by SRB

Volume 3 – Issue 2 – Reviews

October 26, 2009 | by SRB

The Devil’s Footprints

John Burnside
JONATHAN CAPE, £14.99
pp224, ISBN 0224074881

Gift Songs

John Burnside
JONATHAN CAPE, £9.00
pp80 ISBN 0224079972

REVIEWER: CANDIA MCWILLIAM

The work of John Burnside constitutes one, and one fair, answer to the question asked of all writers of fiction: “Where do your ideas come from?” The merciful answer is, “If you are asking that, you mayn’t understand the only half-true reply I can give you, which is: from the air outside me and the air within me, where they meet.”

So physically clear and so double-sided a writer is Burnside, novelist and poet, that you might, with this novel and this book of almost sacred verse, sense that you were getting closer to his secret. I wonder. His secret is manifold. It’s tricky, his gift, though we are allowed closer to it than ever before, in Gift Songs. I think he may be too modest and too given to something that is like faith, to see his gift as constituting his central secret. It is the means whereby it is given to him to set down and interpret the world, to bird-watch the holy and unholy spirits that inhabit it.

From when first he began to be published – and his stupendous autobiography A Lie About My Father gave us readers the sense we might be glimpsing why this is – Burnside has been able to bring into his work a sense of horror. Not Grand Guignol, but the horror that stuffs your throat with cold earth when you waken alone in the night thinking you will never outlive the cold pain of being buried alive in your own self .He has also been able to summon evil, which he feels, as many Catholic and non-Catholic Scots do, as the Earl of Hell himself, the devil. (I cannot type his name without wanting to take out the “v”, put in the Scots apostrophe, and pull the sting. To name him wholly is to invite him along, with his couthie ways, his familiarity with one’s innards).

If you are susceptible, you will find with The Devil’s Footprints that no novel since this author’s last one has made you this chill in the bone; I recognise the feeling, and am surely intended to, from that first, literally dreadful, childhood time of reading The Private Memoirs & Confessions of A Justified Sinner. There’s not the space here to go on about the tributes, echoes and emulous fustian endeavours of print which that masterpiece has summoned. The applied reader of Scottish writing right up to this minute will be familiar; maybe, even, a familiar, of these. There are moments of an awareness of the particular mental acceptance of evil in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, and a similar observation of the indifference of possessions to tragedy, their “ruthless” inanimate survival of it

Read this novel, if you can, before the poems, and then the novel again. Then, I assure you, you will have to read the poems over. These poems are like that; you will want to have them with you in your scrip, wherever your peregrinations take you. He has never written better poetry of contemplation, and he sets his stave high, deriving inspiration and tone from Eliot, Bartok, Britten, and Beethoven deep within. And there are happy accidents of echo. John Burnside the man quite evidently relishes hot buttered toast, which appears golden and molten with butter through both the present works.

His beautiful line “The black that occasions white, the white in black.” is echoed in The Devil’s Footprint in his description of the moribund Mrs Collings, whose face is darkened from within, like a face white-crayoned on black paper by a child.

The poems reveal a poet at his height and from his deeps; these are great redemptive poems of memory, attachment, willing loss and its shadow death, love and the faith that lies under faith even when it has been apparently seen off by reason. Burnside’s inward eye has never been clearer, his poetic voice never more plainly lovely. “Ask yourself how prayer is possible/except to something alien and tidal.” This poet is (his words) loyal to his burden, which is his gift, and, too his alleviation. Like the novel, this book is full of sky, of birds, and of the shoals of thought, like herring reflected back off the clouds of consciousness, up from the deep sea of the poet’s experience and his reaching art.

The novel rewards a slow reading and fine attention, but it’s likely that you may read for plot first time round. John Burnside has the pro-leptic gift of seeming to have told you the lot, which includes infanticide and suicide by fire, child abandonment, child murder by a child, persecution, more, probable, murder, a strong suggestion of incest, all replete with satanic apparition, all rather too soon. Of course he’s not done this. The incest for example is of our making. He’s making you nervous while he seems to be loitering, playing with you and with time, by his art; we are complicit with evil, too. In this loitering and threat, he is mirroring the bully Malcolm Kennedy, who is dedicated to spoiling the life of the book’s – I might say apparent- narrator – Michael Gardiner.

Michael Gardiner is the solitary child of a creative couple made further isolated from the Fife village of Coldhaven by their outsiderness and their money. She is a painter, he a photographer. The father loves and knows birds. What the couple seek is light for work; they have found it in this cold grey point of the East Coast. Throughout, Burn-side’s descriptions of the land, the air, the deep dusk, the east coast blue, the stars, the sea, the bee-swimming pools of rosebay willowherb, are as he says of a crowd of seabirds, “like a single fabric of consciousness”. We believe that these glorious precisions that fill the pages as the hard story unfolds really do issue from Michael’s mind, man and boy.

“Brilliancy and malevolence” swell in the account of events in the driech small Fife town. That unusual “y” at the end of “brilliance” sharpens the word, cuts the reader with that precise salt light peculiar to Fife, and that hot-and-cold sensibility peculiar to Burn-side (the very name for the man). The pages swarm with such generosities. Names are to be watched. Sex appears in the glimpsed legs of Moira Kennedy, Michael’s first mistress and the mother of Hazel who may be Michael’s own child, Moira who will murder her two sons and kill herself in a flaming car, and desert her daughter Hazel. It is as though Burnside is burgling his own rich gift for echo and connection. Moira Kennedy is the perfect name for lovely legs in a Scot – the star (who became Moira Kennedy after her marriage, so doubly unattainable) of The Red Shoes cannot be far behind the names in this book that is continually, naggingly even, intentionally callowly perhaps, referring to films. And Hazel, who has inherited the sexy smooth cold slim white legs of her mother, is a tribute to Dolores Haze-Lolita herself – to whose motel-rapine-rapture with Humbert Humbert Burnside makes explicit, occasionally comic, homage. There’s a nobly funny breakfast scene that will have veterans of a certain level of homeland hospitality recalling many a leaky plum tomato.

