette was last published by Hogarth Press in 1987)

Travel Light (1952)

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific writer who refused to be confined to any genre, writing a series of autobiographies alongside essays, journalism, three biographies, a history of Africa, and numerous novels. Her fiction, too, was restless – her most famous books ranging from historical novels to science fiction. Travel Light is perhaps best described as fantasy (Mitchison was a friend of Tolkien) – the Virago edition from 1985 has a unicorn on the cover and the main character, Halla, is brought up by bears before being adopted by dragons. For Halla, ‘heroes’ are the enemy, and she repeatedly turns down an invitation to join the Valkyries. In the novel’s second part we enter a more recognisable historical setting and a more political plotline as Halla joins a group of men who have travelled from their home to plead with the Emperor to remove the cruel governor of their province. When, in need of money, they take to betting, it helps that Hallla can talk to the horses. As with much of Mitchison’s work, she showcases strong female characters, and Halla is able to ‘travel light’ because she has no need of men: this is not a romance, and better for it. Mitchison is also able to tap into older stories to give her tale a mythic resonance (as she does in much greater depth in what is often regarded as her bets novel, The Corn King and the Spring Queen) creating an entertaining and illuminating fable.

(Travel Light was published in Kennedy & Boyd’s Naomi Mitchison Library in 2009)

The Hermit (1977)

Iain Crichton Smith’s novella The Hermit can be found in his collection The Hermit and Other Stories but was originally published in Gaelic the year before. Written from the point of view of a retired Headteacher (like Smith) on a Scottish island (presumably Lewis where Smith lived much of his life), it tells of the arrival of a hermit who settles in an abandoned RAF hut. The hermit unsettles the villagers, refusing to talk to anyone even when he is buying groceries. The narrator feels a kind of kinship for him, having lived alone since his wife died. (He confesses to having taken up fishing in the past simply as a way to enjoy some isolation). At the same time, he becomes infatuated by an eighteen-year-old girl, Janet, who passes his house every morning and arranges for her to bring fresh milk to him from her family’s farm, forcing him to face the fact he is becoming old. He is not alone in being affected by the hermit’s arrival: an elderly neighbour leaves his wife intending to return to the life at sea he knew as a young man; even the Minister finds himself unable to speak his sermon. What begins as a light-hearted tale of small-minded, suspicious villagers, takes a darker tone, though without ever losing the dry humour typical of Smith’s work. The narrator decides he must “save the village” by making the hermit leave. Beyond the story of the hermit, however, Smith populates the village with a rich cast of characters and brings depth to the narrator through his relationships (with his wife and his parents) and regrets, his dreams and desires. A master of the short story and author of classic novel Consider the Lilies, The Hermit demonstrates Smith’s skills in both genres combined.

(The Hermit can be found in The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 published by Birlinn in 2001)

Gentlemen of the West (1984)

As well as numerous short stories, Agnes Owens wrote six novellas (they are definitely novellas as they can all be found in her Collected Novellas) beginning with Gentlemen of the West in1984. Originally written as a series of short stories it is rather episodic for a novella, but is united by its narrator, a young bricklayer called Mac who lives with his mother (the “auld wife”) and a recurring cast of drunken ne-er-do-wells who gather in the local pub. Paddy MacDonald, who lives in a rundown bothy with rabbits in the oven and pigeons in a cage in the bedroom, makes frequent appearances. A typical story involves Paddy being found stone cold on the ground and presumed dead and Mac attempting to pay his respects at the local Catholic church (“For the next half hour we were up and down like yo-yos”) only to bump into Paddy immediately afterwards (annoyed at being “carted off tae hospital.”). For all the humour, Owens gives us an unapologetic insight into the lives of the ‘gentlemen of the west’, not only the drunkenness and violence but life on the building site, a chapter where we return to Mac’s childhood, and another where he escapes to the countryside and (grudgingly) befriends a German tourist. And in the final story Owens provides the progression we might expected from the longer form in a genuinely moving manner. Rightly described by Alasdair Gray as “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”.

(Gentlemen of the West can be found in The Complete Novellas reissued by Birlinn in 2020)

The Golden Bird (1987)

George Mackay Brown famously lived in Stromness on Orkney for most of his life – only leaving for a ten-year spell in the 1950s and early 60s – and from there he wrote his poetry, novels, short stories and, of course, novellas. The Golden Bird is one of two novellas in the book of the same name (the other is The Life and Death of John Voe), a book which won the James Tait Memorial Prize for fiction. The Golden Bird begins with a quarrel between two women whose husbands fish together. The quarrel is about very little but escalates quickly and irreparably, creating a rift between the families which will last many years. It is those years which are Mackay Brown’s real subject – time itself: “The years gathered and fell, like waves, like cut corn.” The story carries us through three generations, as three schoolteachers, the third being a contemporary of the feuding families’ sons rumoured to have been carried off by an eagle as a baby, and, just as surprisingly, having left the island to go to Aberdeen University. Despite its relative brevity, we meet numerous characters among the inhabitants of the valley, but Mackay Brown needs only a few words to sketch their personalities and relationships. His wide lens has the contradictory effect of making humanity’s concerns (such as the quarrel) seem trivial but humanity itself feel important and profound.

(The Golden Bird was reissued by Polygon in 2019)

Mavis Belfrage (1996)

Alasdair Gray’s most famous novel may be almost six hundred pages long, but the novella has been a form he has returned to again and again (though largely as a result of adapting his radio plays into prose) with The Fall of Kelvin Walker in 1985 and McGrotty and Ludmilla in 1990. The book jacket of Mavis Belfrage (likely written by the author) describes the titular novella as Gray’s “only straight novel about love” (it is accompanied by five other stories, each shorter than the one before, until we reach the accurately named ‘The Shortest Tale’). Like Gray’s preceding novellas, Mavis Belfrage might be described as a comedy of manners. Colin Kerr, like Kelvin Walker the son of a shopkeeper, returns to Glasgow with a degree from Cambridge to train teachers; he is, as his student Mavis tells him, an “uninspiring individ- … -lecturer” as he has neither an opinion nor an original idea, which is why he fails Mavis for not memorising the chapters he has assigned but rather thinking about her answers. A dinner date, however, soon leads to her (and her eight-year-old son, Bill) moving in with Colin and his father despite the fact she warns Colin she is “a bad bitch”. What follows is a love story between a weak man and strong woman, told with Gray’s usual wit and pinpoint phrasing, culminating in a disastrous dinner party. An enormous fortress Colin has been building out of Lego is also put to symbolic use. Like all his novellas, Mavis Belfrage is minor Gray, but minor Gray can be the most fun.

(Mavis Belfrage can be found in Every Short Story published by Canongate in paperback in 2014)