The Paradox of Human Circumstance
Often in interviews with Douglas Dunn there is a political tension, even anger, almost entirely missing from his short story collections, Secret Villages and Boyfriends and Girlfriends. Here are four examples of this political aspect, the first two from an interview in The Scottish Review of Books; the latter pair from Oxford Poetry. "Lots of people think the Empire made Britain a lot of money, but it didn't. It cost a lot. An aspect of literature that has interested me for a number of years is post-colonial studies." "Politics is a part of my temperament. Although I've toned down the politics a bit." "My political instincts have been republican for as long as I can remember and they've always existed in relation to Scotland". "The greater irresponsibility would be to accept 'British society' - for a start, I don't believe it exists, except as a notion of the ruling class and the military. How can a society exist when it's not supported by a culture? And the gentry, the armed forces, the Conservative Party, the Church of England, the Public Schools, Ascot, Harrods, Henley and the University Boat Race, are not, I submit, of very great inspiration in that respect." All four remarks make clear that Dunn is a political animal, yet his short fiction suggests a furry one instead. It is not just the avuncular pictures of a bearded figure that adorn the books' back covers; it is more especially in a prose style that is wry, consensual, observant.
While Alasdair Gray and James Kelman are Scottish writers whose politics are part of the books, Dunn's delicate tales weave a fabric of quiet enchantment, and where any political disenchantment is present usually more as subtext than text. This needn't lead us to facile value judgements, we hope, but to judgements nevertheless. We needn't assume that Kelman and Gray ruin their work with polemical interventions, nor that Dunn keeps his politics out of his stories so they can play to a mass market; it is more to understand something of the writer's sensibility. If Gray often facetiously surveys, and Kelman paranoiacally penetrates ready assumption, Dunn searches out what a reviewer in Scotland on Sunday called "the most scrupulous detail [arousing] pleasure and compassion for his characters". Dunn, who is also of course a well-known and respected poet, is a short story writer in a minor key, and what we want to explore here is the strength and weakness of this voice.
The central strength is the quality of the prose, with Dunn's use of language carrying none of the overreaching vagueness of a Neil Gunn, none of the aggression of Kelman, none of the hesitant repetition of Iain Crichton Smith. He is, from a certain perspective, albeit a narrow and even mildly conservative one, among the best stylists in Scottish fiction. Talking of one woman widowed by the Second World War, the narrator in 'Boyfriends and Girlfriends' describes her as a "statistic of sorrow": a sibilant phrase but with three hard consonants in statistic giving the language a firmness that allows for no sentimentality. In 'Toddle-Bonny and Bogeyman', one character who attends to everything that goes on in the small town is described as having "his mind fixed on its innocent disdain, he was an encyclopaedist of its trivial alterations and momentous changes. His gait was one of depressed jauntiness." Here we have two oxymorons next to each other, yet descriptions like depressed jauntiness and innocent disdain do not seem to call attention to the language but locate us in the specifics of character. It is always a risk, and for many writers almost a self-reflexive desire, to throw in a startling contrast to bring out an aspect of character or situation, even if it is equally likely to take a reader out of the story, to demand a pause for reflection as one cherishes the language.
Numerous writers possess this dimension: from Joyce to Nabokov, Amis to Updike. But Dunn is closer to Eudora Welty as Adam Mars-Jones describes it in an article on McEwan and Amis, 'Venus Envy': "there is writing which advertises its surprises and writing that simply springs them". Dunn tends to spring them. When, in 'Getting Used to It', a character is described as possessing a "thin, worn, saddening appearance [which] disguised an iron constitution as ill-health", we have paradox as penetrating analysis. Aren't there certain people we know who look terrible but at the same time are never ill, as if their bodies manifest their maladies on the outside rather than on the inside? The phrase, which comes at the beginning of the story, manages to do a lot of work as we have a strong sense of the person described.