The book’s main setting Cold-haven proves a cold harbour indeed, the place where the devil himself came up out of the sea and walked inland, leaving his prints on the snow. Is Michael the devil or is Moira’s husband, Hazel’s ‘dad’, violent Tom Birnie? Is Peter Tone, the town drunk who kills Michael’s mother on the shore road, while, inexcusably, sober? Is the raw thug Malcolm Kennedy who dies alone in a tank of preservative poison? Is Hazel? Is the sexy aquiline boyfriend at the funfair who steals Hazel from her raptor, who has not touched her? Has he not shown himself, despite his appeal, actually to be, on consideration, ugly. But Hazel has seen what he pretends to be, and not his essence. Isn’t that a characteristic of the devil, and, it could be said, of romance?

Or is the devil what creeps into the space left by unenacted love? This book is subtitled “A Romance”; later in the book, Michael says, “‘My parents’ was a romance. Not a true story. A romance”. It is nought but the truth. How fitting that. Michael’s cipher of a wife is named Amanda, that her chum Michelle is known as “Shell” (a poem in Gift Songs takes up this seashell-echo and whispers with it). It’s what we needed to know; stories are what we have and they are nothing, or just a wee bit better than nothing. Michael wants “fear to be more beautiful”. He wants to know what he cannot know. He wants to “reach into himself and pull out an inordinate amount of something”. He knows that “every story is an infection one way or another ”.

The good deaths in this book are two. They shine up from the book’s troubled surface into the light that surrounds it, ambiguous and beautiful. They are of a focus and acceptance that seems to breathe into that misty coast, and might rightly be called mystical.

The novel’s few but disfiguring gaucheries in so fine a writer must, I feel, be placed. I think that he may be saying that to remove yourself from your own life, whether by seeing it through high or low art, or by in some other way absenting yourself from it, is to leave a space for the other self, the devil, who may have left his prints all over this snowlit and morally courageous book, and who never stops waiting to make his mark.

Love as Landscape Painter: Translations from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

DM Black
FRAS PUBLICATIONS, £8.50
pp76 ISBN 0954994140

REVIEWER: ALASDAIR MACRAE

Poetry in English in the twentieth century took many shapes and directions and manifested many recognisable ancestors. The influence of one of these ancestors is remarkable for its wide-spread per-sistency and for its apparent incongruity. I am referring to Dante. Think of Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Muir, MacDiarmid, Lowell, Heaney. They all refer and defer to Dante, a medieval poet, whose cosmogony and theology seem utterly alien to any world-view of the twentieth century. Conversely, that other generally acknowledged “Great Euro-pean”, Goethe, has had a negligible impact on modern poetry in English.

It is true that, in the nineteenth century, Goethe’s stature was universally accepted: Byron and Goethe exchanged plaudits, Scott translated an early play, Shelley translated brilliantly sections of Faust, Carlyle championed him across the English-speaking world, Arnold saw him as the total creative mind, George Eliot and her partner GH Lewes (an unfairly neglected writer) promoted Goethe’s work and Lewes wrote an excellent biography. His achievement was extraordinary: he comprehended the Classical and the Romantic in one career; he wrote novels, dramas, treatises, poems; he knew every available verse form and experimented beyond them; he consoled and shocked and baffled his readers; he was a visionary who understood philosophies and science; he brought the Nordic and the Mediterranean together, he juxtaposed the Western with the Oriental in his East-West Divan. All these elements are present in the monumental two-part Faust, begun in the 1770s and completed shortly before his death in 1832 (the same year as Scott’s).

Perhaps it is the very totality of his achievement which lessened the likelihood of any direct influence on the poets. Yeats’s father warned his son: “You are haunted by the Goethe idea…that a man can be a complete man. It is a chimera.” Typically, MacDiarmid was attracted to this megalomaniac vision and, in the early Thirties, repeatedly announced the imminent arrival of a multi-volume poem “an enormous proposition” based on Goethe’s Faust. TS Eliot was awarded the Hanseatic Goethe Prize in 1955 and, in his acceptance address, ‘Goethe as the Sage’, he engages in a fair bit of shillying and a lot of shallying in trying to praise Goethe; there is none of the excitement and sense of a shared enterprise that we find in his earlier essays on Dante. The unreliable but always engaged critic, Harold Bloom, perhaps identifies accurately some crucial gap between Goethe and the modern poets. He writes in The Western Canon, “Of all the strongest western writers, Goethe now seems the least available to our sensibility….His wisdom abides, but it seems to come from some solar system other than our own”. It may be that, although there have been many attempts at translation, there is some quality in German or, more particularly, in Goethe’s German which makes it difficult for a translator to convey the quick of the original in English. Very recently, Don Paterson published an enthralling version of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, but Rilke is not Goethe and poses very different problems.

This selection of translations from Goethe published by Fras Publications demonstrates the boldness of a small press to make available interesting material and to widen literary discussion round a Scottish centre. The translator, DM Black, was probably better known in the Sixties and Seventies than he has been recently. His Collected Poems 1964-87 came out in 1991 but was really a selection and included very little from the Eighties. Two-thirds of the volume consisted of six longish poems, strange and uncomfortable in content, and written in dogged hendecasyllabic verse. There is not much in these poems which would lead a reader to expect Black to move into translating Goethe.

