by Brian Morton

Goodness in a Fallen World: The fate of Robin Jenkins

November 2, 2009 | by Brian Morton

“IT’S ABOUT MORALITY, not geography.” Robin Jenkins’ fate was to write at a time when the proper matter of fiction was supposed to be psychology,history and its illusions, or the nature of fiction itself, anything but questions of good and evil. The sheer old-fashionedness of his fiction meant that he was described as “Scotland’s greatest living novelist” only with a certain qualified hesitation and only with any passion after he had died. He passed away earlier this year, as quietly as he had lived. He was 92, another problem; it is easier to pigeonhole writers who live for a modest span and write less, and certainly easier to pigeonhole writers who don’t discover a new, comic touch past the age of 80.

Jenkins’ own imaginative geography was only complex on the surface, novels set in Spain, Afghanistan and Borneo. However, the deep structure was unmistakably Scottish, the themes immediately recognisable from Hogg and Galt and George Douglas Brown, the Scottish writers he most admired. His own themes were dark, his method unfashionably straightforward, his conclusions – if such they were – disconcertingly ambiguous and consistently troubling. In an age where the novel is expected to be playful and capricious, he retained a tone of deep seriousness. At a time when moral symbolism was unfashionable, when fiction built around a crisis of faith seemed hopelessly Victorian, he practised both with a doggedness that was easily mistaken for conservatism. Jenkins’ main subject was perhaps the most difficult of all to dramatise without bathos or sentiment, the fate of goodness in a fallen world.

Only in later years did he seem to accept the possibility that a smiling shrug was probably the only eternal answer.

The words above are from a letter. It was written, pawkily, in red biro, as a reminder of how our friendship had started and in most of the important ways, continued. Between 1967 and 1972, John Jenkins – the Robin, by some unexplained ornithological logic, came with the publication of his first novel So Gaily Sings the Lark – was my English teacher at Dunoon Grammar School. After I left, I continued to send him work and he occasionally sent me ideas, as he had once set essays. One was a tiny cutting from the paper, the story of an Australian woman who’d walked miles in the baking heat to bring water to her children, who were trapped in a broken-down car. If he hated injustice most, he hated sentimentality with only slightly diminished passion and was gently contemptuous when my fictional version allowed one of the children to survive. He was also amused that I’d changed the setting to Scotland in the snow, and the life-giving water to a can of petrol. My claim to know nothing of Australian plants or accents didn’t pacify him – “It’s about morality, not geography” – but nor did my suggestion that to save one child was more complex morally than losing two. Later on, the death of one of his own children was to be a turning point. For him, the heart of that tiny clipping, which I still have tucked into my copy of Fergus Lamont, his finest novel, had nothing to do with the supposed victims at all. “It’s the mother, you see, who makes it important.” Two, or perhaps three, keynotes in one short letter.

John Jenkins was born in Cambuslang in 1912. He adopted the pseudonym for his first novel, So Gaily Sings the Lark, in 1951.

By present standards, that makes him a late starter, but from then until his death, he averaged a novel every couple of years. The only significant gap is between The Sardana Dancers in 1964 and the ambiguous “homecoming” of A Very Scotch Affair in 1968. He was brought up by his mother on her own and with very little money. He spoke rarely of her, but was always moved when he came across heroic images of women in literature or in life.

There’s no mistaking the vividness of the Drumsagart slums in The Thistle and the Grail, his 1954 novel in which the Holy Grail is not so much debunked as humanised by being recast as a football trophy. Those slums weren’t so much an echo of his own upbringing, as of his experience as a trainee teacher in the East End of Glasgow. Jenkins had gone to Hamilton Academy and then to Glasgow University. He disliked the training he had and reserved a special contempt for his teachers in literature and history, complaining as many have done that he might as well have been in an English school. When the war began, he registered as a conscientious objector and spent 1940 to 1946 working for the Forestry Service in Argyll. The Cone-gatherers may be allegory, but it has real experience behind it.

Cowal became Jenkins’s home but also the focus of his imagination, an almost-island that was and is deceptively pastoral but still within moral earshot of the city. The war politicised him, or continued the process that had begun in childhood, and he became a member of the Independent Labour Party, a lost moral force in British politics and the only formal organisation it is possible to imagine he might ever have joined. He was delighted when I found a reference to American Communism as being “neither in nor of the world”. “That is exactly what we were like. It all seemed delightfully rarefied, as if the world we talked about wasn’t quite real and the problems we were trying to solve imaginary. I don’t think I was ever really political. I think I’m a moralist, through and through. Very Scotch.”

That tiny echo of one of his own titles is interesting. A Very Scotch Affair marked a cusp in Jenkins’ career. It’s the story of a man who leaves his wife for an exotic mistress and then tries to come back. Not until Fergus Lamont did he offer a more trenchant account of the gap between dreams and reality, romantic self-image and the anchoring weight of one’s given environment; as ever, he comes down on no side, neither elevating the imagination above experience nor hinting that there was moral value in settling for ordinariness. His own life had a similar trajectory; he neither admired exoticism nor puffed his Scottishness.

