Novella a Day in May 2019 #25

Following on from yesterday’s post about Anita Brookner who began her career as a novelist at 53, today I’m looking at another late debut writer; Elspeth Barker wrote this gothic novella at the age of 51. It concerns a teenager though: 16-year-old Janet has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in her mother’s black lace evening dress, mourned only by her pet jackdaw who then kills itself, and her siblings. The novella then goes back in time over Janet’s life, but this is less a murder mystery and more of a character study.

Janet is an awkward child. She gets angry. She’s socially ill at ease. She has frizzy, unmanageable hair. She gets car sick. She irritates her parents. She reads a lot and is more clever than her classmates ,which causes distance. She is miserable and life is unfair. Her family don’t fit in where they are.

“Anger and outrage welled within her: she would speak the truth. ‘It was because of the witch. I wanted them to see if the witch was there,’ she wailed. ‘Don’t talk such nonsense; you know as well as I do that witches are only in fairy stories; and you read too many of those if you’d like my opinion.’ The mothers exchanged satisfied glances: they all thought Vera went too far in her choice of children’s reading; and she smoked cigarettes and wore slacks.”

Soon, however, they inherit an ancient, crumbling pile in the far north of Scotland, and Janet loves it:

“Auchnasaugh, the field of sighing, took its name from the winds which lamented around it almost all the year, sometimes moaning softly, filtered through swathes of pine groves, more often malign, shrieking over battlements and booming down the chimneys”

“She had no fear of its lofty shadowed rooms, its dim stone passages, its turrets and towers and dank subterranean chambers, dripping with Verdigris and haven to rats.”

It also has her eccentric aunt Lila, who wafts around dressed in black collecting fungi and incurring the wrath of Janet’s mother Vera; Jim, a taciturn odd-job man skulks around the place.

“It was a rigorous life, but for Janet it was softened by the landscape, by reading, and by animals whom she found it possible to love without qualification. People seemed to her flawed and cruel.”

So although Janet finds solace, she is still an outsider. Very much a loner and isolated at her boarding school. We follow her through the years and what emerges is a young life of a deeply awkward, lonely girl.

“What use was it to be racked by pain for animals and the general woes of the world when she was unmoved by the sorrows of people she knew?”

O Caledonia is thoroughly gothic so you need a pretty strong stomach at times – something I don’t have, particularly around animals. But it’s superbly written, startling and atmospheric.

Overall, I was left with a feeling of sadness. Janet has a lonely life and then before she’s had a chance to carve out anything better for herself, she is killed. O Caledonia really gets under your skin.

“The Glasgow accent was so strong you could have built a bridge with it and known it would outlast the civilization that spawned it.” (Val McDermid)

Continuing my jaunt around our fair isle, last week I was in Glasgow. If you’ve not been, go immediately. Edinburgh gets all the good reviews as the Athens of the North (& it is a great city – how many high streets can you stand on with a view of a castle and a dormant volcano?) but it does steal Glasgow’s thunder a bit. Glasgow is absolutely gorgeous and contrary to popular myth, the people are really friendly. I had a lovely time, and if Scotland manages to negotiate to stay in the EU I’ve a pretty good idea where I’ll be moving to.

Artist David Shrigley engages with Glasgow’s famous Armadillo building

To summarise in a way that helps no-one: because Edinburgh is Alec Baldwin, everyone thinks Glasgow is Stephen Baldwin, but it’s not, it’s William Baldwin. Glad I’ve been able to clear that up 😉 I’m now on a one-woman mission to persuade everyone of Glasgow’s greatness, starting here by looking at two novels by Glaswegian writers.

Firstly, Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi (1954),  which tells the story of Joe, a young drifter working on the canals near Glasgow, who finds the dead body of a young woman floating in the water.

“She was like some beautiful white water-fungus, a strange shining thing come up from the depths, and her limbs and her flesh had the ripeness and maturity of a large mushroom. But it was the hair more than anything; it stranded away from the head like long grasses. Only it was alive, and because the body was slow, heavy, torpid, it had become a forest of antennae, caressing, feeding on the water, intricately.”

This odd, detached tone gives an excellent introduction to Joe. He is an outsider and views people with no affection. He manipulates to his own ends and does not care who he hurts.

“I derived a powerful sense, a vindication of my own existence. To exercise power without exerting it, to be detached and powerful, to be there, silent and indestructible as gods, that is to be a god and why there are gods.”

What saves Joe from being wholly despicable to me, is that he doesn’t deliberately set out to hurt people. He isn’t vindictive or malicious, he just has a total disregard for other’s feelings. He also has a desire for something more from life, but has no idea what it is, and so there is a desperate quality to him, even as it emerges that he may know more about the dead woman than he’s letting on.

“These men, whoever they were, would sleep with their wives, take their children for a picnic on Sundays […] there was something nightmarish about it- my nightmare, for the machine might include me in its intricate pattern-making at any moment.”

Young Adam has been compared to L’Etranger, and while it is not quite to the heights of Camus’ masterpiece, it has at its centre a man in existential crisis, and a narrative broadened out by philosophical considerations:

“There is no contradiction in things, only in the words we invent to refer to things. It is the word ‘I’ which is arbitrary and contains within it its own inadequacy and its own contradiction.”

