by SRB

Volume 2 – Issue 2 – Reviews

October 28, 2009 | by SRB

The Burning
Thomas Legendre
pp416, ISBN 0316731919


THOMAS LEGENDRE’S DEBUT novel The Burning got me thinking along unlikely paths, which has to be a plus, particularly when the subject is as alien to me as economic theory. Numbers make me numb, mathematical models muddle. But hold on. The author seems to be saying that in certain configurations, they offer salvation, revelation, even mystical meltdown. So maybe I need to move into the pain?

We first encounter Logan Smith on a boys behaving badly weekend in Las Vegas. His nice large hands and incongruously delicate wrists contain most of his charisma, as far as I can see. He gets the passionate attention of two women but what really sets him on fire is cerebral engagement. In the course of 400 pages, risking career suicide and gaining a kabbalistic epiphany, he departs the mainstream to become a proselytiser of ecological economics. Along the way, he falls in and out of love. Then in again, deep.

At the Vegas gaming tables he meets Dallas, a green-eyed blackjack dealer whose body he appraises like a structural engineer testing a bridge for weight-bearing efficiency. Her proportions and angles of connection having been deemed exemplary, and it’s a fully mutual decision to quit the labyrinth of dreams and slot machines and return to her apartment at the end of her shift. Logan’s later self would have commended the interdisciplinary aspect of the chemistry between them that works exceptionally well, and in multiples.

Fast-forward eighteen months to marriage and Arkansas. He has a university job which already bores him and she is working in a seedy casino, which she hates. Dallas has learned from her mother the ways of despair and deception and is well equipped to hide her chronic insecurity. Although she knows she is attractive to men – numbers don’t lie – she regards her body with distrust, dreading the inevitable treacheries of crow’s feet and cellulite. Working from the baseline that rejection is a certainty sooner or later, she staves off the evil day by culling magazine tips on how to keep her man interested in bed, against the fridge, whatever. She makes sure he thinks her inventiveness is spontaneous. Secrets spawn more of the same. Her husband doesn’t have a clue.

Up to this point, their relationship interested me. Legendre shows he can express Dallas’s perspective with empathy and insight. But as complications emerge on cue, she becomes less defined as a character. Perhaps this is because the focus moves away from her to Logan’s newly forged relationship with Keris, an astrophysicist and work colleague. Dallas’s depression, her private submission to the gambling bug and her isolation in the face of her husband’s disconnectedness are henceforth presented somewhat mechanistically, with the disappointing result that the emotional charge of her situation is not potentiated, until towards the end of the novel she seeks escape from her financial quandary through self-abasement and takes flesh once more.

In contrast to his absence of receptivity towards Dallas, whom he comes to think of as a “bad habit”, Logan is acutely attuned to Keris, his significant other in waiting. In their very first conversation she drops a favourable mention of ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu and Logan is off like a greyhound from a trap. Bioeconomics bursts onto his consciousness and a new galaxy of thought is born. He unleashes these theories in lectures of unprecedented animation, denouncing classical and Marxist economics alike on the grounds that both cleave to the belief that the powers of technological innovation are limitless. His critique centres on the folly of denying the entropy of terrestrial resources. Another plank of his approach involves breaking down traditional academic boundaries in order to pioneer the economic responses that current circumstances actually demand.

Such outspoken dissent sets him at odds with his colleagues but there are hints that they may be at the point of becoming more receptive to his point of view. Logan’s born-again zeal does not outlaw his continued veneration of the Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith who proposed that the “invisible hand” of the “Director of Nature” ensures that individual self-improvement results in enhanced outcomes for the community as a whole: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their own interest.”

Perhaps the personal is the professional, as Logan puts it. When he hears the university’s new Economics Institute is to be a “marriage” of public and private, he wants to “stand up like the person at the back of the church to say why the wedding should not take place”. Legendre’s prose has an easy confidence and he handles his material deftly. Even so, romantic narrative and economic polemic make an odd couple that will delight some and have others deploring the union.