With one exception, there is little explanatory material to help a reader new to Goethe’s work. The Preface says only that Black tries to imitate something of the verse forms and linguistic register of the originals, and there are a dozen brief glosses. There is nothing to indicate how representative or not the selection is or why he decided to include nothing from Faust. The exception is a page-long note to the Roman Elegies which occupy the second-half of the volume. Goethe first visited Italy in 1786, and in 1789 Christiane Vulpius, the main focus of the Elegies, became his partner (They eventually married in 1806). All twenty Elegies are translated and he adds a couple of associated poems left out by Goethe. The term ‘elegy’ – as with Donne’s Elegies – does not suggest anything elegiac, and the sequence is wonderfully varied in perspective, mood and terms of reference. There is a most peculiar, mysterious fusion of Classical Rome and late eighteenth century Rome, of a biographical Goethe and an ironically presented poet-lover, of actual locations and situations and a fanciful, imagined love-world. The sequence reads fluently, freshly in Black’s translation and is full of charm and surprises.

The Elegies have a spacious, long-lined, hospitable cheerfulness which, while demanding, is not so fiercely exacting as some of the more formally intricate poems with shorter sense and sound units. Particularly with the best known poems where Goethe’s Ger-man sings in your head, it is difficult not to be critical and feel that the line has been spoiled in translation. For example, the opening line of Mignon’s song from Wil-helm Meister’s Lehrjahre: “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn” does not come across in Black’s “Do you know the land that blooms with lemon trees?” Even in the insertion of the question mark when, in the original, the sense and the question roll through the stanza, there is an intrusion. Or, take the famous ‘Erlking’ and the interplay of voices, so feelingly transcribed in Schubert’s setting, each voice individual, dramatically realised, but Black’s translation doesn’t catch Goethe’s extraordinary sound-meaning intricacy; the Erlking’s seductive menace: “Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schone Gestalt;/ Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch’ ich Gewalt” is not matched in “I love your shape, I know no remorse;/ and if you won’t come, I’ll have you by force!” The wheedling snake voice with its repeated ‘eech’, broken by the sudden lash of the teacher’s strap on the desk of “Gewalt” is weakly dissipated in Black’s lines. Even in the small lyric, again from Wilhelm Meister, known as ‘The Harper’s Song’, Black opens with the line “Who never ate his supper weeping” where the Penguin literal translation has “Who never ate his bread with tears” but the literal is more immediate, starker. Also, the lack of annotation denies to the reader the dramatic context which makes the lyric much more poignant.

Ballads, in their directness, punish a translator for any failure of restraint, any awkwardness of rhythm. Black does not escape unscathed in his handling of ‘The King in Thule’. In his attempt to adhere to the ballad measure, he is forced into some grammatical inversions, some wrong notes, and some embarrassing rhymes. His final stanza describing the maudlin, dying king throwing his treasured drinking-cup from the castle-wall into the ocean, reads: “He watched it falling, and drinking,/And sinking deep in the main;/Then his eyelids sank and he never/Drank any drop again.” The minor Scottish poet Gilbert F Cunningham published a comparable selection of poems from Goethe in 1949 but with the German originals, contextual notes, and an excellent introduction by John V. Skinner. His version of the final stanza offers: “He watched it tilting, filling,/And sinking in the main./Then, death his pulses stilling,/He never drank again.” This is clearer, more graphic, more smoothly rhythmic, a cleaner conclusion.

Some of the poems work more successfully, the title poem ‘Love as Landscape Painter’ and ‘The Diary’, both longer pieces, not insisting on the same stern discipline. I enjoyed The Roman Elegies and I welcome another attempt to open our minds to some of the elements in Goethe’s wealth. However, this volume could be made more accessible to more people if it had a decent introduction and some indication as to provenance and dating. As the selection stands, we have no idea of chronology, progression, context. Part of the problem of reading Goethe is that his biography, his thinking, his writing, all interact and seem materials in some vast milling process. DM Black himself, once wrote something about this complex process in his poem The Hands of Felicity:

And now those oxen haul in a ring! The mighty stones they
grind together are squeezing from my brain this
juice of poetry; it renews itself and
must not shrivel or flood, but daily
build up, and, by the oxen’s exertions, empty.

It is not that the one world or the other
takes my fancy entirely, but the combo,
the interfusing and interpenetrating
combination of both in living story,
has a preciousness not to be confuted.

Dr Livingstone, I Presume? – Missionaries, Journalists,  Explorers and Empire.

Clare Pettitt
PROFILE BOOKS, £15.99
pp256 ISBN 186197728X

REVIEWER: ANDREW ROSS

“Love affairs, battles, discoveries and rebellions have changed the course of world history. But some have turned out to be more significant than others: they have become icons in the popular imagination, in drama, fiction and art; they have been argued and puzzled over, retold and re-presented for centuries” This is the description by Profile Books of what their new historical series intends to explore. Clare Pettitt’s contribution deals with the legendary meeting of Henry Morton Stanley with David Livingstone in late October or possibly November, 1871 at Ujiji, a town on the shores of Lake Tan-ganyika created by Swahili traders.

This meeting, as Pettitt so effectively shows, has become lodged in the popular imagination of the West. Variations of Stanley’s words of greeting to Livingstone stretch into the popular culture of the TV comic and strike a cord even when knowledge of who the participants were is lost. This extraordinary development has occurred because the meeting has been used and reused in journalism, popular art, missionary and anti-slavery propaganda, in historical controversy, in literature both serious and popular and in film. The role of the story of the meeting as it is used by the cinema at various times is particularly well done in this book.