Young Adam was made into a film in 2003, with a stunning cast – Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan and Emily Mortimer:

Secondly The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman (1984), which much to my surprise I found warmly affectionate and a good balance after the bleakness of Young Adam. I’d read & enjoyed the Booker prizewinning How Late It Was, How Late many years ago and for some reason hadn’t picked up Kelman since. The Busconductor Hines was Kelman’s first published novel and features his brilliant ear for Glaswegian dialect and conversational rhythms that he would go on to develop more fully.

Kelman is a controversial figure, because his vision is uncompromising. He is interested in capturing authentic working-class Glaswegian lives (which involves much swearing), and he does not make allowances for the reader: you have to meet him on his own terms.  For me, a born-and-bred Southerner, I find this invigorating rather than alienating. The Busconductor Hines follows the titular character through his daily life, capturing the extraordinary amongst the ordinary.

“He was standing at the sink, whistling quietly, gazing through the slats in the blind; in the backcourt opposite the rear of the tenement building which was not yet demolished, the sky with that reddish glow, light reflecting on the ripples of the enormous puddle that stretched from the middens to the mouth of the back close; a smell of smouldering rubbish from somewhere, but vague.”

Hines is frustrated, always on the verge of being fired. This is very funny, but also enables Kelman to make some pointed comments about the wielding of power and authority. Like Joe in Young Adam Hines wants more, but unlike Joe he recognises his common humanity, even in the frustration of having to deal with the bus travellers of Glasgow.

“Hines can marvel. He can look at faces and not look at faces….They are hypocrites. The men and the women, the children. It is not that he knows this in particular but that everyone knows this and is also known to know it, by everyone else. Such a thing cannot be concealed. …In the windows he could see their reflections, the strange frowns every now and again. That concentration.”

In some ways nothing happens, but everything happens. Hines recognises his life as a “perplexing kettle of coconuts”, ridiculous but real and wholly his. I’ve seen it described as an existential novel and I suppose it is, but it’s so fun, written with such verve and bite, that ultimately it is life-affirming even while pointing out the poverty, injustice and pointlessness that fills a lot of daily life for the characters.

And of course the city itself is the second hero of the story, a constant, pervasive presence:

“Glasgow thoroughfares can be mysteriously still, the slightest breath of wind seeming not to exist. The smell of fresh tobacco on the nostrils first thing is an astonishing item.”

To end, there are a plethora of Glaswegian musicians I could have chosen, but I’ve picked Camera Obscura’s French Navy, because I like the brilliantly twenty-first century love lyric “You with your dietary restrictions/Said you loved me with a lot of conviction…”

“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” (Billy Connolly)

If you live in the UK, the news has been dominated by one story for weeks: the Scottish referendum.  On 18 September the Scottish people voted in favour of staying the union, but this wasn’t a vote for the status quo, and as such the news coverage continues, assessing the changes that are needed.  Prompted by this current affairs Caledonian focus, I thought I’d look at work by Scottish writers who engage with ideas of land and home, and how complex those fundamentals can be.

scot-benhope_1919346b

(Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/your-travels/8572241/Scotland-readers-tips-recommendations-and-travel-advice.html)

Firstly, a Booker-nominated debut novel, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 1999).  This was a lesson to me to persevere with books, sometimes it pays off.  At first I found the story of male familial relationships utterly depressing:

“My father found it easy to hate his father; he had much more ease, in that sorry business, than his own son would ever have.”

The reason I stuck it out was because I’d read other novels by O’Hagan and I knew what a beautiful and sensitive writer he is.  Our Fathers is narrated by Jamie, son of Robert, grandson of Hugh.  The lives of the family are imbedded in the landscape of Glasgow, a landscape that Hugh is determined to change:

 “For years the city vibrated to the sound of diggers and pneumatic drills. Old powdery tenements fell to the ground. Whole townships cleared away.  It became part of the noise of Glasgow…there were half-chewed buildings on every street”

As an adult Jamie returns to Glasgow to visit the dying Hugh, from Liverpool where he has been trying to forget the past.  As Jamie returns to Scotland, he feels his way amongst the people, places and language that are at once entirely familiar and entirely apart:

 “The men at his table had similar faces.  Red and watery-eyed. All the trace of former good looks upon them. …The air was filled with their smoky laughter and the sound of the jukebox. Music, laughter, the shadows of words.”

 “‘Are the spirits high?’ I asked. And then all of a sudden I felt how foreign that phrase would sound… ‘Can he… can he thole the pain?’”

And what made Our Fathers initially so depressing for me was what made it ultimately so rewarding.  Out of pain, abuse, mistakes, recriminations and hardship comes forgiveness, wisdom, kindness and redemption:

 “I stood beside him, and listened to his life, and I held his hand, and I finally grew up”

It was an incredibly moving book, finely observed and insightful regarding the delicate meaning in moments that can barely be articulated.

Secondly, a poem by Kathleen Jamie, Here Lies Our Land.

Here lies our land: every airt

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself.

 

We are mere transients, who sing

Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,

Northern lights and siller tides,

 

Small folk playing our part.

‘Come all ye’, the country says,

You win me, who take me most to heart.

It’s a short poem, and so I don’t want to analyse it to death, but I will just say I think the way Jamie creates a gentle, reflective tone through metre and language captures something fundamental and enduring; its language like the land she speaks of. You can read Kathleen Jamie’s thoughts on the poem and her writing process here.

To end, a man who shares my view on what Scotland’s finest export is (not counting Sean Connery):