There is in many of Dunn's stories this descriptive relish, but he uses paradoxical and surprising phrase-making not especially to describe the character in the immediate present; more to incorporate shades of the person's past. When in 'Photographs of Stanley's Grandfather' the first person narrator describes a picture of someone's granddad he says: "It was an appearance of hedonistic gauntness, the look of a man who had at one time denied himself much in order to reach a position where he need deny himself nothing." Once again we have the oxymoron. Wouldn't we usually expect ascetic gauntness or hedonistic corpulence? In each instance the phrases would speak for themselves, but the oxymoron creates a space around the description that we might wish to be filled by a further remark, and Dunn usually provides it as he goes on to explore the idiosyncrasies of character the paradox has set up. In 'Photographs of Stanley's Grandfather', he contrasts the grandfather with the grandson: "He was, I guessed, in his mid-fifties, and therefore at an age which Stanley might never reach, that is if Stanley is dying as certainly as is taken for granted. There is a chance he has been pampered into a state of physical and spiritual incompetence but that, I suppose, is also to be dying or it is at least the next best thing." In 'Toddle-Bonny and the Bogeyman', the entire story works out from the notion of the character McMinn's interests in being an "encyclopaedist of its trivial alterations" as he becomes fascinated by a Rolls Royce seen in the small town.
Dunn might be a writer interested in clever phrasing, but the phrases are sprung on us and then slowly released throughout the story. They aren't empty paradoxes but full ones, discharging their meaning over several pages. When in 'More than Half Way', Harriet Mortimer is introduced to us, the narrator says: "She had perfected her thirty three years of widowhood in its [the house's] few rooms. When her last son Christopher left home it was like the addition of one last touch to her fastidious grief." This notion of perfecting widowhood as another might propose the perfecting of a marriage (the idea of working hard at it), is then followed by the phrase "her fastidious grief". However this perfected widowhood relates to being the wife of a husband who died during the war, and who was also a great poet. Part of her fastidious grief has been in respecting and managing her silence in relation to his work. When she hears of another poet's widow promoting the widow's late husband's poetry she says: "I'm adamant. And they won't find me giving in. You won't see me going on television." Part of this perfected widowhood is somehow respecting her dead husband as if he were at least ethically alive. "I won't be that kind of representative for the dead", she says, as if all the negotiating one might have to do within a marriage is still going on, but with the husband departed rather than sharing the family home.
Perhaps what makes Dunn's work so modest is this need not to advertise the well-turned phrase but to explore it in all its nuance. Yet if there are writers as Mars-Jones notes who advertise their phrases and others who allow them to surprise us, equally are there not writers who work from an idea more than from a phrase, and is this partly where Gray and Kelman's immodesty comes from, but also their greater import? When Gray opens Portrait of a Painter with "the art of painting is in a poor way", or The Grumbler by announcing "There is a sour taste in my mouth no matter how hard I brush my teeth, and though I change my underwear every morning and take a bath every night I am haunted by a faint, stale odour", there is a confrontational aspect to the prose. Equally, when Kelman begins the paperbag with "what was the point anyway, there didn't seem to be any at all", or Pictures by saying: "He wasn't really watching the picture he was just sitting there wondering on things; the world seemed so pathetic the way out was a straight destruction of it..." we notice a tone that isn't incorporative but provocative. It is not so much working out of a phrase but a working through of a position. Dunn's fiction is finely weaved, but it is of a delicate fabric, and one might be reminded a little of T. S. Elliot's comment about Henry James having "a mind so fine no idea could violate it". But where with James this could become a very position that revealed the Jamesian (and expertly explored in an essay by Tzvetan Todorov in The Poetics of Prose), Dunn's is more the fineness of phrasing more than of mind. It's as though the phrasing demands its exploration, and while this can feel much more purposeful than writers who do no more than advertise their sentences, it is maybe not quite the same things as having ideas that sit behind them. For some of course it is a plus that we can't see the writer's politics through the work, but equally this might also reflect a weakness of vision. It isn't that we insist on the political, but that we nevertheless hope to find the Dunnian - the vision that makes a writer singular rather than a very good craftsman. The great writers who advertise their sentences nevertheless still possess greatness of vision, which is one of the reasons why many see Joyce as rather more than just a clever wordsmith.