It was not only their meeting that has been used again and again for various purposes, Stanley and Livingstone’s lives were written and rewritten in the late Victorian and Edwardian era in ways that suited the sponsor of one cause or another, often to justify the ‘Scramble for Africa’, very occasionally to criticise it.

Dr Livingstone, I Presume is particularly good at exploring the way the lives of these two men, not just the famous meeting, are used in the years following Livingstone’s funeral and into the twentieth century. Livingstone’s funeral is an iconic event itself and Pettitt dissects this event precisely and effectively. She points out the way the event transforms Livingstone into an English hero, buried beside Marshal Wade, whom she omits to note the second verse of God Save the Queen summons “to crush rebellious Scots”!

Pettitt also shows very effectively how Livingstone’s friend, Horace Walker, sanitizes his hero’s last journals for publication, re-shaping who Livingstone was for Waller’s own purposes; something that most of Livingstone’s friends did at one time or another. Stanley also received extraordinarily varied treatment in these same decades. The difference between the two, however, was that Stanley could answer for himself, Livingstone could not.

What Livingstone’s ‘friends’ wanted was their version of who he was, not his. This censoring process began long before his death. It started with the book he was contracted to write after the disastrous Zambesi Expedition. The book was neutered, each chapter censored and corrected by a committee before going to the printer. The Livingstone who could call an African woman beautiful was not the Livingstone his ‘friends’ wanted to present to the British public.

These misrepresentations of Livingstone lead on to a consideration of the flaws in Dr Livingstone I Presume? First a technical one; long lists of relevant books and documents in addenda do not make up for the absence of a critical apparatus when disputable assertions are made. More importantly this reviewer regrets that when Pettitt discusses who Livingstone really was, she loses her touch and an interesting book becomes an annoying one.

She mentions, for example, Livingstone’s passionate support for the Xhosa in their war against the British in South Africa and their right to take up arms to defend their homeland, but does not see its significance. In 1951, let alone 1851 when Livingstone said it, a white living in Africa who supported ‘the armed struggle’ was deemed a dangerous revolutionary but this commitment of Living-stone’s, which was lifelong, is not reflected in Pettitt’s picture of him. Another fall from her own high standards occurs when she says of Livingstone that he often did not know where he was. That was certainly true in the last months of his life, but it is stated as a generalisation in the face of the fact that for most of his years in Africa his map-making was extraordinarily accurate.

Even more surprising, Pettit generalises about Livingstone’s relations with Africans, without any analysis of his acting as the representative of the chief of the Kololo people in his first famous journey, This was an African expedition led by Livingstone as the chief’s ‘nduna’ (his counsellor), on which they walked from what is now central Zambia to Loanda on the West coast then back to the chief’s ‘kraal’ (village) and on to the East coast. This journey, seeking a way for ‘Commerce and Christianity’ to enter central Africa, was what first brought him fame. It was a Kololo expedition not a European one, indeed the Portuguese authorities in Loanda treated him as the Kololo ambassador. It is a clear example of his ability to enter into African society and operate within it. Living-stone explained this in his first and best book, Missionary Travels And Researches, but nobody listened, including Pettitt.

This omission is compounded when Pettitt ignores Halima and Ntaoeka, the two outstanding women in his entourage. When Livingstone’s followers arrived on the coast with his corpse, the British vice-consul ignored the two women, as did Waller, as sadly does Pettitt, yet Livingstone referred to them as “the main spokes in my wheel”.

As it stands, Pettitt’s picture of Livingstone can’t explain why Ken-neth Kaunda called him “the first freedom-fighter” or how, in Malawi, the only non-African place-names are Blantyre and Livingstonia. And that won’t do.

Fresh

Mark McNay
CANONGATE, £10.99
pp278, ISBN 1841959294

REVIEWER: ANDREW DRUMMOND

Here, they said: you’re a vegetarian from leafy Edinburgh – why don’t you review this book about a chicken processing plant on the outskirts of Glasgow? You may find it entertaining. Indeed, I sighed, turning back to the latest instalment of 44 Scotland Street. There’s drugs, violence, coarse language and rape in it, they added. Oh dear, I thought – but is that not just how things are along the M8?

Mark McNay’s debut novel Fresh does prove to be entertaining. Certainly, life in the housing-estates of Royston, where every second “big man” is a drug-dealer, every third “wee man” a connoisseur of the art of “battering”, and every chap – bar none – in the grip of loan-sharks – none of this made me weep with rage and despondency. But the sheer energy of McNay’s whirlwind tour of debt, despair and drink-fuelled bloodshed, couched in the pithy vernacular of the working man, gripped enough to keep me reading, without scarcely a break for scones and tea, all the way to the violent conclusion.

The plot is easily told. The hero is Sean, product of a broken home, and younger brother of Archie. Archie quickly goes bad, and then from bad to worse: drugs, car-theft, stabbings, male-rape – alas, what do you expect? It’s Glasgow. Sean does his best to keep his nose above the coursing tide of crime and punishment, gets married, and settles down to a job in the chicken plant, where fowls are slaughtered, pulled apart and packaged up as the titular “fresh” chickens. Archie, doing time for a particularly nasty crime, gives Sean some money to keep safe while he is inside; Sean misguidedly spends most of it; Archie gets out of jail early and comes looking for his money. With considerable difficulty, Sean gathers together the amount owed. In gratitude, Archie gives his loved ones a battering. The scene is set for a dramatic denouement.