The Observations
Jane Harris
FABER, £12.99
pp415 ISBN 0571223354


A YOUNG WOMAN goes to work in a dark, decrepit house. The servants are unfriendly, the baleful master is concealing a secret. And through the shadow-choked corridors, something moves. Something…dead? Even before the Victorian period in which Jane Harris settles her first novel, The Observations, ‘the old dark house’ trope creaked like one of its sinister-sounding doors. Another debut novelist, Jane Austen, built her initial fictional foray, Northanger Abbey, around snickering at this gothic subgenre’s pasteboard sets and chain-clanking terrors. Despite Austen’s satirical exorcism, the subgenre just won’t die. Like the revenants it depicts, it returns from the dead one more time in The Observations.

It’s 1863 and Bessy, our beset heroine, is heading for Edinburgh and away from her prostitute past. Back in Glasgow she and her pimp mother, the magnificently awful Bridget, provided a “special service” the likes of which you’d have to trawl the unpoliced fringes of the Internet to find today. “Only 15 with a head full of sugar”, Bessy has “a notion to work in a grand establishment”. Where she ends up however is Castle Haivers, a rundown country house in phlegmy-sounding Snatter, a rural patch on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Her impromptu job interview for a housemaid position consists of helping her mistress, or “marm”, chase a pig, setting the scene for what’s to come.

Arabella Reid, Bessy’s employer, behaves oddly at first towards her new servant. She’s wont to furiously wake Bessy at two in the morning only to mildly request a cup of cocoa. She measures the distance between her maid’s eyes, nose, ears. She tells the young girl to stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down – until Bessy can’t stand it anymore. And she insists Bessy keep a journal in which she records not merely her daily doings but her feelings. Luckily she can read and write, having been taught by the kindly paedophile who rented Bessy exclusively from Bridget in the year or so before he died. As a memento, she keeps his last, feeble bowel movement in a pouch which if nothing else is at least more original than a lock of hair.

Unusually for the day, Bessy is the only servant in the house, a cost-effective decision by Arabella’s miserly and frequently absent husband, James. Nor can Castle Haivers hold onto its staff. Maids are forever appearing and disappearing, a trend that reached its nadir when a past employee, Nora, was found neatly bisected on the local railway track, after supposedly drunkenly losing her way home. Bessy reminds Arabella of Nora; they look alike and both came from Ireland although Bessy says “I’m more of the Scottish persuasion now.” But where Nora was “the ideal servant”, Bessy is soon listening at keyholes and raking through her employer’s belongings.

Despite themselves, a frisson develops between the two. Arabella’s dimples, Bessy thinks, “made you long to bite her cheeks”, and she later says, “I would have walked a hundred miles on hot coals just to be able to watch over her.” A shadow lies between them though in the form of Nora and what really happened to her on the railway track. Arabella certainly appears guilty, and spectral shufflings in the night suggest a spook with unfinished business.

One hardly need point out at this point the areas where The Observations overlaps with Sarah Waters (particularly Affliction and Finger-smith) and Michel Faber. Indeed, that “head full of sugar” line appears almost a reference to Faber’s The Crimson Petal And The White and its heroine, the Victorian courtesan who infiltrates her lover’s home, Sugar. Then there’s the store of period literature Harris, Waters, and Faber all draw on, the Victorian strain of the gothic, which draws its power from staging its ambivalent hauntings in a psychological inter-zone – Jane Eyre, or Villette, obviously, or its most self-conscious rendering, The Turn Of The Screw. The Observations shuffles the expected cast – the gauche young woman, the distant master, the pompous vicar, the madwoman no attic is complete without – to a satisfactory if not wholly original end. You don’t put down the book with a new eye to the past nor does it realign the present by cunning parallel, but Harris demonstrates a sure way with plot. Book groups will love it, undoubtedly.

Where Harris scores is her mastery of Bessy’s idiolect. A bawdy, occasionally poetic punctuation-light mash of Irish and Scottish slang, Bessy’s speech provides the grit that holds potential melodramatic excesses in balance. Words like ‘skelly’, ‘gobaloon’, ‘scut’ and ‘louping’ stud the text, not so much as to put a browsing Sassenach off but enough to provide a regional tang. When Bessy thinks, “You should have seen the face on her, it was as long as a big hares back leg,” or describes someone as “silent as an eel in a barrel of tripe,” she demonstrates the earthy, ready wit with which she spices her own observations.