It is this idea of a Dunn vision that is missing, as the stories modestly set the scene, sketch the characters and contain them within well-written sentences, and the quality of the work might have us wondering what it is that makes a writer important if someone like Dunn possesses the necessary attributes and yet comes across as a figure whose fiction is far from essential. When one thinks of modern Scottish literature, few would think of Dunn over Gray or Kelman, even over Gunn, Mackay Brown and Iain Crichton Smith. Perhaps this is partly a question of place - that Gray and Kelman cover urban Scotland, Gunn the Highlands and Mackay Brown and Smith the Orkney and the Outer Hebrides respectively. Dunn's secret villages remain geographically indistinct, where one of the aspects of great writing (though not an a priori one) is the ability to generate a sense of place that the writer makes one's own, whether the place actually exists (as in Dickens' London, Joyce's Dublin, Balzac's Paris), or is a fictional composite (Hardy's Wexford or Marquez's Macondo). Of course there are writers like Walser, Kafka and Kawabata whose dreamlike or introspective stories don't allow for such careful delineating, but that geographical absence is more than compensated for by an authorial presence. Dunn, possessing neither the geographic imprint of some writers, nor the authorial imprint of others, seems, to use an oxymoron of our own, impressively irrelevant.
Such a paradox shouldn't count as an unequivocal putdown: after all it contains the impressive within the irrelevant, and we could do worse than spend the rest of the essay exploring precisely what we mean by this - teasing out Dunn's sly excellence, whilst also acknowledging his role as a supporting player in Scottish fiction. To draw out the question a couple of passages from different sides of the literary fence might be useful. George Orwell in 'Politics vs Literature' says, "Today, for example, one can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, a pacifist, an anarchist, perhaps by an old style liberal or an ordinary conservative; one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, Buchmanite or a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought." Orwell adds, interestingly, "beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction". In the aforementioned Poetics of Prose, Todorov talks of the importance of Poetics, and says unlike projection which can incorporate "(the life of the author, social conditions, the properties of the human mind)", "for poetics, on the other hand, the text is the product of a fictive and yet existing mechanism, literature". In Orwell's essay there is the importance of an authorial figure behind the text, in Todorov's take there is the precision of form. In the latter approach the interest lies in analysing the codes of the work, its relationship with literature as a system. In Orwell's approach the purpose is much more to explore literature as a culturally incorporative meaning system, as something in the wider world more than in the narrow confines of the literary. When Orwell ends the essay (which focuses on Swift's Gulliver's Travels), he does so by saying the durability of the book "goes to show that if the force of belief is behind it, a world-view which only just passes the test of sanity is sufficient to produce a great work or art." Where Todorov is often interested in what he calls the "structure of narrative", Orwell sees the importance of vision.
However in both cases - in visionary power and narrative structure - Dunn's work lacks force. Many of the stories are slices of life, but possess neither the perceptual originality of a Kafka or Walser, nor the primal force of a Hemingway or Carver, all writers who seem to be relating an incident but have tapped the raw nerve of being: who have found its inner structure rather than offering perceptual freshness. If Kafka and Walser produce great literature they do so chiefly through the idiosyncrasy of their perspective, Hemingway and Carver do so through their accumulation of apparently banal detail. Both Hemingway and Carver have the capacity for creating the shortest of stories containing within them the immediacy of the human condition. There is Hemingway's famous six word story about baby's shoes for sale: never worn; Carver's albeit much longer story, yet nevertheless very brief account of a fat man subtly changing a woman's life, 'Fat'. All four of the writers just mentioned (Kafka, Walser, Hemingway, Carver), even if the former are perceptually original and the latter structurally precise, manage to comment on the human condition. Dunn seems to settle for the human predicament. It is a smaller ambition, but one that allows for the precision of his language never to broaden out into the vista of a wider problematic. If we admire Dunn's prose, is it not because that is what the stories seem to be predicated upon?