The entire story takes place in a single day, darkness to darkness. If all days were as interesting as this one, working in a chicken plant might be no bad thing; Sean certainly packs in many and varied activities in his desperate attempts to collect sufficient funds to avoid “a good kicking” from Archie. He manages an outing in a clapped-out white van, to Falkirk and back, two trips to the bank, a lunchtime bevvy, and a full day’s work, numerous fag-breaks and phone-calls not included, before the end of the day-shift. McNay retains our interest by throwing in some flash-backs to troubled times in Sean’s depressing youth. The evening of the day is spent in a high octane criminal spree. The sheer quantity of this activity seems, somehow, unlikely. But what do I know? They obviously do things differently out west.

McNay’s descriptions of the production-line within the chicken plant seem – to one who would not venture inside such a place – splendid. As is his creation of a general air of hopelessness: “Three tons of chicken wings for Doncaster. How the f*** do they expect us to have that ready for the morra?” Two sentences, I would argue, that neatly encapsulate the state of the western world. As with any large-scale food-production facility, with a swift through-put and a disenchanted workforce, there are certain breaches of accepted standards of cleanliness; one hears of such things, even in Edinburgh; but I will not trouble you with such details as McNay delights in providing.

There are some false notes. Some of the characterisations are unset-tlingly disjointed – or are they just shallow? I couldn’t decide. And if there’s one really annoying device in the book, it is the frequent interruption of the narrative by Sean’s childish fantasies about being a cowboy, or an army NCO, or a miner, or medal-winning athlete, as he battles with the daily grind, and with the chickens slung towards him on the relentless production-line

But, on balance, Mark McNay has put together a diverting first novel. His energetic evocations of how to process several hundred dead chickens, and the almost farcical hopelessness of Sean’s enthrallment to Archie, offer much to admire. The many moments of criminal action – mostly outside the chicken-plant – are well-told and memorable. This book will probably not put you off eating chicken; but, if you have something of the Glaswegian within, it should entertain you.

Meet Me Under The Westway

Stephen Thompson
CHROMA £9.99
pp256, ISBN 1845020839

REVIEWER: IAN PATTISON

“Every time a friend succeeds,” wrote Gore Vidal, “I die a little”. Given that Vidal continues to pant on into his eighth decade, he either hasn’t acquired many friends along the way or dying isn’t as terminal as it used to be. Literature’s most famous living Democrat would be gratified to know that professional jealousy percolates down from the loftier heights of creative endeavour. Rik Mayall and Ade Edmond-son, when asked their opinion of a new sitcom which starred a close friend and peer, were delighted to publicly report that “It was every bit as bad as we hoped it would be”.

Stephen Thompson, in his third novel Meet Me Under the Westway, tries on the jealousy hair shirt for size. Our narrator is Jem Braithwaite, an aspiring playwright in his early thirties. Jem comes from Pin-ner, read English at the University of London and has lived in Notting Hill for the past ten years. His stated aim is one day to be “Up there with the Tom Stoppards and David Hares, with sell-out runs at the National and transfers to the West End and Broadway”. If he can’t manage that, he’ll settle for being “a darling of the fringe, scourge of the establishment”.

As we become acquainted with Jem, we realise that his Broadway ambitions, for a variety of reasons, don’t look assured of success. Nor is he likely to go far in the scourging business. For a start, he doesn’t actually do much writing. He’d sooner hang around with his mates, bit part actor Ollie and faded pop star Mo, watching the girls go by. In fact, Jem does more than watch and, for a man with no money, no car, no sparkling repartee or other shiny objects with which to dazzle the female eye, does remarkably well for attractive bed partners.

In his spare time, of which he has plenty, Jem is a member of a play writing group run by a local theatre, the Crucible. A fellow member of the group is Evan, Jem’s closest friend. When Evan has a play accepted by a prestigious fringe venue, Jem’s world is rocked and the shadow of the green monster threatens to block his sun. Luckily, being Jem, no critical damage is done and it isn’t long before he is actually feeling sorry for Evan because of the hand wringing that this modest success has caused his friend. Nevertheless, Thompson sustains a credible and ongoing uneasiness between the two.

As a conscientious scourge, Jem prides himself on his acute literary antennae. He abhors “stock phrases” and “clunky dialogue”.

When he attends a revival of ‘The Scullery,’ by ‘Albert Wester,’ he is sneeringly contemptuous of the play. He observes, acutely, that it is “a load of bollocks”. He and the Crucible’s literary manager Piers have a “good old giggle” at Wester’s work.

If you’re curious about Jem’s name, his mother, it transpires, has a taste for literature and called him after Scout’s brother in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem’s dad doesn’t read much, it turns out, and Jem and his mum tease him about not knowing “his Fugard from his Right Guard”. Those readers hoping for a hothouse of family tensions will be disappointed. Though Jem is depressed by Pinner he nevertheless loves both his parents devotedly and equally, remains fond of Dougal the family dog, and still enjoys mum’s “scrumptious” Sun-day lunches.

As Jem appears condemned to lifelong failure, there is an upturn in his fortunes. A competition is announced for which he galvanises himself sufficiently to submit a play. The prize is a reading on the Crucible’s main stage. When Piers alerts Jem to skulduggery and collusion among the judges and entrants, Jem confronts his peers and the competition is declared null and void.

Wisely, Thompson spares us too much of the writers’ group bickering stuff but there’s enough to draw our interest and stoke up the necessary sense of rancour among its members.

