George Mackay Brown
Gifts of the Region
George Mackay Brown is a storyteller more than a writer, someone whose work indicates the world is to be described narratively rather than explored existentially. With the exception of 'The Eye of the Hurricane', the stories in A Calendar of Love and A Time to Keep have the feel of someone determined to relate an experience, an event, more than explore a thought or a feeling. But of course haven't we offered a breathtaking generalization in that first sentence - insinuating that a storyteller is opposed to a writer, where surely being a storyteller is an integral part of being a writer? Yet can we not argue that a great deal of contemporary fiction has concerned itself with the problem of storytelling versus writing: with the need to tell a yarn and acknowledge the nature of its weaving?
Though loosely a contemporary of writers like Alasdair Gray and Italo Calvino who were also interested in telling tales, Mackay Brown (who was of course also a poet and playwright) seems a much more unproblematic writer, someone who works through his narrative world outside the concerns of the age in which he lived. Many issues of the post-war novel and story are of no interest to him: existentialism, phenomenology, self-reflexivity, the metafictional, the impossibility of language, the gap between the signifier and what it signifies, the problem of the self that writes. Obviously many writers who concern themselves with these questions arrive at no more than the modish, but does the writer who ignores them become irrelevant? When Mackay Brown says, "'The imagination is not an escape, but a return to the richness of our true selves; a return to reality", we might wonder whether one needs more than only imagination to return to a reality where imagination is but one dimension of the real, and where the social keeps adding problems to which the writer cannot easily ignore. As Philip Roth famously announced in an essay, 'Writing American Fiction': "the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination." Where Mackay Brown feels all we need is the imagination; Roth acknowledges that social reality can easily outstrip it.
Thus according to Roth great writing comes not only from the plunge into the imagination and the search for first principles to be found there, but also from the symptomatic, from accepting that while art possesses the capacity to search out the universal, it also exists in the specifics of time and place. Often it seemed that Mackay Brown wanted to escape this specificity and tried to find what we could call the universally local, the exploration of a small space but with an archeological specificity. A number of the stories take place in the distant past, mythologically giving texture to the small corner of the world in which Mackay Brown spent much of his life: Orkney; others more contemporary set nevertheless give the impression of people living within broad narrative strokes, not in the minutiae of the everyday. Whether it is the contemporary 'The Wheel' and 'The Wireless Set', or the historical 'A Carrier of Stones' and 'The Story of Jorkel Hayforks', the stories search out the general that gives narrative force over the dawdle that can give emotional specificity. One senses this in the opening lines of each story. "On Saturday night in the fisherman's pub there's always plenty of noise and smoke." "The first wireless ever to come to the valley of Tronvik in Orkney was brought by Howie Eunson, son of Hugh the fisherman and Betsy." "Dag Sigurdson who was a horse dealer in Orphir said to Rolf the week after Rolf came back from his first Viking cruise..." "The week before midsummer Jorkel and six others took ship at Bergen in Norway and sailed west two days with a good wind behind them."
Here Mackay Brown sets in motion the tale, rather as a ship sets sail, with the wind of narrative behind it, and unlikely to be blown off course by too many crosswinds. However, what makes much modern writing interesting is the very nature of narrative crosswinds and emotional crosscurrents that make stories difficult to tell, because lives are difficult to explain, and no matter how much imagination one possesses, the complexity of modern living cannot be explored in all its convolutions without addressing such problems. The one story in the two collections that hint at these convolutions is 'The Eye of the Hurricane', a story in which a writer returns from the city to Orkney to work on his novel and where he goes to "live in the ground floor flat of Captain Steven's house on the hill in Hamnavoe." He is looking for the quiet life: "I had come to live, then, among simple uncomplicated people. I worked to the easy regular rhythm of fishermen and crofters. My imagination nourished itself at primitive wholesome sources, the sea and the land." He is looking for a different rhythm from the relationship that he has escaped. "I had almost forgotten Sandra", he says, but we might wonder if that is so easy when he then acknowledges a comment Sandra made in her last letter: "We got out of our depths, you and I..." Trying to explain how they got out of them, the narrator recalls an occasion when as a child he was playing with another boy and they drifted far out into the sea, and knew they were in trouble until "an old fisherman rowed past from his lobster pots and towards us to the shore. For the rest of the holiday Kim and I avoided each other, we never exchanged so much as a single word...That was the kind of way Sandra and I got out of our depths."