Am Miseanaraidh
Iain Crichton Smith
CLAR, £6.00
PP68, ISBN 190090120X


IT’S TEMPTING to wonder what Nor-man MacCaig might be saying to his fellow bards in the Parnassian Scots’ Corner. He used to joke that “There must be something wrong with Iain Crichton Smith – he hasn’t published anything for a fortnight.” So what might he make of the Lewisman publishing new material eight years after his death?

Am Miseanaraidh (‘The Missionary’), the novella published under the Ur-Sgeul imprint, isn’t ‘new’ in the literal sense, but appears for the first time in its Gaelic form, an English version having appeared in Murdo and other Stories, published in 1981. This parallel activity was characteristic of the author’s modus operandi in poetry and prose. But despite the late appearance of this Gaelic telling, neither the poet Don-ald MacAulay, who contributes an introduction, nor Kevin MacNeil, who edited Iain Crichton Smith’s Complete English Stories, can answer the chicken and egg question confidently, though MacNeil speculates that the Gaelic came first.

For those who are bilingual, it’s interesting to compare both renditions. They are, essentially, the same story, in terms of plot, character and incident, yet there are some fascinating differences. Not least of these is the protagonist’s name. Domhnall Dubh, in the Gaelic version translates as Black Donald, a kenning for Satan. The name given in English, Donald Black, would formally become Domhnall Mac ‘Ille Dhuibh, which lacks the ironic resonance implicit in the former manifestation, although each version draws irony from his entering a ‘black’ culture. In English, the story appears as one continuous text, with line-breaks, which are made more specific in Gaelic by being numbered as chapters, twelve in all, though the splits don’t always match exactly.

Anyone who recalls the game of football in Consider The Lilies will be aware that Smith the storyteller wasn’t always bound by historical fact, as long as the given details slotted into the narrative flow. The world into which Am Miseanaraidh enters, a village somewhere in Africa, reads like something from Livingstone’s era, the Reverend Donald himself having left a world of Sunday Ferries (which the author’s kinsman, the Rev Angus, had done so much to oppose in Skye).

The story is anchored in its protagonist’s experiences. Everything is seen through his eyes which are, despite his profession, surprisingly unjudgmental. The chief and witch-doctor may seem a bit intimidating, but they are, after all, figures of authority in their own environment, for example. Nominally Christian, converted by his predecessor, they soon draw Black into a more fundamental world where an estranged couple can be re-united – fatefully – by summary decree: the husband’s domestic violence had been precipitated by the failure of Christianity to provide for his worldly needs.

Other strands in the narrative include the question of his predecessor’s fate, Black’s own relationship with the woman Miraga and his role in the hunt for food. The chief presents him with a gun no-one else, in their spear-carrying culture, can use. His precipitate use of the weapon, scattering their prey, necessitates war with a neighbouring tribe. Having left behind the corruption of his homeland, the missionary is drawn into another kind of darkness, where, through failure, he will achieve redemption.

Smith’s style is, as always, deceptively simple. He doesn’t flesh out character, letting it instead be glimpsed in the responses of the individuals concerned so that, however briefly sketched, they are taken beyond stereotype. And what he packs into a mere sixty pages is nothing short of astonishing. Fear, anger, grief and guilt are all evoked in the reactions of the dramatis personae. Manga, having killed the wife and child Black had been instructed to return to him, is driven by guilt to suicide. The wife’s lover Tobbuta, from whom she was taken, is crippled by grief, until a final encounter with Black, in which both attain a kind of reconciliation with their circumstances: in the missionary’s final words, “Everything is natural. Everything is forgiven.”

As frequently happens in Smith’s prose, shafts of poetry burst through. Sex with Miraga manages to be both explicit and implicit. The image of a river into which Domhnall Dubh plunges could in other hands be crude, but Smith finesses it, partly because the same motif surfaces in other contexts; on the way to the hunting expedition, they seem to be swimming through the long grass. His allusions to colour are also significant, various dark-nesses, but also the white of his collar like bleached bone, a waterfall like a white snake, while green becomes the essence of nature. While Joseph Conrad’s shade may be present in this book, the voice is unmistakably Iain Crichton Smith’s, exploring his themes with typically open curiosity and the impressionistic lightness of touch of a Japanese calligrapher.