From here on, Jem’s literary boulder starts to roll uphill, conveniently, of its own accord. At a party, an affable stranger takes an unaccountable shine to him. Jem rebuffs the approach. He soon regrets this as Mr. Affable turns out to be a respected literary agent. Thanks to some selfless networking by Evan, who is represented by the agency with whom Mr. Affable works, an introduction is effected. Before long, three venues are vying to produce Jem’s play…

I won’t give away the ending – frankly, you couldn’t. Suffice to say it would bring a blush to the brass neck of the most craven Sunday night feelgood telly hack. Jem won’t be irked by this caveat as, being an iconoclast, he detests flattery. I’ll ignore him and tell you that Stephen Thompson’s novel is well paced, well shaped, and is a pleasurable read.

Swung

Ewan Morrison
JONATHAN CAPE, £11.99
pp339 ISBN 9780224078764

REVIEWER: COLIN WATERS

Irony is the Durex of intention. One can venture into the foolish or disreputable or expose one’s vulnerability safe in the knowledge that should we find ourselves called on it we can always claim we were of course being ironic. David and Alice, the protagonists of Ewan Morrison’s first full-length novel Swung, are past-masters of irony. Within pages of first encountering them we are told of “their ironic names for each other”, “the way she put everything in inverted commas”, and how she moves “in that caricature of sexy”. They have just bought a flat in Glasgow’s West End almost on an ironic whim, as everything such a purchase might imply – status, a commitment to couple-dom – Alice and David have already rejected.

Alice is a Californian, a serial gatherer of degrees, hairstyles, lovers – but not moss. The product of a hippy mess of a mother and AWOL father, Alice at the age of 35 is still trying to live down her itinerant childhood and youth. After washing up in Glasgow she meets David when he interviews her for a job at Scotia TV. David works in Human Resources, his “kiss-ass corporate job”, but once he was an aspiring actor. The irony is – and it’s a rather less controllable irony than the variety the couple use to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions – David suffers performance-anxiety. Formerly married with a five-year-old daughter, he walked out when he found himself acting out the part of one half of “the caricature couple”.

The anxiety manifests itself as impotence, his flaccidity hanging over into his new relationship with Alice. “I’m impotent. In so many ways”, he tells her on their first date. Counter-intuitively, she thinks, “it was absolutely the best chat-up line I’d ever heard”. Something clearly chimes within her. “She wouldn’t walk out on him like her mother had with her father. Like she had done with so many things before.” The price of staying though is, as they both discover, extreme.

The title refers to the swinging scene, a twilight sexual underground whose participants aren’t necessarily fringe deviants or moral revolutionaries but quite possibly your friends and neighbours. It’s a remake of the car keys suburban sex parties of Seventies legend, only now conducted through the inter-net which (ironically?) allows both a greater degree of discretion (frequently a quality swingers demand of potential partners) and exhibitionism (personal ads are often accompanied by photos explicitly detailing the wares on offer, so to speak). Clocking David’s voyeuristic side after discovering his addiction to a member’s only swingers’ site, Alice suggests they participate in the scene to revive his libido.

Key to understanding Alice and David is the knowledge that they are a late thirties incarnation of Generation X. There is a direct line from Douglas Coupland’s generation-crunching debut novel and Swung, only the culture raiding, whimsy, self-protective disillusionment, and soft politics of the earlier book have gone sour. All that remains of their youthful selves is a collection of unplayed grunge records (him) and a slacker t-shirt collection (her).

That, and a sense of entitlement, of which they are finally victims. At heart, one suspects they think themselves better than their ‘bourgeois’ neighbours (the word ‘bourgeois’ is bandied around almost as much as ‘corporate’, verbal focal-points of their disgust). They think themselves more creative, and are upset to discover their circumstances suggest otherwise.

Alice and David talk the talk, pulling from their reading of Lacan and Chomsky a theory of idealistic deviancy. “These swingers were different. They weren’t for sale. Gave themselves away for free. It was about sharing. No financial transactions, no ownership. It was in some way a kind of rebellion, a kind of utopia.” The move from Generation X to Generation XXX is seemingly complete.

And yet, as Morrison cleverly demonstrates, even the swinging scene has been infected with a sort of corporate ethos. Swinger ads are written in a bland sales pitch style reminiscent of job applications he’s processed. On visiting fellow swingers’ flats, the couple are inevitably given a tour that reminds David of an estate agent showing off a property. And when manipulating Alice into her first reluctant foursome, David uses a “Classic HR crisis-management technique. Allow the participant to feel that they have made the decision themselves.”

Swinging, as far as the British have previously been concerned, is a subject fit only for broad farce. In reaction Morrison is scrupulous in stripping the swinging scene of its rich comic potential, reserving his satirical glare for Scotia TV and its bleeding-edge working practices. In documenting an apparently minority pursuit, Morrison has served up a generation’s epitaph. The condom has burst and so has the dream. Where the dream runs out along with youth, ideologies, art, the family, work and other traditional methods of constructing one’s identity, Swung suggests, there begins swinging. “In the absence of appreciation from the outside world [swinging] did reassure him that he actually existed and that other people were as f***ed up as he was.” As a result, Swung is a good read but not a happy read. The explicit scenes offer titillation but one puts down the book weighed down by post-coital tristesse.

Wherever The Saltire Flies
Kenny MacAskill & Henry McLeish
LUATH PRESS, £8.99
pp284 ISBN 1905222688

REVIEWER:MICHAEL FRY

The waitress in the bar in Washing-ton DC flashed her perfect smile at me and asked, “Where y’all from?” I said I was from Edinburgh in Scotland. “Gee,” she whooped in practised delight, “My mother was from Scotland too!” Oh, I politely inquired, what part? “Cork!” she replied in triumph.

