Not for the first time, we have Walter Scott to thank, or perhaps to blame. Conventionally, the historical novel as a European phenomenon – and it was certainly phenomenal – is claimed as the Shirra’s invention, his great insight. Its emergence gave rise to one of the great paradoxes: how can the past be fiction, but also “true”? And does the burden of history have anything to do with the fact that Scott is no longer widely read?
Nor is he often emulated. By that I mean very few in these parts have set out consciously to create the grand, definitive, historical statement through stories. Robert Louis Stevenson said, near the end, that he felt sure he could match the Shirra given – no luck there, poor soul – the chance. RLS was proud of his knowledge of Scotland’s history. But was such a book ever likely? Nothing in Stevenson’s art suggests a writer suited to the creation of a Covenanting War and Peace.
Where else to look? Sunset Song might come to mind, but it lacks the impersonality, the multiplicity of perspectives, that generally attend historical fiction. William McIlvanney’s Docherty is assuredly a novel-in-history, but it does not, save allusively, aim to tell “a nation’s story”. Class is another matter: one of the book’s explicit aims was to restore common folk to the accepted historical record.
But that version is tenacious. Scottish history has received most attention, welcome or not, in popular fiction. There they all are: those kings, queens, heroes and villains. Great fun, too. Yet distant, impossibly different, from anything recognised as the ordinary, modern sense of “Scotland’s story”. To put it otherwise: we have nothing to approach Gore Vidal’s (sometimes) great series of fictions based around the rise – and possible fall – of the American republic and empire.
There is another issue. Scotland’s history is itself disputed ground. When even a popular TV history can cause “controversy” because professors dislike its emphases and style, the idea of a common story becomes fanciful. Then you are reminded to ask why TV should even bother with such a project. One answer: because we Scots are astonishingly ignorant of simple facts, thanks mostly to the shameful failures of the education system. Three centuries of Union, of rewriting, Balmoralising and tartanry have hardly helped.
The fact remains that the greatest number of us have a strange, disjointed sense of what happened, and why it might matter. Scottish history is received almost as a series of parables with no obvious – nor continuing – connections between them. Anyone who “did” history in our schools knows the joke. What happened? Er, Picts, Bannockburn, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and some stuff about an industrial revolution.
History is a problem for any novelist, in any case. You can see as much in the greatest narrative cannonball of them all, War and Peace. Tolstoy did an immense amount of research, as any proper voice-of-the-nation would. No detail was too small, no battlefield tour too dull. But what was he then supposed to do with this immense quantity of stuff? Stick it in the novel, page after page, of course.
Newer translations give a better idea of the greatness of War and Peace, but still they fail to erase a tiny, lingering question: is this a history book, or a fiction based in history? Why does Tolstoy seem to veer from one to the other? More to the point, can they be reconciled?
It becomes a question of licence. By what right does a novelist mess around with historical fact? But if a writer is not messing around, or making fictive art, why bother with a novel? Nothing prevented Tolstoy from writing a very large piece of historical non-fiction. Would humanity, symbolism, the mythic dimension and sheer drama have thereby been lost? The better historians struggle constantly with that little difficulty.
Some reviewers of Anglo-American fiction nevertheless bemoan two facts, as though they are connected. First, they note that a great many successful contemporary novels seem to take refuge in history, as though in the playground, at the expense of the contemporary world. David Mitchell, born to play, is one of the prominent examples of the moment. So is this why, hacks further ask, that a book such as Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, set slap in the middle of the Thatcherite Eighties, is a rare thing? Where are the state-of-the-nation novels?
All of this is a long preamble to saying that James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still is very long, in places very fine, and afflicted too often by the need to lay out the facts and headlines of recent history. Implicit in its creation, nevertheless, is a teasing question: can Scotland hope for one of those state-of-the-nation epics when the nation of Scotland remains a submerged and stateless entity?
The novel aims to be our contemporary. Which is to say it carries a large cast – sometimes too large – through the social and political changes of the recent past, from the mid-1960s to the present. Its backdrop is the re-emergence of that strange beast, national identity, in the years when we all began to learn to ask what it means to be a Scot. It is framed – a nice virtual pun – by a photographic exhibition being organised by a son in honour of his dead father. Had Gordon Williams not written a novel named From Scenes Like These, Robertson might have been spoiled for a choice of titles.
Michael Pendreich, that son in his father’s shadow, is the book’s hub. Through him, the double notion of images and history – a half a century of both – will be transmitted. A few will dismiss the novel, no doubt, as “the Nationalist version”, given the clear identification of homeland with home rule. But Robertson, to his credit, is smarter than that: his finest creation is a Tory MP with certain tastes and, in the end, a great dignity.
The book makes a brave attempt, too, to marry social realism with the version too often, and wrongly, called magical. There are italicised pages – some work, some do not – that strive to give a sense of the land itself, its mythic variety, its hold on the imagination. There is also the figure, for an example, of a haunted wanderer escaping into the map of Scotland, yet never seeming to reach a destination.
But there are, too, all the clichés of recent Scottish political history, the stereotypical attitudes and arguments of what passes for “debate”. Activists, artists, journalists and politicians contend. Which is fine: they did and do. But the book would have been enhanced, I think, by a clearer acknowledgement that for much of the time ordinary people did not, in fact, give a toss about Scot-land’s great upheavals, its referendums and its personality issues. Life is commonplace, but the historical novel needs, or is thought to need, more.
Exposition is the death of fiction. Too often Robertson finds it necessary for one character or another to “bring us up to date”. Failing that, the author himself wades in with the facts he holds to be pertinent. The decision is arguable, often enough, but on no occasion does it benefit the prose. Thus: “The poll tax – or community charge, as it was officially known – was born of the Scottish rates revaluation of early 1980s. When property owners saw what their new bills were likely to be, they howled, and the Scottish Tories, anxious to appease their own natural supporters.…”
The reader and the book could live safely, I think, without such passages. Raise the poll tax rebellion by all means, but each time Robertson surrenders to history in this fashion – as though worried that his structure lacks an armature – he supplies passages that read like paraphrases of the many “books, magazines, journals and other documents” he acknowledges dutifully at the novel’s end.
It counts as a technical problem, but a large problem. In his better pages, Rob-ertson meditates on history, using it as the point at which art can begin. At his worst, he offers the textbook version, as though journalism and academic history are no different from lived experience. Fiction is more than a recitation of what went on, according to the press – a baffled press, as it happened – in the 1979 referendum. So a fissure arises within the novel.
Take, in contrast, a lovely few pages on Edinburgh in the early 1970s. Plenty of facts, each of them exact, are here, but there’s more: the atmosphere, the sense of the place, without tedious documentary validation.
There follow several pages on the brief, miserable existence of the Scottish Labour Party. Perhaps in a big, capacious novel such details add texture, but details – and barely remembered details – they remain. Nor do they, though such is the clear intention, develop character much. History in this sense seems like a very long haul.
Better by far are Robertson’s attempts to depict one of those morose – and here vengeful – British government spooks we used to believe were hanging around. More human is the woman journalist brutalised and degraded. More truthful – more like the truth of the times – is Michael Pendreich’s liberation as a gay man. And the death of that traumatised, haunted wanderer – “You ate the stones, and the sea faded, and the land faded…” – seems to point to a novel that might have been written. A better novel, perhaps.
History is as slippery as fiction. But in fiction there is, persistently, the bigger story.
James Robertson is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at
18.00 on 14 August and 12.00 on 28 August
AND THE LAND LAY STILL James Robertson
HAMISH HAMILTON, £18.99, PP674, ISBN 978-0-241-14356-8