The longest gap in Jenkins’ writing life was when he taught at the Gaya School in Sabah, Borneo, spending four years there with May – he’d married Mary Wyllie in 1937 – and their children. Before that, he’d held British Council teaching posts in Kabul and Barcelona, settings which made their way into his work. It’s no coincidence, though, that his greatest creation should bear a Cowal name. When he returned to teach at Dunoon Grammar School in 1968, he was confronted by Lam-onts in just about every class roll.

Fergus Lamont is probably his single claim to greatness. It was at that point unique in his work in being narrated in the first person – Jenkins had been reading or re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald – with all the treacherous unreliability such a point of view entails. Though seen as a more realistic and psychologically nuanced book than most of its predecessors, it was, ironically, very much a symbolic/allegorical work, with Fergus, the slum-boy turned aristocrat and poet, an ambiguous emblem of Scotland itself, its self-deluding romanticism, corrosive nostalgia for a past yet to happen, and eagerness to wallow in misery. Fergus’s most typical gesture is to write to the Scotsman and Glasgow Herald, advocating that prison inmates be allowed to wear the kilt. It’s not absolutely clear whether the suggestion is literal or ironic, the gesture of a self-important writer-to-the-papers (like Hugh MacDiarmid) or that of a shrewd debunker who knows that many of his readers will take the idea at face value.

Fergus Lamont was to be the most taxing book he ever wrote. It sparked another gap in that patient succession of books and it left him, as he wrote to me, “a bit emptied out, it’s as if everything you know goes into a book and when you’re finished you don’t know anything at all”. Significantly, his next book was to be his one and only historical novel, a tale of the Disruption of 1842 and of one man’s struggle to choose sides. The Awakening of George Darroch is all the more typically “Jenkins” for being set in what feels like his natural chronology. It is also squarely directed at what had become his main theme, which is – crudely – what does it mean to be good in a bad world?

“It’s the hardest thing of all, you know, to create a genuinely good character who’s also interesting. You remember when we were studying Paradise Lost? You don’t forget Satan, but you do forget Jesus in Paradise Regained. What a milksop!” John Jenkins was a better teacher after I left school. For the most part, his classroom manner was hapless and disorganised; we called him Harry Worth after a television comedy actor. He groaned over the syllabus, but with every offhand comment sent me looking for something else – Rob Roy? (“his worst – what you need to do is read all of Scott, one after the other – ideally break your leg in some lonely cottage where that’s all there is to read – oh, and start with A Legend of Montrose”), Julius Caesar ? (“why can’t we do A Winter’s Tale or The Tempest instead?”).

He abhorred the Burns cult and the “English” Burns of ‘A Cotter’s Saturday Night’, but read ‘Holy Willie’s Tale’, ‘The Twa Dugs’ and ‘To a Louse’ with ribald passion. Among his slightly younger contemporaries, he admired William McIlvanney (also a sometime schoolmaster) and Archie Hind (he thought The Dear Green Place was a near-perfect title; you can imagine him using it himself). He also defended me to the hilt when the headmaster confiscated my copy of Alan Sharp’s A Green Tree in Gedde, on the grounds that it was “immoral”; John thought that the infamous sex passages were so wilfully obscure that they were unlikely to do my immortal soul – in which he of course didn’t believe – much harm.

Other enthusiasms were less predictable. He was delighted when he saw me toting around Peter de Vries’s Mackerel Plaza and John Cheever’s Bullet Park, orange Penguins bought for 2/6d because I liked the titles. John Milton, unexpectedly, fired him up. The idea of paradise obsessed Robin Jenkins. He must have glimpsed it in Sabah, but what drew him was how you lived in it once the fruit had been tasted, and by extension whether living in it without getting that dangerous nectar on your lips was worth the other.

Eden figures strongly in The Changeling, his darkest and most subversive book and his clearest exploration of the concept of Original Sin. Young Tom Curdie is plucked from those familiar slums and a vicious family by his teacher Charlie Forbes who brings him to Argyll. Tom is transformed, or perhaps transfigured, by the experience, but Charlie and his family begin to entertain doubts: was it the right decision to take Tom out of his (un)natural environment? is it really true after all that no good deed goes unpunished? Writing in the third person, Jenkins has other questions: was Charlie’s generosity as disinterested as it looked? was Tom the unwitting serpent in paradise, rather than a victim? In 1958, there was little public awareness or understanding of paedophilia, but Jenkins (through the Curdie family) hints at it and grasps more of its terrible ordinariness than do most of a younger generation who’ve grown up in full, disillusioned awareness of its ubiquity. The ending is terrible in the proper sense, entailing a vast betrayal and another lost child, caught up in that yawningly empty space between brave, hapless mothers and vain, self-regarding men in search of easy goodness.