Ordinary Americans’ notions of everywhere foreign are notoriously hazy, because nothing of importance ever happens outside the United States – does it? To go by this book, notions are not much clearer among those of the Ameri-can elite who, for one reason and another, pay the fees (presumably hefty) to join Caledonian Clubs or St Andrew’s Societies in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and other cities.

This class of people have their own attributes, not necessarily the most obvious ones. Few of them are women, for example, because an amazing number of the clubs and societies refuses admission to the fair sex: in devolved Scotland such a practice would assuredly be banned.

In fact it seems more important to these outfits that their members should be male than that they should be Scots, or at any rate of pure Scots ancestry. A luminary of the one in Washington is called Bellassai: he was hospitable to the book’s authors, former First Minister Henry McLeish and Nat rising star Kenny MacAskill, but I bet he has no cousins running chip-shops in darkest Lanarkshire.

What MacAskill and McLeish have done here is explore a neglected aspect of the Scottish diaspora, one which, they seem convinced, can be of hitherto unexpected benefit. I think I see their point. Scots, even in these days of greater willingness to take responsibility for their own country, remain fixated on a single external relationship above every other, the one with England. It often brings out the worst in the national character, from inflated self-confidence to servile cringeing. Why not cultivate corrective links with other places round the world where a tradition of emigration means Scots need not bother with the English but can just do their own thing, whether in North America, Australasia or the Far East?

The trouble is that when Scots from home and Scots of the diaspora meet face to face, they may find one another hard to recognise. In Vancouver, Chicago or Melbourne the local Caledonian mafia, mixing stuffiness and chauvinism in equal measure, seem to have little idea of present Scottish realities – even those who have visited the old country, travelling no doubt in a tourist cocoon. The authors remain irrepressibly positive about their own encounters, MacAskill in his bright and breezy manner, McLeish more soberly, not to say dourly. But they protest a little too much the value of it all.

In New York they did come across a genuine young expatriate Scot, making it in computers. He told them that “to meet Scots you join the Tartan Army”, which organises itself by email to find bars where the lads can watch the SPL by satellite, “while Americans go to the St Andrew’s Society”.

This squares with my own experience of four years’ living in the US, enlivened by tours round clan societies to lecture them on their heritage. The speaker can spout any old rubbish he likes, for satisfyingly fat fees, because the listeners have no means of checking what he says. So I find it hard to concur with one of the authors’ main conclusions, that the offspring of the Scots diaspora in distant climes have loyally maintained their heritage unto the umpteenth generation. On the contrary, they know nothing. Today’s migrants in the global economy may join the Tartan Army. Their kids will watch baseball.

There are nationalities which in exile maintain their heritage in the way the authors suggest – the Jews are an obvious example, the Armenians another. But Scots overseas have in general done just the opposite. Their talent is for assimilation to the host society: having arrived they just become Americans or Australians or Canadians before moving on and getting on. They do not have to escape a ghetto because they have never been in one.

The kilts sported today at Grandfather Mountain and Stone Mountain were unknown among Scots migrants (as they were largely unknown in Lowland Scotland) till 20 or 30 years ago. Not before changes in US society, the end of the ideal of the melting pot and the growth of ethnic politics, did American Scots discover a tartan identity. This, the product of anything other than real contact with the ancestral homeland, naturally has little to do with the actual identity of the Scots who stayed in Scotland. MacAskill and McLeish mean well, but they have got the wrong end of the stick.

The English Spy

Donald Smith
LUATH PRESS £ £8.99
ppISBN 1905222823

REVIEWER: MARGARET ELPHINSTONE

“You sound like a periodical” says Mrs Rankin to Daniel De Foe and indeed he does, as he expands on the economic benefits of the Union while the city mob runs riot outside. Donald Smith’s De Foe, true to his prototype, has an irresistible urge to lecture, commentate and describe, providing the author with a useful means of providing the reader with historic context, architectural description and a résumé of contemporary politics and religion. The conscientious and loquacious De Foe has been sent to Edinburgh as an English spy while the Scottish parliament debates its demise. His spymaster requires an understanding of Scotland’s political turmoil as De Foe picks his way through a labyrinth of intrigue, betrayal and confusion aided by a cast of dubious characters including the ambiguous Mrs Rankin, poised betwixt the political aristocracy and the Edinburgh demimonde. Jacobite agents and self-seeking opportunists catch his ear while he industriously produces his pamphlets.

Donald Smith captures the seething cacophony of febrile Edin-burgh, the voices from tenements and closes, a rookery of political voices, as challenging for the reader as it must have been for De Foe. But the relentless pamphleteer grinds on and while he might claim to miss his wife and seven children he thrives on the political game, relishing the gossip of kirk and bedchamber, high street and salon. There is no doubting Smith’s sponge-like enthusiasm for Scottish history though sometimes one suspects that De Foe’s propensity to think like a guidebook is not entirely a deliberate fictional strategy.

De Foe is not the only narrator. Mrs Rankin writes indiscreet letters to her “Dear Nellie”, now retired from a dubious career in town. Even the sinister Lord Glamis most uncharacteristically, albeit briefly, reveals his hand in a journal, of which he remarks “I should burn this journal daily at the altar”, but somehow fails to do so. The recusant priest Aeneas tells his story of subversion, secrecy and exile. A mysterious third person narrator masterminds and arranges these diverse voices into a semi-coherent pattern. But truth remains evasive – this tale is history, after all.