Here the anecdote gets contained within the story, within the complications of human life that a story can hint at but cannot fathom, and Mackay Brown adds layers of complexity through the character of Stevens, and through comments about the novel his narrator is writing. While it seems the narrator has got over his passionate affair, Stevens has never got over the death of his much younger wife and son: a harrowing loss revealed in a tombstone: Elizabeth Stevens 1930-1956; Michael Stevens, born and died, June 1956. Near the end of the story the narrator says, "Chapter Five remains unfinished. I shall return to it later, when a great deal that is confused and uncertain now clarifies in my mind. Love is too deep a subject for prose - only music and poetry can build bridges between the rage of the seed in the furrow, the coupling of beasts, the passion of man and woman, the saint's prayer." However the very story we are reading has been an attempt to do in prose what the narrator assumes is for other art forms. Though he may say, "The loves of Thorkeld Stevens and Elizabeth, of Earl Rognvald and the Lady Emengarde, of Robert Jansen and Walls, of Captain Falquist and his fly-by-night, of myself and Sandra seem to be nothing but chaos, loss, heartbreak", as he mentions all the relationships touched upon in the story, he has at the same time explored the possibility whilst also acknowledging what he sees as its inevitable failure. It is a variation of Roth's belief that "the actuality is continually outdoing our talents", except where for Roth this is the social world, for Mackay Brown it is the problem of love.
The density of 'The Eye of the Hurricane' however doesn't lie in the problem of love; more with the examination of complexity of feeling through the social milieu in which the narrator moves. He gets caught in a vortex of emotional chaos through his own memories, the love affair he is writing about, and Stevens' tragic life. The story possesses crosswinds and crosscurrents. But generally Mackay Brown in his short fiction has retreated from such confrontations with the complexity of the emotionally social for the universally local. Interestingly, in articles published in the Scotsman, one piece announces that he was "far from being a celibate recluse" (03/21/08) as it examines his relationship with Stella Cartwright, while another explores a tempestuous affair with the painter Sylvia Wishart (14/01/12). Obviously a writer is under no obligation to explore his or her immediate reality, but there is an interesting aside in one of the comments attached to the latter article, where someone says: "I am not that interested in his love life but I wished he had written more about his meetings with those poets he met in Milnes Bar Edinburgh in those days - people like Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Ian Crichton Smith, Robert Garioch, Sorley MacLean and the others". In fictional form whether it would include his love life or not, this would be Mackay Brown exploring the emotionally social over the universally local.
Mackay Brown's decision to focus chiefly on the latter over the former, however, risks making him a lesser writer, though a greater storyteller. What is interesting about 'The Eye of the Hurricane' is that we feel him pushing boundaries as he tries to put the writer at the eye of a kind of formal storm. Mackay Brown tries to bring together the various strands that the tale cannot sustain as it needs a combination of an autobiographical tone, the self-reflexive and the essayistic. Here in the story is a writer working out a preoccupation, trying to explore first principles of feeling as he muses over his own love affair, the genera affairs of various other people, and also the characters he focuses upon. There is a density of perspective that wonders if the story can be told at all, where in much of Mackay Brown's work the perspective is narrow enough and focused enough for there to be no anxiety over the form. But when the narrator in 'The Eye of the Hurricane' says, "I know, though, I cannot celebrate it, that all these loves are caught up in their true order, and simplified, and reconciled, in the wheel of being whose centre is Incarnation," one feels something of the exasperation Roth talks about.
It would not be fair though to insist that the other stories in the collections are without complexity even they are without elements of the self-reflexive. A story like 'A Carrier of Stones', set in Viking times, tells of the strong and resilient figure Rolf. Neither tempted by wealth nor by beauty, his strength becomes legendary when he refuses to fight a Shetlander called Brun. "Some of the strongest men in the islands wrestled against Brun and they were all beaten." But when Brun asks Rolf for a fight, the latter refuses, "'I won't wrestle with you', said Rolf "but I consider it an honour to shake hands with such a strong arrogant man as Brun.'" The handshake leaves Brun literally crushed, and "that same night he took a boat for Shetland", while Rolf became "the most famous man in all the north. Nobody disputed it." Rolf disappears from the community and becomes no more than a rumour. Someone claims that he was married to a beautiful Greek woman called Petra, but this didn't stop Rolf from seeking pleasures all over Asia and the Balkans. But the speaker "was such a liar that not even his own mother could believe a word he said." At the end of the story, someone comes to a monastery in Orkney and asks for a job, clears away numerous stones, and works cleaning the chapel. We are not told who this man is, but we might surmise it is a humbled Rolf, or rather a Rolf who discovers a meaning beyond himself. As the last line says, "so the traveler became a lay brother at the monastery in Birsay, and there he carried stones and set stones and learned, at last, how to pray". If at the beginning of the story Rolf is presented as a god-like figure, and justifies this status throughout it, by the end the man at the monastery is someone seeking something bigger than his own prowess. It is well-known that Mackay Brown converted to Catholicism in 1961, though he claimed this "never had any cataclysmic impact on the way I thought or believed", but for the ambiguous figure in 'Carrier of Stones' it seems a necessary move towards meaning, possibly even redemption.