Perhaps the most telling title in Jenkins’ whole output – it might equally apply to The Changeling – is A Would-Be Saint. Gavin Hamilton is a kind of living affront to those around him, ordinary people compounded of weakness and need, faced with a man who seems to rise above all that, the way Calum’s Christ-like innocence and purity in The Cone-gatherers separates him from the rest of humanity. What rescues all three stories from allegorical crudity is the level of ambiguity Jenkins builds into his telling. In the case of The Cone-gatherers it is also unclear whether the historical context – the violence of the Second World War and the seeming imminence of apocalypse – involves a suspension of otherwise universal moral values or whether the novel simply creates a microcosm: as without, so within. Calum is good but also deformed and it is his presence which ironically precipitates the collapse of Lady Runcie-Campbell’s estate. From a certain perspective, the “evil” gamekeeper Duror is merely an ordinary man. In a similar way, doesn’t “would-be” sound slightly bogus? Is Gavin really all he seems or claims to be?

“You have to be very careful. Always watch out for who’s telling you the story and what his motives are. Think of Fitzgerald. The hero of that book isn’t Gatsby. It’s the chap who’s telling the story . . . whose name I can’t remember for the moment! But don’t be afraid of forgetting things. That’s how you learn and that’s how you come to re-read effectively. Often the least important parts of a great book are the ones you remember, which means that its meaning often lies in the bits you forget.” Such a view was typical of Jenkins’ effort to write in and about a fallen world. We ate of the Tree of Knowledge and washed it down with the Ale of Forgetting. In latter years, his own memory lapses grew more frequent and not always kindly.

He was haunted by the premature death of May (which inspired a rare foray into poetry) and of his son Colin. I once sat with him listening to a recording of the English Communist composer Alan Bush’s string quartet Dialectic, which I had brought as a present. John wasn’t particularly musical, but it seemed to move him. He asked about Bush’s life and career, which in some respects chimed with his own. I then mentioned, far too casually, that Bush and his wife had lost a child young. John looked away hard and long over the Firth of Clyde. “That’s the thing. That’s the thing far more than any ‘dialectic’.” And then, as if to restore the teacher/pupil relationship, he told me how Johnson bluntly “comforted” Boswell on the death of yet another child by telling him how lucky he was to have some of his offspring still living. “Don’t believe what they tell you about our forebears not grieving the loss of young ones. It’s fundamental, fundamental.” When I left, he handed me back the Bush record without a comment.

His own losses were never far from his mind, but in later years memory of many other things faded fast. Late in life he had the strange pleasure of reading his own work again, in most cases with no recollection of having written it. I came across him one afternoon reading The Tiger of Gold: “Do you know? It’s really rather good!” That forgetfulness may have been largely a natural shrivelling, but it also squared with his passionate conviction that writing of any power detaches itself from its creator and the circumstances of its creation to enjoy an independent existence. A writer should no more recognise his own words in future years than a wild animal would recognise young once the smell of birth was off them. In that same way, he could be savage, too, about passages or turns of plot where he felt he’d failed the story.

In reality, those moments were very rare indeed. Though by no means an accomplished stylist, possibly even a writer who hated the idea of “style”, Jenkins never failed his story with a fudge or a neat ending. He is as satisfyingly ambiguous as those overpraised American moralists Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, though he may have their bigness of scope and bravura.

I think I understand even so why he’s been overlooked, even in his homeland, or rather especially in his homeland. Most of the graduate students who visited Toward to talk about his work were American. Though Isobel Murray and other compatriots have praised him generously, much of the best writing about Jenkins is credited to names like Horst Prillinger and Ingibjorg Agustsdottir, in much the way that at one time the only reliable single-volume source on Scottish writing was by a man called Kurt Wittig. It goes deeper than that, though. He chose not to be part of “the Scottish literary scene”, if such a thing exists. Before Canongate began to publish and republish his work, he had trouble finding a sympathetic contract, starting with the now defunct Maclellan in Glasgow, before moving briefly to John Lehmann’s imprint with Happy for the Child, his second book, thereafter to Macdonald, Cape (again briefly) and Gollancz. Though Taplinger have reprinted his best-known books, only 1961’s Dust on the Paw, suitably exotic, perhaps, was taken up by an Ameri-can publisher. It wasn’t a reputation made elsewhere, at least not until the graduate schools began to see him as a suitable case for study.

Prolific, grave, troubling, blackly comic, Robin Jenkins gave the impression of a man who hadn’t stopped speaking yet, hadn’t quite formulated the complex idea he was searching for. His delightful hesitancy in person, his diffidence about praise (whether taking it or giving it), his unease with fixed critical categories were all part of a deep instinct that everything is unfinished and unfinishable.

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