Donald Smith’s background is in storytelling, and his fascination with the way stories are spun together is the focus of the book. Conjecture, intrigue and unreliability are rampant, faithfully echoing the spirit of the momentous and endlessly debateable months before the Union. Sustained involvement with character perhaps suffers as a result. We get snapshots of the main players, either ironically revealed by their own voices, or as seen through the eyes of others. It’s part of the storyteller’s art to leave us with uncertainties and open ending. However, the deliberate narrative disjunctions don’t allow very much involvement with anyone. As the characters are all up to their necks in political intrigue they probably wouldn’t relish having their hearts laid bare: Aeneas’s tormented struggles with conscience and desire are the nearest we get to genuine soul-searching.

The English Spy is often more like reading a newspaper than a novel. Facts, not feelings, are the elusive quarry. The English Spy himself was both journalist and novelist; Smith follows in De Foe’s footsteps by producing a hybrid between (fictional) journalism and fiction. This is a slim volume – sparse in some ways and yet full of information. Occasionally I wondered about details: did people talk about hunter gatherers in 1706? I thought I’d caught Smith out on his use of Green Room, but he’s absolutely right – the first OED citation is 1701. Another pastiche of De Foe – Coetzee’s Foe – left me asking different questions, because the emphasis there is on the inner worlds of fiction, not the outer worlds of society and politics. Yet ultimately the two books are talking about the same thing: only the approach is different. Both are attempts to delve into the truth of the matter. Both show us that truth is, and always was, elusive.

De Foe himself would have relished the opportune timing of this bi-centenary volume. Inevitably, Smith quotes Seafield as he closes the 1707 Scottish Parliament, but as a storyteller he knows better than to offer us a closed ending. He ends his book with “a new world in the making, and devil take the hindmost”. The English Spy shows us how this story, like all important stories, is all, and always, in the making.

Shrapnel

Tormod Caimbeul
Ùr-Sgeul £8.99
pp176 ISBN 1-900901-26-9

REVIEWER: AONGHAS MACNEACAIL

If I suggest that the new Gaelic novel Shrapnel, by Tormod Caimbeul, will not easily let every reader in, that implies no criticism. Au contraire, as the author himself might say. The fact is that it’s not only fluent but rich in vocabulary and imagery, and it overflows with perceptive, poetic, and comedic ideas. A substantial part of this book’s strength lies in the fact that its language is as honest as possible, true to each situation and true to each person who features in the story, thereby providing the reader with a narrative that is rigorously committed to the truth.

There’s another distinctive feature to the book: in a sense, we never meet the author, but observe things entirely through the eyes and voices of the characters, which take us through their thoughts and adventures and, occasionally, through their dreams and nightmares.

And who do we meet? In the first breath, we meet John Joseph MacPhee and Fatsboy Donati, who is associated with the establishment we are in, Donati’s. MacPhee will shortly be in the Black Bull, in the company of Beatrice and the Little Old Lady, but while we glance around, we see the Englishman, “at the counter, with his nose in a paper”. Further up the counter can be seen “the man hanging on to his youth” and Ella the Special Vat. Apart from them, the only occupants of the bar are the Maimed face and Murphy. And, over by the window, William CBW Robertson. An incident CBW remembers introduces us to O’Reilly, Wee Slash, Betty Colquhoun and Veronica MacVie, pretty savage creatures, apparently. Then we make the tentative acquaintance of the Boag family, Wee Billy’s wife Edna and her family. Maria Carlotta, Fatsboy’s mother appears from the kitchen, bringing more remembered names into the plot. But, if there’s a villain in the piece, it has to be the “detective-sergeant, retired”, Walter (Shrapnel) Watson, stabbed in the first chapter, seeking revenge for the rest.

It occasionally seems as if this story has as many characters as War and Peace, though it’s nowhere near as long. Virtually every street corner turned and door entered and blink of an eye is liable to lead us to meet another person – lost soul, monster or criminal of one kind or another. It’s clear that the narrator, in his search for refuge, is always dependent on others, and if a can of beer goes with the shelter, so much the better.

His method is reminiscent of the films of Robert Altman, with their layers of voices speaking simultaneously, while apparently not listening to each other. And though it doesn’t model itself on a classical tale, like Ulysses, it does have the same attention to detail and stream of consciousness to be found in the James Joyce novel. The snatches of song, old and new, in both Gaelic and English, and the tangential thoughts springing from the narrator’s mind add to the liveiness of the book.

And, in allowing the characters to tell their own story, he follows the same convention as James Kel-man, to whom it is important that neither the author’s voice nor his opinions should predominate, that the “author as God” should not rule the narrative. The novel is set in Edinburgh, in areas not unlike those which feature in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, except that it’s the bottle rather than the needle which dominates the characters’ lives.

Were we to say that Norman Campbell’s first astonishing novel, Deireadh an Fhoghair (The End of Autumn) had echoes of Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, that’s not to say in any way that the novel was derivative of the other distinguished author. Campbell drew to the full on his own artistic and imaginative powers to portray a world through the lives of three elderly people living in rural isolation. This time his environment is entirely different – a city’s underbelly, awash with drunks and criminals, where only a thin membrane separates peace and violence. And he retains our attention and interest in every incident, good or bad, right to the end of this equally astonishing story, without once losing our engagement with a rabble where no individual can hold any attraction for us.

Norman Campbell’s particular skills ensure we don’t wish to miss so much as a syllable of the material he presents. If Deireadh an Fhoghair made a powerful beginning to Gaelic prose writing for our generation, Shrapnel provides another bright new direction to the literature of the Gael.

Blog / Discussion

Rusticated… (II)

by Brian Morton
x
2
Posts Remaining