by Ronald Frame

William McIlvanney’s Long Weekend

October 28, 2009 | by Ronald Frame

SOME NOVELISTS WRITE too much. One sees the reasons why. Publishers realise they’re on to a good thing – the proverbial milch-cow. Agents in their eye-to-the-main-chance way hint that other publishers might be even more interested. The more one book can resemble its predecessor, the better. A zippy quote or two gets you into a journalist’s BlackBerry, then you’re phoned up on a regular basis.

And of course the author is as much product as the book. A few tics – oh, excellent – never mind that we’re reducing you to a kind of cartoon version of yourself.

Milk, milk, milk! Sell, sell, sell!

And always the fear, the horror at the heart of publishing darkness, that the public might in its fickleness start to forget you.

It takes great courage therefore to step off the carousel, to not come up with the goods. The enigma of SILENCE isn’t what modern publishing is about. The idea of writing only when one has something to say is anathema – in these days when ‘literary fiction’ is regarded as (quoted recently to me) ‘a bloodbath’ and when Genre is definitely Best.

Courage is required – let’s not call the effort suicidal folly – and a highly developed sense of self-confidence. Such as that demonstrated by….

William McIlvanney, whose Weekend is his first novel in ten years. In publishing terms that’s like surviving the Pleistocene ice age.

No risk with a writer of his intelligence (his restless curiosity about the world) that the result – continuing the glacial analogies I seem to have slipped into – will be frozen in time. There’s no attempt here to merely replicate past successes, even though the book that results can trace a direct line of descent. Weekendis as much about NOW, and the currency of life, as any of the shriller novels of scatterfire prose promoted in the past decade.

No doubt further William McIlvanney novels will appear – I very much hope so – so it may not be quite fair to admit my love of authors’ late (sometimes last) novels. Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, John Cheever’s Oh What a Paradise It Seems, Vladimir Nabokov’s Transparent Things. Without losing their inventiveness, they dispense with all that’s superfluous – and what’s left after this rigorous reduction is the essence of themselves. Signature works.

I doubt if one could confuse a page of Weekend for the work of any other Scottish author. The witty similes and one-line gags, the easy air of book knowledge – also the precision of observation, about how people behave (and embarrass themselves) in public places. But it’s the inner life – the spectrum of competing thought and feeling, from protective self-delusion to shattering personal insight, from self-pity to benevolent weltschmerz – which gives this author’s work such (an unfashionable term perhaps) humanity.

He understands people, through the flummery and flimflam, to the core of their being.

Weekend has a more densely argued narrative than its predecessor, The Kiln, or the novels before that one. Whatever I say in such a short space can only crudely undersell the subtleties of William McIlvanney’s moral sensibility.

What it’s ‘about’ is an Eng.Lit/creative-writing study weekend, involving Glasgow-based academics and students. They set off from the city – leaving behind a sky that has ‘slammed down like a dustbin lid’ – and make for Willowvale, an institution (not a hotel, not a hostel, maybe a kind of conference centre) set in its Victorian-Gothic splendour on a tranquil West Coast island, Cannamore. The ages of the students (mostly women) range from twenty to forty or so; their instructors (ha, ha), the men, are modest successes, professionally speaking, but William McIlvanney: Cutting through flummery and flimflam undermined by their demons.

Their world is a Pizzaland menu of broken marriages, Hello! kultur, cancer scans, Janet Reger lingerie, Democritus, Michael Jackson’s tears, surrogate motherhood, multiple sclerosis’s long and ungentle night, Coldplay and The Strokes and American History X, unde-constructed socialism, Anita Brookner and Goths and Graithnock ghosts, fishing-in-bags-for-chirruping-mobiles, unreconstructed hard men holding up bar counters, Robbie Williams, unhinged taxi drivers, lotto cards and eternal hope.

Behind all the ensuing ‘coilings in the dark’ (there is quite a lot of sex), we’re adrift in Classical Mythology, by way of the taped lecture notes of one of the course leaders (and dramatically imploding erstwhile star of the Glasgow literary scene), Harry Beck.

Willowvale was constructed, in its splendid scenic isolation, by a tycoon-philanthropist in the Carnegie mould: less illustrious, less armadillo-clad than his fellow Scot-made-good. Willowvale masks a sadness, represented by a gargoyle of a wailing woman with hair flying – a secret I won’t spoil for you.

Indeed the separate relationships in the book between women and men are best left for the reader to unravel. (All avowedly heterosexual – might that be one rare miscalculation about 2006 mores, supposing that people are so dependably yin and yang?)

The youngest and most inexperienced twosome have the happiest time of it. But even so it’s hinted that the male in question, student Mickey Deans, has already put the incident behind him. It would be easy, but misleading, to cast the mood as angst-filled and regretful and even bitter. For the men, one feels, women have a propensity to c-l-in-g; they prefer decisive action, and so they condemn themselves as heartless – shits, if you will. The problem for some of the women is that they remember too much and for too long. Their failures are emotional; the men’s meanwhile relate to ambition and status.

Yin and yang, did I say? We’re talking almost of two different species. Men and women can’t do without each other, but the effort of staying together is pure purgatory.

