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This review is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.FLYING SCOTS
When Scotland's population democratically voted in favour of the nation's resumption of statehood on 11 September 1997, and the next day a Scots prime minister of Britain declared the prospect of a federation of countries within the northwest European archipelago, the study of Scottish literature may have been offered the opportunity of serious academic attention in an international arena in a way it has never had before.
The study of Scottish literature has grown in the Academy of course, within Scotland, and in particular outposts around the world: the universities of Grenoble, Guelph, South Carolina, Flinders (Australia) and Waikato (New Zealand) are noted centres; but the subject hasn't achieved acceptance in the Anglo-American critical establishment such as that afforded to Irish literature. 'We get a lot of Irish poets down here,' the president of an Oxford college recently remarked to me; 'but not so many Scots...'
There are, of course, reasons for this. In the eighteenth century, many Scots set out to create a British literature both in deed (Scott, Smollett, James Thomson - 'Rule Britannia!') and in the universities. One opinion has it that Scots were the original inventors of English literature as an academic subject. But if there is a defining period in modern Scottish literature, perhaps its historical parameters are 1707-1997: nearly three centuries of cultural distinction telling another story than that suggested by Scotland's political anonymity. This book is its definitive summation.
Critics for whom the interdisciplinary nature of cultural study is understood (Simon Schama or Lisa Jardine) have no Scottish equivalents, and writers who have made radical examinations of eighteenthand nineteenth-century Britain, casting intense light on Scotland's culture (Linda Colley or John Barrell) remain largely outwith the pale of Scottish studies. Marshall Walker's book is explicitly Scotocentric (he seems quite repulsed by the mythical or ideological creation of 'Britons'), and this puts his book squarely in the Scottish camp. But its breadth of reference to international points of comparison is salutary and relativizing. He is never, ever, parochial.
There are painful omissions: Eric Linklater, Sydney Goodsir Smith, R.B. Cunninghame Graham, John Herdman, for example, are scarcely mentioned or are passed over in silence. It's a pity, because Linklater at his best displays wonderful diablerie, the neglect of Goodsir Smith is generally unjustified, and if Cunninghame Graham, like Norman Douglas, is a figure consigned to the margins of Scottish literature, he might have been more securely roped in. But there are two important reasons why Walker's discrimination has been necessary. The first is the purpose of the book: it is an attempt to tell a story, with the necessary love, and if it is revisionist it can't afford to be quirky, or to include reappraisals or redactions that might occlude the general shape of what Hugh MacDiarmid calls 'the configuration of a land... a statue carved out in a whole country's marble'. To describe that 'configuration' in literature is the book's intention, and more specialised interests follow from that. Walker sets out to arrange and introduce us to 'the monuments' and does so with sharp critical sensitivity, gravitas and wit, but also with a generosity of spirit and respect for his subject. There's never any special pleading of the 'It might be wee - but at least it's Scottish!' variety.
The other reason for severe discrimination is the space allotted to him. In the Longman Literature in English Series there are over twenty separate and substantial volumes devoted to post-Union English literature (or British literature, we might say), and some writers do rather well out of the overlap - not just eighteenth-century writers, but such as Douglas Dunn). There are individual volumes on the poetry, drama and fiction of particular periods, on the intellectual and cultural contexts, and a separate list of half a dozen titles on American literature. Scottish literature gets just this one. There are volumes waiting to be written, in-depth studies of richly rewarding areas where research has only begun. We badly need books on the relation of modern Scottish poetry to music and art, and biographies of less well-known figures whose lives and works may become increasingly significant in retrospect: Catherine Carswell, for example.
But Walker has turned the strictest of limitations of space to his every advantage. At 443 pages, there isn't a single dull chapter, sub-section, paragraph or sentence. It reads fluently but it's never glib. Every phrase has been chosen, every grammatical formulation seems selected to prompt further study and thought, yet the writing never seems arch or careerist. The book is comprehensive but not exhaustive; argumentative but never merely opinionated; judicious but not solemn; compassionate and angry in places, but never capricious or merely sentimental. And with appendices giving a marvellously suggestive chronology, bibliographies and individual author biographies and lists of further criticism, it is gratifying to report that it leaves you wanting more. It is a banquet of riches, but the quality of the work presented and the presentation itself leave you with the knowledge that you will wish to return to it, and that you will wish to be moved from it to look with freshened vision in areas Walker cannot do more than direct you towards.
It's a pleasure to read a book which sets out in the author's preface a 'partiality for a view of literary works as incontrovertibly human products manufactured by real people with visions to impart according to more or less ascertainable aesthetic devices. Such works,' Walker 'riskily' insists, 'come from authors, not merely from other texts, but all texts are in some way related to a Zeitgeist.' Walker's own vision, he admits, is 'by its nature provisional, a map drawn from the predilections of one fallible devotee.' But this disingenuousness can't disguise the achievement of summation the book has made; the actual humility registered simply underscores it.