The Quest for the Wicker Man
Edited by Benjamin Franks, Stephen Harper, Jonathan Murray, & Lesley Stevenson
pp224, ISBN 1905222181

Cowboys for Christ
Robin Hardy
pp256, ISBN 1905222416


THE RESULT OF A conference held at the University of Glasgow’s Crich-ton Campus in Dumfries in 2003, The Quest for the Wicker Man is edited by academics who bring a range of specialist knowledge to bear on the content, context and repercussions of the 1973 low-budget British film, The Wicker Man. The result is fascinating.

Never having seen the film, I decided to read first, watch later; a book should stand alone. Despite The Quest For The Wicker Man’s rai-son d’etre, this one does. The genesis of the film and its strange afterlife, from near strangulation at birth by disgruntled producers to resurrection as cult classic, is provided by its director, Robin Hardy, while an interview with him affords the last word. Sandwiched between are ten academic studies which use the film as a springboard to explore relevant history, folklore, religion, sexuality, gender, contemporary paganism and music. These are meaty, wide-ranging, informative and often contentious.

Along the way, the story of the film becomes clear. A Scottish island community with unusual beliefs sets a trap to catch a suitably virginal police sergeant for sacrificial purposes. Concentrating on those beliefs, Richard Sermon looks at the motifs drawn from widely disparate sources and sprinkled like salt and pepper to season the film with the taste of authenticity. English medieval folk customs provide the May Day characters. A disapproving puritan begins a description of the lusty 1583 celebrations thus: “All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods…” Sex, freely enjoyed, is also the main aspect of the fictional pagan community in the film. Brigid Cherry delves deeper into sexuality to prise out the subversive pleasures women might find in an otherwise patriarchal presentation of both Pagan and Christian world views, a patriarchy deeply at odds with the purported polytheism.

The second aspect, lending the film its ‘fright’ status, is human sacrifice. Luc Racaut draws out the nature of the Eucharist and Christ as the Christian blood sacrifice, explores the principle and effect of scapegoating and, in case we don’t watch the news, reminds us that civilization is a thin skin easily torn aside to reveal our barbarian nature. Unsurprisingly, several contributors agree that there is no historical basis for the burning of the living as sacrifice. Fire festivals and effigy-burning are common across the globe, witch-burning was a crime committed by religion against humanity, but the single source for a giant wicker man used to dispose of enemies comes from Julius Caesar’s presumed propaganda against the Gauls. Irony rather than veracity was served here when Caesar reported that ‘witches’ burned Christians.

This book is a debate, engrossing, thoroughly readable and moreish. It dissects the spiritual in human nature without recourse to religion, exposing our inner, ancient and mysterious selves. When I finally watched the film, it disappointed. Perhaps you had to be there in the Seventies. Several points arose that had escaped debate. Only women danced naked. Sex, confined to the nubile young, was denied the crumpling oldies. Virginity was prized for sacrifice in a community which eschewed it, a community surprisingly slick at first-time entrapment and murder. A mother happily put a live frog, head first, into a girl’s mouth, oblivious to the one hop that would lodge it in her throat. To cap it all, these agrarian folk cheerfully set flame to their own livestock, the only means they had of feeding themselves. My rural pagan disbelief was not suspended.

Robin Hardy’s novel, Cowboys for Christ, takes the same basic materials for a variation on the theme. A couple of young American evangelists set out to bring God to heathen Scotland, in standard missionary ignorance of the fact no country in the world has suffered more from God than this one. But naivety is touching, the two are sweetly attractive, and Hardy neatly uses the current ‘silver-ring thing’ (the US movement which promotes sexual abstinence until marriage) to signal their suitability for a date with death. The Wicker Man community of Summerisle has been recreated through a descendent laird in Dumfries and Galloway. The same bizarre beliefs hold sway, this time tied into traditional Border ridings. Nuclear energy, the wealth producer, is also responsible for the lack of human fertility, a loss which justifies the need for sacrifice. Fictional pagans are not creatures of earthy logic.