The handling of these relations is lightened for us by nostalgic recall – fond memories are shielded, cherished – and by a stubborn faith among the dramatis personae that the future will be better. Even at their lowest, falling back on Oprah-ish talkshow clichés to express themselves, the characters blithely suppose that next time they’ll know better. The years, one suspects, won’t bring wisdom: age is no more than confirmation of survival.

Bleak? Or just realistic?

Nothing is new under the sun. (However northerly our degree of latitude.) The modern top story is rooted in tales of Oedipus and Teiresias, as we act out roles handed down to us from icy Mount Olympus above the cloud-line. Our stories are only the latest retellings of the archetypes.

Sober as all that gets, causing you to slow down to get the gist of those freighted sections of exegesis, there’s relief elsewhere in some choice passages of comic writing, as if the author is showing you all the gifts at his disposal. An account of a Woman’s Guild evening gone wrong is hilarious, and a couple of rejection letters couched in publishers’ euphemisms are horribly like the real thing – perfect pastiches. Another diversion from broken hearts on forlorn Cannamore is a superb account of a bullfight in Spain, reminisced upon by a character. The point, I take it, is that the corrida formulates the chanciness of life into a cruel, calibrated ritual – an admission and confining of our fears. Just as cavemen drew the images of bulls on cave walls, as if to master them.

For a slimmish book, it’s a full-fat read. If sometimes there seems to be a little too much of the intellectual matter, I’ll now break a cardinal precept of reviewing (= clever-clogs-me knows it all) – and confess that the problem is likely to be mine. With an author of William McIlvanney’s distinction, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. He surely knows quite well what he’s doing. In the same way, I used to feel that any puzzlement I might have with a new Muriel Spark novel was owing to myself, my own failure to run fast enough to catch up. The sorceress was always several crucial steps ahead.

Another McIlvanney virtue, and it may seem odd to have to point it out.

He can write about women.

Very few male writers bring this off.

At any rate the transgendering seems very convincing to me.

A woman reader might wonder perhaps about the omnipresence of breasts, popping up out of dressing-gowns and bustiers, nipples hardening. Nobody, or only a handful, can ever know. But I’d hazard to say that William McIlvanney gets it as right about women as any man could hope to, and as almost no one else does. (Jan Morris, after the change-over from James, wrote with a unique perspective on the sexes’ differences of perception – how life feels through your pores, by sense of touch.) It’s as if William McIlvanney inhabits the skins of Alison, Jacqui, Kate, Marion, Vikki, he’s seeing out through their eyes, thinking their thoughts.

William McIlvanney is the most adult of authors, at the opposite remove from that emotional and hey-look-at-me immaturity which mars so much Scottish fiction and theatre and film. No falsifying sentimentality – ditto.

What the characters achieve, at best, are “temporary pleasures”: brief intimacy, the “borrowed heat of another’s body”. Bodies accommodate themselves more easily than brains, and even then…. Sex, it’s said at one point, is “a game of solitaire for two”. The closest rapport is that between the fifty-something head of department and his wife struck down by MS, who haven’t had physical relations for years. There’s a sense of the utter strangeness of strangers, even with best friends and lovers.

A sex war is still going on, for all that women have become freed up and men have softened (never, in this macho culture, feminized themselves). You may disagree with William McIlvanney, but he makes it all credible ON HIS TERMS: which is the achievement of a good writer, a fully secure writer, to articulate a view of life which is consistent (maintaining and not necessarily resolving contradictions) from the first sentence to the last.

His ambitions are grand ones. He’s trying to express what is, in fact, very difficult to put into words. I suspect Virginia Woolf would have understood, and Proust also: the variousness of life, the ridiculousness and gloriousness of it, our being of body and mind and the (sometimes) bewildering contrariness of the two, the inadequacy of reason to cope with our feelings. Words name, they signify, but what runs through our heads isn’t exactly language: on the page, as this novel’s characters rumble, the second-hand value of words cannot convey the fullness of what’s going on inside their brains. Sexuality brings them closer to communication, but afterwards – in the need for some social intercourse – the impact fades, it’s lost again.

(Repeat thought. Would Weekend – a to-the-point, but also casual title – carry the weight that it does if the author was publishing a book even every second year? I really don’t believe it would.)

Several times William McIlvanney speaks of characters searching for “the script”. He mentions the “stage props” of their lives. It’s a Sparkian touch. But here the Divine doesn’t come into play. Humans are dependent on others: and, still more, on themselves. What others do is remind us of the passage of time, which is why we need them there and why we also panic and take our escape routes.

The hulk of Willowvale is described a “massive monument to futility”, to what a life didn’t achieve. At least the characters can pack their hold-alls and leave, and return to Glasgow. Those who want to change will try to do so, keeping true to what was revealed to them in the crystalline Atlantic light of Cannamore. Those who would be bereft without their heavy back-pack of guilt will go on shouldering it, back to the familiar routine and grainy half-light of shortening days in the city.

A chastening read.
“The culture now was a smorgasbord of passive options. The book had to take its chances.”

In Weekend William McIlvanney offers a masterclass in how to treat our very ancient modern condition: with as much high seriousness and sly wit as it deserves, with compassion for our foolishness and awe at our powers of endurance – simply our getting up every morning to begin again.

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