More than for the complexity of character, story or theme, Dunn's stories can be used as a creative writing masterclass in small observation - and we can see this at work in 'The Canoes'. Though the story opens with a hint of the political, again the paradox is stronger than the social. When the narrator talks of standing by the rail of the Promenade, he adds that "we have ten yards of promenade and that is not much of a walk. Our fathers used to lean on a low stone wall there. Now, as the old Duke considered this wall a symbol of our father's idleness, the job of knocking it down for good wages was meant to be significant". Later, another political observation is made: "he is called Red on account of the political pamphlets he inherited from his father. He is annoyed at the nickname, being twice the Tory even than the Duke's son, and he keeps his legacy of pamphlets in deference to his father's memory". In each example we have the political contained by the paradoxical, as if Dunn's final duty is to the sentence and not to society. Obviously many will have no problem with this - isn't it almost a reflex response of the well-educated reader to insist one ought to keep personal opinion out of literature? Yet opinion, when given the force of 'conviction', to use Orwell's word, becomes vision, perspective. In Dunn's interviews there is this conviction, but in the short stories hardly at all, and maybe we can see this weakness if we look more closely still at 'The Canoes'.
Narrated by one of the locals, 'The Canoes' concentrates on the visit of English couple Peter and Rosalind Baker, holidaying in a scenic part of Scotland owned by the old Duke's family, as the narrator tells us of the fun they would often have with the tourists. Sometimes the locals would tell them they couldn't build "fires in places where they were permitted to do so", and at others "tell them they might light fires and pitch tents to their hearts' desire where gamekeepers and bailiffs are guaranteed to descend on them once it is dark..." The narrator supposes the locals may be seen by the tourists as living "in a timeless paradise of water and landscape and courteous strangers in old-fashioned clothes", but the locals are often canny, low-key exploiters, and lazy too. One of the characters, Magee, grossly overcharges another English couple, seeing in the gesture a vague political purpose. After the narrator wonders whether his friend has been a bit harsh, Magee says, "hold your hush and don't whine at me for a hypocrite. Because daylight robbery is exactly what it is, and you and the rest of them will sup on the benefit of it. Though I'll tell you true enough that if he didn't look such a pig of a rich man in his pink shirt and white breeks, I'd have let him off with the three pounds the factor says is the fixed charge to Inverela." One could see Magee offering comments not unlike the one where Dunn talks of culture in relation to the English establishment, but it is as if the even-handedness of Dunn's fiction refuses the possibilities in exploring the full problematic of his interview statement. When the narrator says, "a man like myself might be expected to resent these folks who come up from the south like the swallows to take their ease on a country that has brought me no prosperity. All the same, no one can tell me better than I tell myself that I am as lazy as any man born," we might note that Dunn's political convictions demand an independent Scotland that has nothing to do with aristocratic Britain, but his craftsmanship insists that such views shouldn't appear in an unadulterated fashion in the stories. Characters like the narrator and Magee are presented as lazy, exploitative, mocking and dishonest. They aren't at all idealised. The narrator is complex, thoughtful and yearning, but he is also happy to avoid a day's hard work and play the game with the tourists.
Now this isn't at all to say that for Dunn to push through his perspective he needs to create grotesque English visitors and benign locals; merely that the story has to pass through the writer's broader world view, and Gray and Kelman would be much more inclined to see the narrator and Magee in Canoes as not only characters in a story, but figures within a socio-economic exploitation much greater than the exploitation of the English characters. It isn't that Dunn ignores the socio-economic, but he absorbs it within the conventions of the canny locals up against the elite, whether it takes the modest form of the Bakers, or the grand form of the old Duke and the new duke and his son who now run the estate. If one sensed that Dunn had pushed the story within the problem of his obvious political convictions, then this fictional piece could have pursued not the nuances of the paradox but the force of the idea. The locals would be exploiting the English, and they might also be lazy, but this would be contained within the question of power that leads the weak to make gains wherever they can even if it is to the detriment of their own integrity. There issomething of this in the story, but anaemically so compared with Kelman and Gray's full-blooded work. Dunn arrives at no more than human circumstances and not the first principle exploration of the human condition. There will of course be plenty who prefer Dunn's quiet and often subtle tales of straitened circumstances (we have said nothing about the number of times unemployment, social benefits and social assistance occur in the stories), but is Dunn an exemplary instance of the fiction writer with great talent but little import? He explores beautifully the paradox of human circumstance, but one feels he comes much less close than a number of other modern Scottish writers to the first principles of the condition of being human.
© Tony McKibbin