Cowboys for Christ reads as an outline for a film. Apart from two minor players who exhibit compassion and recognizable human responses, characterization is thin. The bare bones of plot want colour, texture, visual images and music to set mood and influence emotion. But the writing is typical of the genre and Hardy has upped the stakes. After a slow set-up, the plot romps along, with unexpected twists and turns, to its inevitable and frustratingly avoidable conclusion. Those who identify with the youthful protagonists will find it thrilling and horrible, a story to disturb sleep.

Condottiere, A Knight’s Tale
Edward John Crockett
POLYGON, £9.99
pp256, ISBN 1904598714


THE TROUBLE BEGINS with the title. ‘Condottiere’ is Italian for a mercenary or freebooter. The term came into vogue in the fourteenth century, that turbulent time when the warring Italian city-states used soldiers of fortune with a profusion the world had not seen since Carthage and the third century BC. For their belligerence, cupidity and pragmatism, Francesco of Carmagnola and Francesco Sforza, for example, have earned fascinating entries in the history of war. This novel’s sub-title, by contrast, makes us think of Chaucer, of gauntlets cast and men who fight for duty and glory, not gold. Crockett wants, it seems, to announce a dissonance. Such tensions, after all, can be fruitful for novelists. If this is Crockett’s aim, does he succeed?

His condottiere is certainly among the most interesting Englishmen of a time when there were a few of those around. The son of a tanner from Hedingham Sibil in Essex, Sir John Hawkwood was knighted by Edward III, probably after Crécy in 1346. On the peace of Bretigny in 1360, Hawkwood gathered together a merry and murderous band, called thereafter the White Company, and, for money from the marquis of Monferrato, moved against Milan. Thereafter Hawkwood sold his swords to the highest bidder, be that Pisa or Florence, and sometimes to both at the same time, or to Padua against Verona and so on. He and his Company were integral to those internecine wars between the Ital-ian city-states so seemingly interminable that we wonder how the Renaissance ever had a chance.

Hawkwood’s life and times have been done great justice recently in a fine biography which Crockett acknowledges: Hawkwood, Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders. Meanwhile, Conan Doyle’s novel The White Company remains a rattling good read. So Crockett has entered a distinguished list. He fares well there in many respects, and badly in others.

The good part is that Crockett has a feel for the period. He is especially at ease with martial matters, and wears his learning lightly. He understands the importance and effect of the English longbow, and brings to life for us its virtues, both absolute and relative to the Genoese crossbow. His Welsh archers in the White Company are winsomely drawn. Equally, Crock-ett recreates very effectively such aspects of the period as falconry and feasting. “They sat at trestle tables, feasting on whole suckling pig, silvered calves’ heads, roast mutton in cherry sauce, knuckles of veal and, as a special treat, cinghiali, wild boar culled from Visconti woodlands in Lombardy …”

The bad, though, is bipartite. The dissonance presaged by the title bears no fruit. We never get to know Sir John, and nor do we empathise with him. I’m not sure we even come to like him. Why does he do what he does? How did he feel after his defeat at the battle of Cascina, or after the infamous sack of the city of Cesena and the massacre of innocents that followed? Why did he fall in love with and marry Don-nina Visconti? Where was his longing for his native land? Instead, our protagonist is lost in a cast of almost thousands: the second-in-command Karl Eugen August Wil-helm von Strachwitz-Wettin, for example, or Guillame de Grimoard, better known as Pope Urban V. These are complex times, admittedly. But use these and other characters, we cry, or lose them.

Secondly, Crockett struggles with the bane of historical fiction expressed in the adage “show, don’t tell.” When he does allow his story to reveal itself, it is fluent and engrossing. But most of the time he tells, and the pedagogical prevails over the persuasive: “But Florence was in economic disarray, its population decimated [sic] by the Black Death and its municipal coffers drained virtually to the point of bankruptcy by King Edward of Eng-land’s repudiation of his massive debts to leading Florentine bankers – debts incurred to underwrite [sic] his costly war against France …” Back in England, meanwhile, “The Statute of Labourers, enacted in 1351, was still [itals]in[itals] force but only sporadically enforced, with the result that prices soared while wages were largely pegged at pre-plague levels …” Historical, yes. But where’s the fiction?