It was the swaggering English nationalist John Wilkes that Samuel Johnson had in mind when he termed patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel, and Walker begins by acknowledging that the creative urge does not march to a flag. And he gets the tone right when he quotes Iain Banks to invite us, as we consider individual authors and works, to also 'lie back and think of Scotland.' Not just the Scotland of tartanry and ignorance ('Did Scott really write all those books before he went to the South Pole?') nor of stereotypical caricature (Stephen Leacock's 'The rain fell softly and quietly, bringing dampness and moisture, and almost a sense of wetness to the soft moss underfoot'). But Walker isn't given to puritanical denunciation of the comic; he relishes it. Billy Connolly is part of the story. So are Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Kenneth Grahame (Buchan's characters, he comments, 'now seem like humanoid editions of... Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad at play on a Boy's Own Paper riverbank'. The humour does not disguise the serious point, though: 'Buchan writes as committedly as William Golding about the fragility of civilisation.' Walker knows that fragility very well; his book is a testament of strength in its protection.
It is a coherent work, made up of many parts, mini-essays on individuals and texts. Its underlying thesis is that Scotland's history has involved a series of profound political and religious upheavals, and that each one has been accompanied or followed by enormous cultural production, deep thought and voluminous writing. Thus the Union is related to the Enlightenment; Burns and Scott have chapters to themselves; late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Presbyterianism wears a decidedly Scots demeanour in Calvin's Devil haunting James Hogg, and in the practical Christianity of Galt and Ferrier. The nineteenth-century prophets and fantasists (Carlyle, MacDonald, Oliphant, B.V. and Davidson) are termed 'Didacts and Doomsters' and Walker's succinct account of the poets of apocalypse is an especially brilliant compressed reading of the two dark heralds of the twentieth century. Stevenson's chapter comes to sharp focus with Jekyll and Hyde, the 'most serious' tale, in James's words. It is characteristic of his method of implication that Walker should link Stevenson's masterpiece to Arnold, Mary Shelley, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Melville and Poe, as well as H.G. Wells and Emma Tennant. And it is most rewarding to read Scotlit in these terms, rather than as a purely solo tradition or a minor branch tributary of the Anglophone river.
But it's when he enters the twentieth century that Walker comes into his own. He is weaker on the Enlightenment, on the sheer distinction of Hume and the astonishing contrast of his contexts, for example. And he is not, to my mind, entirely convincing on Scott. Walker is evidently impatient with Scott's acquiescence in the financial imperative (he was paid by the word), and he discerns in Scott's authority (he is maker of 'the Supreme Fiction') a spurious confidence, largely gone from present interests and unlikely to return. I have only respect and concurrence for the conviction that Flaubert is and will always be preferable, but it's selling Scott short not to appreciate his humour. Scott is a very funny writer, an author of memorably comic scenes and characters, as witness Dumbiedykes's death-bed in The Heart of Midlothian, or Dugald Dalgetty in A Legend of the Wars of Montrose. Moreover, the sweep of his narrative in Waverley is Tolstoyan. If the later novels of English chivalry deserve the fate of Mark Twain's judgement, still, the isolation, imminent disaster and black humour of The Bride of Lammermoor is strangely prophetic of that universe all but bereft of hope defined by Beckett, and the mixture of Romantic glamourie and the reductive mundane in Redgauntlet suggests the conflation of idioms sometimes described as postmodern (Twin Peaks is a good example). All this Walker misses, opting for a splendidly insightful, rich and balanced reading of The Heart of Midlothian, a disappointingly predictable choice, but an excellent introduction, taken in a fairly conservative way. Walker is right, however, to see in Scott one aspect of the overbearing component in the national character. It isn't Scott's conservatism that's the problem; it's his shiftless bulk.
Allan Massie, by contrast, while seemingly staunch and politically aligned, is a much more urbane and lucid wit, in Walker's reading: 'Contemporary Scotland is fortunate to be able to claim a writer of such polemical intelligence and virtuosity who, wearing his culture, his learning and his considerable art with distinctive élan, can provoke laughter, controversy or depth of contemplation.' (The description fits Walker as well as Massie.)
On modern fiction - Massie, Gray, Banks, Hugh C. Rae, Kelman, Kennaway, Frederic Lindsay and others - Walker is sure-footed and shrewd. He takes the startling initiative of beginning his reading of the twentieth century with fiction and drama, relegating MacDiarmid to an assessment of his work as a poet rather than as a cultural propagandist. This is wise, because it maintains the focus on matters of literary value and avoids any hyperbolic or hagiographical sense of MacDiarmid's place in the firmament. In his 'Terms of Reference' chapter, Walker gives him his due: 'The most significant change in Scotland since 1707 is ...to be found... in the impact of [MacDiarmid's] life and work...' But this judgement essentially clears the way for a more text- and author-centred reading of modern Scottish literature, rather than a version of the story with MacDiarmid's influence pervading.
