Peter Davidson is a colleague at Aberdeen University. But I have had sufficient practice in being critical of colleagues and their works over the years to have no difficulty in trashing this book if I didn’t think it was a masterpiece.
It is. It’s the kind of book which provokes the gasp of recognition at concepts one has often groped for but never managed to articulate. The Idea of North reminded me of Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory in taking a vast and shifting subject and reducing it to clarity, in radically changing the way we look at a history.
Davidson’s work centres precisely on the imprecision of the concept he writes about. Short of the Pole, every point in the hemisphere leaves something more northerly to be imagined. That imagining produces a kaleidoscopic variety of norths, ideas of place that are “shifting and recessive”, with room for “each person’s own private Zembla” – by which he means Nabokov’s northern land in Pale Fire. These imaginings leave plenty room for anomaly. Evil comes from the north, but it is also the golden land of the Hyperbore-ans. The north is harsh and a killer, but it is also the land of wonders, marvels, and wealth – and for some the road to purity and health.
It isn’t a comprehensive or systematic book, and doesn’t set out to be. Davidson divides it loosely into “histories”, “imaginations”, and “topographies”. The first deals with comment on the north from a variety of points in geography, history, and culture. He uses material from classical antiquity, from the sagas, and from renaissance Dutch painting, through to the Yiddish music halls of New York – and switches from disquisitions on amber, ivory, fur, volcanoes, and the aurora, mirage, to notes on sorcery and shamanism among the Lapps and the Inuit.
The ‘Imaginations’ section explores various speculations on north – those of Nabokov in the aforementioned Pale Fire, of Auden, of the marine painter Eric Ravilious. There is an extraordinary analysis on the symbolic content and aesthetics of ice and glass, an essay on the northern summer, and a categorisation of northern ghosts from Grettir’s Saga to the Victori-ans. The last or ‘Topographies’ section touches on ideas of north in Scandinavia, in Japan and China, in Canada, and in northern England and Scotland. These give all sorts of opportunities for comment on twentieth century painting, film and poetry – interpolated in the British section with exquisitely resonant accounts of Davidson’s own travels in northern English cities, in the Dales, and in the central and eastern lowlands of Scotland.
None of this summary does justice to The Idea of North. Its range is not just that of content but also of characters. Pages brim with artists, travel writers, poets and craftsmen who are real historical figures – and they are joined by the legions of aptgangas, ghost lovers, trolls, shape changers, and sorcerers who straddle the vague frontier between the living and the dead. The media Davidson marshals range from contemporary Scottish sculpture and painting, to modern Icelandic and Norwegian film, to old English riddles, to Gaelic ballads. Talking of shape shifters, Davidson can glide from accounts of the dreams of his companion to a vignette on craftsmanship in glass and the aesthetic content of chandeliers.
The scholarly versatility needed for all this is formidable. Not all the texts Davidson uses are read in the original, but he works reliably in Italian, French, Dutch, German, Gaelic and Old English. He is a historian of architecture, an art critic and a scholar of the renaissance, but he is also a travel writer who weaves his experience of a place together with cultural artefacts that respond to it. He understands the flat light of the north, the shadows of interiors, the colours of the sea and sky and ice. He offers a spectrum of resonances against which all of us can project our own remembered and imagined norths.
So what is there to object to? It’s hard to imagine writing a better book within the terms Davidson has chosen for himself. But doubtless he will be heavily criticised. His sheer range means he has ventured into many fields whose specialist proprietors will feel he has inadequate equipment to be on their turf. Inevitably, also, though there is no other way to do a synthesis of a huge subject, he has had to rely frequently on secondary sources and work in translation.
It is easy, of course, to cavil about what he hasn’t included. I couldn’t help noticing omissions, though I mention them here as work on which I would very much like to have Davidson’s view. Given his essay on the long northern summer, it’s surprising that he doesn’t use Knut Hamsun, the first line of whose novel Pan is, “These last few days I have thought and thought of the Nordlands summers of endless days.” The Icelandic novelist Hall-dor Laxness is oddly missing, as is Walter Scott’s The Pirate. Davidson would also have found it fruitful to look at the work of Andrew Wyeth’s Scottish collaborator, John Gar-diner Crawford, with his reductions of thin northern light – or the abstract impressionist, John Scheuler, who painted out of Mallaig. The sub-titles of Richard Ingleby’s book on Scheuler is “To the North”. There could have been something on Montesquieu, and perhaps more on Eric Linklater, particularly White Maa’s Saga. Some day I will introduce Davidson to the sculpture of Steve Dilworth, who paints out of Ardslave in South Harris. He is nothing if not animistic, northern, and humanistic. Perhaps, too, he could have looked at some of the bleak cartoons of Edward Gorey – or at secondary works with northern content which go beyond the themes of Arctic expeditions, such as Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams or Robert McFar-lane’s recent Mountains of the Mind. But any fool can demolish a book by pointing out what‘s not in it, and Davidson would have been equally at risk whether he had written fifty pages fewer or two hundred pages more.
I leave for last the variable that takes The Idea of North beyond being merely clever or wise to being a beautiful book. It is that David-son is a figure in the canvas he paints. The materials he presents to scholars are interspersed with vivid anecdotes about his own and his partner’s experience, and their life at Dalgety Bay. A holiday in the northern Netherlands slides easily into a comment on Caspar David Friedrich’s Moon Watchers. A comment on a 1936 James Mackintosh Patrick’s landscape slips into a reflection on a photograph of Davidson’s father, in an evocation of the lost rural Scotland of the inter-war years.
Davidson will be criticised for this interpolation of the personal into the scholarly – but for me this is his greatest competitive advantage. He ends with a magnificent couple of pages he entitles ‘Keeping the Twilight’ – a description, from his study, of the fading hours of a northern winter day. His last two sentences are perfect abstract expressionist description of north or at least my north, deeply real but abstract and deeply metaphorical. “A block of dusk above a block of moor. A smear of dark above a line of snow.”
THE IDEA OF NORTH by Peter Davidson, Reaktion Books; £16.95 ISBN: 1861 892306