Still, this is a competent and interesting novel in which the lesser good outweighs the bad. It all has a happy ending in fact, if not in this fiction. Hawkwood’s youngest child by his first marriage married one John Shelley, progenitor of the poet. Who says that crime doesn’t pay?

Preferred Lies
Andrew Greig
pp304, ISBN 0297848356


ONCE IT WAS THE pursuit that hardly dared speak its name amongst the chattering and scribbling classes. A womanless realm of Pringlesweatered boors and bores, all Muir-field snobbishness and Augusta racism; a Masonic retreat for would-be corporate warriors and their bloated, sclerotic elders.

But that clichéd view of golf has never been entirely sustainable in Scotland, where for every Royal Troon there has always been a publicly owned Fullerton, and where the Old Course at St Andrews remains a community asset, despite the hulking, squatting presence of the Royal and Ancient, insinuating that the moneyed members own the place. They don’t.

And golf has always had its bohemians, its mad hooligans, its mystics and literary adherents. John Updike, Garrison Keillor, PG Wode-house, Alice Cooper – what a foursome! Then there are the lost legends like Hammy McInally from Irvine, hard-gambling, hard living working class Scottish ‘Amateur’ Champion, scourge of some of golf’s biggest names; John Talbot from Findhorn and his ‘Fairway to Heaven’ approach to the inner world of the golfer; Michale Bamberger’s sublime pilgrimage to Scotland’s coastal courses, To the Linksland, and of course, the worldwide cult of mystic ghost-golf that is Michael Murphy’s Golf In The Kingdom.

Hacks have also hacked: notably George Plimpton, Joel Feinstein and oor ain Lawrence Donegan, but Andrew Greig? Surely not? Mountaineer, award winning poet, acclaimed novelist, outdoors-man…what has brought him to the tee and the bunker, the mashie and niblick? For Preferred Lies is, make no mistake, a golf book. While the Buchanesque pace, glorious sense of place and unforgettable characters may have made the many readers of The Return of John MacNabb suddenly sympathetic to huntin’ shootin’, fishin’ and even, bizarrely, the Prince of Wales, you need at the very least to have some previous with pitching wedges and putters to fully appreciate Greig’s latest work. However, if you do have a set of mouldering clubs in the loft, the residual muscle-memory of summer Stablefords, this book could change your life. Or save it.

At the very least, it sets a new standard in literary golf. More poetic, more moving than Updike’s Golf Dreams, more savage about Dollar Academy than Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, it will move you to tears, it will break your heart, and it could have you at the driving range before the weekend. Or North Ronaldsay.

As the book opens, Greig is a resurrected man, survivor of a coma caused by hydrocephalus, a shunt permanently in place, some small memory problems the only medical symptoms. But the images that helped him through the trauma of recovery all came from his boyhood days on Scottish golf courses notably those in Fife, where he grew up. And so Greig sets out on a journey into golf, into Scotland, and into himself. Playing with him along the way are friends, family and strangers, but increasingly, he is accompanied by ghosts, the shades of lost pals like the late mountaineer Mal Duff, and the father Greig had such a difficult but formative relationship with.

It quickly emerges that Greig was and is no ham-fisted hacker. A championship winner in boyhood, he is still a very capable player (too much self-critical protesting, methinks, about how bad he is). But it is in and through golf, and the landscapes so beautifully described from Stromness to Lundin Links, that the glory of this book, its pay-and-play, honesty box universality, emerges.

“Golf isn’t life. It’s just a small, radiant corner of it, like a chip of mirror glass, the kind where if you bring it close enough and examine carefully from a number of angles, you can see the whole of your eye, and a surprising amount of the world around you.”

The language is rich and very specific – no-one has described so well the sickening tiredness that affects a golfer in the closing stages of a round, the wretched feeling of desolation when you duff a shot you’ve put all your energy into playing well. And Greig’s approach to spirituality in golf, so fraught with the danger of daftness, is played thoughtfully, with humour, insight and skill. This is a book which plumbs the profundities of human life and death in the context of a game, and Greig, who has faced death many times in the mountains as well as most recently on the operating table, knows there is an inherent daftness to this game, and to life.