He begins with a sense of the value of the epic scale similar to MacDiarmid's, though, and discusses the capital-T 'Tragedy' in Douglas Brown and Macdougall Hay, the epic fantasy of David Lindsay, the epic exploration of selfhood in Catherine Carswell's Open the Door! and the epic earth of Gunn and Gibbon. Gibbon's Scots Quair is affirmed as the central text that it is, increasingly respected and loved by each generation of readers since its publication in the 1930s. 'Gunn's earth is as solidly there as Gibbon's' but for Walker, Gibbon's 'epic austerity' is the more authentic thing. If Gunn's 'deeply earthed philosophy' is indeed 'of hope' then Gibbon's is surely of struggle, and Walker is precise and terrifically poignant in his attempt to recognise and gauge what he has termed elsewhere 'the pathos of the epic effort.'
He is strong, too, on modern Scottish drama, giving enough historical information to supply a context, but cleverly reassessing Barrie, the playwrights of the Scottish Renaissance, and the undervalued work of James Bridie ('Doctor dominie'). His tracing of the theatrical significance and reverberation of 7:84's crucial play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil is conclusive: Scottish drama is 'back on track.'
One chapter is all he allows himself for 'Poets of the Scottish Renaissance from Hugh MacDiarmid to Edwin Morgan' and the title says a great deal about the terrain as Walker sees it. MacDiarmid and Morgan are the two major poets of modern Scotland. This is not to diminish or deny in any sense the importance and value of Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig or Iain Crichton Smith, or the 'wayside stations' where Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown plied their trade. But it is to recognise the scale, range and unequalled richness in the work of two men whose attitude to experience was and remains in their work, fundamentally open.
In Walker's reading, MacDiarmid becomes a surprisingly unified character, his energy consistently applied to 'reading the stones'. 'On a Raised Beach' is, unquestionably for Walker, the central poem of his profligate career, and one of the most important places in modern literature where man addresses the space where God was, and goes alone, 'into the desert'. From what Walker memorably calls 'the unforgiving disappointment of his atheism' MacDiarmid sends out 'playful or intensely searching feelers'. Between the 'deathly silence' that surrounds his early work ('the light that seems a "queer extension o' the dark"' - and the Scots idiom makes all the difference in a phrase like that) and the 'digressions, catalogues, indigestibly recondite information' of In Memoriam James Joyce, there is the 'stupendous unity' to be read in the stones of the raised beach - what Walker calls 'this valiant poem' of a 'proudly questing spirit'. The later, long poems 'do have their grandeur as witnesses to the unremitting attentiveness of an omnivorously life-celebrating mind'. And Walker is also clearly in touch with MacDiarmid's influence.
Muir and Mackay Brown are given generous estimates, in their own, essentially mythic, terms. Orcadian Edens provide pastoral fantasies, measurements of value in an increasingly hostile modernity. There are tough and idiosyncratic readings of MacLean and Crichton Smith and appropriate quotations which keep the focus of Walker's attention hard, clear and three-dimensional. There is nothing misty in his eyes when he writes about the Gaelic world; MacLean's insistence upon 'a balance of intellect and feeling' and Crichton Smith's preference for a poetry of 'fighting tensions' are well-observed and intuitively comprehended.
MacCaig, perhaps, is undervalued. Seen in the company of master 'stylists' (W.S. Graham and Douglas Dunn), you lose something of the profligate wonder in MacCaig's lavish use of simile and metaphor. There is nothing thin about his work: its colour, wealth of specific subject, unending understatement and humour, is necessary as a compass and reliable as malt. His is a much more generous muse than is evident in the steely pressure of Graham or the 'fastidiously pruned diction' of Dunn.
With Morgan, the balance of honnête homme and 'variety' is celebrated mightily. There is an 'intrinsic optimism of curiosity' which Walker recognises in Morgan, and Morgan's declaration for that optimism over and above its other side (horror is the other side of wonder) is what Walker says Yes to. '[N]othing seemed ill-starred' writes Morgan. Walker comments: 'A star suggests destiny, a future... the people are hidden... Morgan uses the idiom of science fiction to ask questions about the reality of Scotland, its gods, its people, the sea of doubt that encircles it and the questionable national will...'
That understanding of Morgan's - and Scotland's - polytheistic spirituality is crucial. If the 'national will' expressed itself on 11 September 1997, then it was in favour of what Walker finds best in the prospect of a coherent, but polychromatic, identity: Lismore watching over the Great Glen, MacCaig's Suilven spouting 'cool clear water from innumerable springs', MacLean's Cuillins, rising, 'on the other side of sorrow', Alison Kennedy's 'possible dance' away from 'irrelevance and defeat' and MacDiarmid's raised beach, where the stones still guard their message of 'stupendous unity'.
Through such things as these, that only art can give, Walker's argument concludes, 'we may acquire a sensibility militarised against our propensities to self-destruction.' That's ultimately what his book provides: a careful delineation of, and a reckless celebration of, 'the artist's "great love" of earth, humanity, mind and language.'
This review is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.