If you have, or have had, any interest in golf at all, buy this book and read it. Buy it for your loved one, your lost one, the Saturday morning medal deserter, the refugee duffer or champion in your life. The hacker and the would-be one-handicapper. They, and you, will love it, inhabit it, and possibly be transformed by it. It’s the best book about golf I’ve ever read. And its effect on me? Not only have I rescued the clubs from the risk of rusty oblivion in the barn, I’m building a golf course.

Matters Of Life And Death
Bernard MacLaverty
pp240, ISBN 0224077856


“SHE WAS AMAZED at how utterly changed she was and how it didn’t show.”

There’s an awful phrase that comes in certain kinds of review, “deceptively simple”. I’m not sure what it means except that the reviewer is lying back a bit and reaching for bits of ready-made thought to slot together; no original joinery. The phrase is a useful one in writing fashion copy. It means, “There’s a lot of stitching here, and cutting, and thought; but what we see is apparently quite plain.” All writing should feel simpler in the reading than it was in the making; there is a not appealing but prevalent fashion for the simple that actually is as simple as it looks; that is, writing that has no secret work within itself and sets to no secret work within the reader, unearned stuff whose weight is what it seems, whose effect upon the reader is that of a calorie of nourishment per evidenced calorie of effort expended, nothing more generous, a literal, unenriched sequence of sentences. Of course, there are occasions when such writing, worked at, is to the purpose, used, for example to convey some nullity of character, some unengagement with the deep preoccupations of fiction-and of life. .

Much is lost to readers by this kind of writing, which leaves many levels of the mind untouched, the depths untroubled, the springs of moral heft unexercised.

A horrible cosmetic apparent virtuousness (not virtuosity, which is self-consciously shunned) of stylistic surface has even in some places declared itself as principled, concealing often nothing within, and separating language and art from anything but information or sensation. Language can never be only what it seems, since words set up work against one another. It takes work to be simple; each plain word must be used at its true – unique, present – value. Plain words without anchor in thought and echo and depth are a waste.

Bernard MacLaverty’s title says it all, and that quoted sentence with which I began this (you may say) rant. It is but one from among the thousands of plain and shattering sentences of this stupendous new book – crucial, shattering sentences – that express, modestly, monumentally the achievement of this extraordinary writer. He is in behind your eyes before you feel his thinking knife.

It is not recall that makes him the great writer he is, I do not think, though he has that in abundance. It is the capacity to catch life as it comes through imagined, so much so that he can remake life. He does not approximate. Each sentence is a functioning forward bearer of thought or experience, each word a component that rests like a cog-or a jewel – exactly where it does, which is where it only could. The exacting nature of his making bears such intense scrutiny that it feels as though it has arrived whole.

Bernard MacLaverty writes plainly and directly, right enough.

That he does so with such grandeur and art bespeaks an intelligence and cohesion that are forbidden to more pretentious artists working in the genres of which he is an – apparently – easeful master, the novel and the short story.

This short story collection starts with a complete shocker, ‘On the Roundabout’, under four pages long, and like life in that it interrupts, spins, breaks and realigns experience so suddenly that the reader is not back to being settled for days after. By now, four pages in, it is impossible not to go on. The next story, ‘The Trojan Sofa’, about just that, a Trojan sofa, takes the queasy knowledge we all have and avoid, that in life, near death, what is funny – farcical, risible, pompous, jokey – is never but a beat away, and that all humans, even those whose politics and class we are trained by prejudice to dislike, are vain, know love, are swayed by music and are fascinated and horrified by the body’s functions.

It’s Rembrandt who comes to the mind as one reads, his vision of the body, his ripe certainty of its frailness and strength and the stories it contains. There is no selecting any one story above another in this great book, but you will not forget the scrupulous aunt in ‘The Wedding Ring’, who finds the secret of her niece’s life in the girl’s body as she dresses it for the next world, as it were for a bridegroom; ‘Learning to Dance’ is a novel, compressed, offering pure understanding of a child, of a childless woman, and of a child’s understanding of childlessness, all swooning with love, desire, pity and resignation.

‘Up the Coast’, the story from which the plain-and dreadful- opening words are taken, is about nothing less than the making, from terror and pity, of art. The power and generosity of this book are simply there; Matters Of Life And Death is a great book. The explicit presiding literary presence is Chekhov. Not reached nor striven for, innate, rather.

Matters Of Life And Death
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
FABER, £15.99
pp320, ISBN 0571224059


Rousseau’s Dog follows close on the heel of the authors’ first book,Wittgenstein’s Poker. Like Poker, Dog is historical biography centred on a celebrated flyting. In Poker it was Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper; here, the Enlightenment giants, David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The book is quirky historical entertainment with one eye on screen adaptation. If a ‘nov-script’, according to Will Self, is a brief fiction halfway between novella and TV script, then this is a ‘hist-script’ – though a lengthy one.

We are pitched into the narrative when Hume – le bon David, as he’d become known in Paris – escorts a beleaguered Rousseau from Calais to Dover. A tempestuous four months’ fellowship begins, ending in a furious public quarrel between an imperious Hume and a paranoid Rousseau. Their relationship becomes a case study in the fault lines in Enlightenment anthropology, in what it cost to live under the sign of reason and progress. Hume seems to flourish, describing himself as “a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour”. Compare Rousseau’s reputation at the height of his notoriety: “I was an infidel, an atheist, a lunatic, a madman, a wild beast, a wolf.” Hume’s biography becomes a model for the ideal Enlightenment life: uniform, tolerant, reasonable. Rousseau’s life story, in contrast, is one of fickle passions and wandering pursuits. In the massive Confessions (1782-89), he repudiates the master codes of progress and temperance for biographical digression and indulgence in nature. Rousseau’s attachment to his dog Sultan anticipates the emotivism of the Romantics and their rejection of reason as a recipe for living, in favour of the stronger meat of music and imagination.

Initially, however, mutual friendship was eagerly anticipated. “Neither he nor I are disputatious,” wrote Hume in 1766, “I think I could live with him all my life in mutual friendship and esteem.” But attitudinal cracks soon appeared in the Enlightenment plaster. As Edmonds and Eidinow remark, “In both personality and creative style they were polar opposites … It was less that they disagreed than that they had no prospect of engagement.” Their nearest common ground was a critique of religion, but differing temperaments skewed their analyses even here.

The divergent attitudes are encapsulated in their methodologies. In A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40) and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1759), Hume’s empiricist method posited a thoughtful, analytical, sovereign individual. In contrast, Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) and Emile (1762) were passionate expositions on how to negotiate the turmoil of collective life, and how (not) to educate the young. The corruption of humankind’s natural goodness was Rousseau’s starting point: “Man is born free”, he famously claimed, “but everywhere he is in chains”. The remedy was to enter into a social contract in which the individual surrenders her rights to the general will. The conditions of success were captured in Rousseau’s famous slogan, ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, soon to find favour in the French revolution.

The quarrel between Hume and Rousseau therefore serves to undermine Enlightenment values of tolerance and concord. But in making biographies of the great and the good the core of their tale, the authors fall back on Carlyle’s unfashionable dictum that “the history of the world is but the biographies of great men”. Certainly the revisionist stress on difference and dissent improves an otherwise tired method, but the picaresque plot soon reduces to a series of colourful dramatis personae. The tale meanders, and the flyting is too slight a plot device to carry over 300 pages.

However, the centrality of personality and temperament rewards a different reading of the book – as a ‘history of the present’, in Michel Foucault’s sense. Rousseau’s Dog tells us more about the contemporary interests of Edmonds and Eidinow and their audience than about traditional questions of historical causation and contextual meaning. As the back cover makes plain, this is “a story of celebrity and its price, of shameless spin, of destroyed reputations and shattered friendships”. Replace Rousseau and Hume with Blair and Brown and the point is plain. Read like this Rousseau’s Dog lines up a pair of celebrities and asks us to chose a hero. The fact that it stacks the cards in favour of the contrary but passionate personality of Rousseau – with his loyal hound, Sultan – against the cool philosopher, Hume, is itself revealing of postmodern preferences. Stacking cards is no metaphor: the cover montage shows Rousseau’s King of Hearts, right way up, trumping Hume’s upside-down King of Spades. Faithful Sultan sits up begging, sealing the symbolism, and aligning Jean-Jacques with pet-lovers, dog-walkers and emotive princesses-of-hearts everywhere. As for Hume, he is described as merely ‘one-time dog-owning’. That says it all.

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