'Carrier of Stones', then, possesses none of the self-reflexive difficulties of 'The Eye of the Hurricane', but it is a story containing within it an intriguing elliptical hypothesis. Rolf disappears from the story, and appears again within the perspective of a known liar, and then the last stage of the story has someone coming from nowhere and announcing that he seeks peace. He is a figure who isn't entirely inconsistent with a person who according to Sven had "led a company of the emperor's soldiery far into the desert and brought back much silver and Arab girls and mathematical equations." It is a story where Mackay Brown needn't acknowledge the difficulty in telling the tale, but accepts the difficulty of knowing the truth concerning any story told. The form of the story retains its craft, but cannot guarantee categorical closure, where 'The Eye of the Hurricane' is willing also to question the impossibility of craft concerning the story told. In each instance, though, Mackay Brown is concerning himself with the problems of epistemology in the first instance, of literature in the second.
Many of the other stories in the collections, though, are more straightforward, as Mackay Brown lays down character and situation with efficiency and deftness. In 'The Story Teller', "Samuel of Marsh was the kind of fiddler that would take dances out of a cripple man". In 'The Troubling of the Waters', "Tom of Seatter's whisky was like a blowlamp flame in your throat", "a hen, shaped like a galleon, entered from the road outside". ('Five Green Waves'). Often this approach comes from the assumption of a lending ear: Mackay Brown's fiction frequently sounds like a story being told to someone who is not a distant stranger, but an intrigued local, or someone who has come into the community, fascinated by its past. The story's beginnings throw us into the tale, rather as if they had started with someone saying to a stranger standing at the bar: guess what happened to so and so? "It was a bad day for fishing. We should not have agreed to go out with him at all. But Sander's creels had lain there in the torn firth for a week." ('The Three Islands') "There was once a young Orkneyman called Tam who lived with his mother in a croft among the hills." ('Tam') "We came down from the hills, Ingi and I." ('A Time to Keep') The stories open with an hospitable air, of a given public. Mackay Brown would seem to lack what makes great writing according to Maurice Blanchot, who says, in The Gaze of Orpheus: "An author who is writing specifically for a public is not really writing: it is the public that is writing, and for this reason the public can no longer be a reader; reading only appears to exist, actually it is nothing."
Yet for all the hospitableness, Mackay Brown isn't an ingratiating writer, so while he isn't someone who generally challenges the form and questions his place within it, equally there is nothing twee in his writing, nothing to suggest that this sense of hospitality segues into tourist imagery and easy exoticism. This fictional person in the bar we have created is going to be told truths, not cosmetic lies, and so the tales have an originary force, the power of myth without the falsely mythologizing. Perhaps this is especially present in relation to drink - where there is whisky galore, but little humour to be had from it. Celiais about the eponymous alcoholic who sleeps with the men of the town in return for booze, while the father of the central character's wife in 'A Time to Keep' says, "it has come to my ears that hardly a night passes but you're in the ale-house. Hardly a night." It is an echo of a comment made in Celia. "you're a drunkard. Never a day passed that you aren't three or four times in the pub."
Scottish writing is perhaps more than most a literature of inebriation, but in other writers there might be the odd pint and a whisky, but Mackay Brown's work is more booze-sozzled than most. "What is the right quantity of drink for a celebration like this?" someone says in 'A Treading of Grapes'. In 'The Whaler's Return', the narrator notes that "everyone crowded round him with drink". "Maggie took from the cupboard a full bottle of whisky and five glasses", ends 'A Calendar of Love'. Some might be tempted to account for Mackay Brown's interest in the ruination of drink to Cartwright, perhaps the great love of Mackay Brown's life and a woman who ruined herself with alcohol. More useful, though, is to think of a notion of inebriated literature, and of writers for whom the narrative lubrication often comes from the problem of drink. This is far from the whole picture in Mackay Brown's work (he is great also on the harshness of the Orcadian landscape, the isolation of its people and the cruelty of its history), but it is vital to his refusal to ingratiate. It is as if he understands a comment F. Scott. Fitzgerald makes in 'The Crack-Up': "Of course, all life is a process of breaking down..." and that alcohol is the most effective means with which to accept life's fate. Alcohol allows one to accept the crack-up, and though for practical reasons many of his stories centre on pubs, the presence of the alehouse is much more evident than the church in these stories.
What we're proposing then is that Mackay Brown isn't at all a facile writer; merely that he is not an especially challenging one, and this is perhaps where issues of form versus content come into play. Sometimes a writer is challenging in form and yet not especially so in content, and one of the criticisms levelled at some post-modern or metafictionist writers is that the form doesn't require particularly challenging content: the content is there to serve the teasing of the form, since how could there be intrinsic values in the content? As Gerald Graff puts it: "The tragic quest for meaning and justification, for transcendence, gives way to a glorification of energy, conceived as pure immanence and progress." ('The Myth of the Post-Modernist Breakthrough') This can lead to an emptiness of content that takes all too seriously Alain Robbe-Grillet's important, aesthetically revolutionary claim: "When a novelist has 'something to say', they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. It means 'commitment,' as used by Sartre and other fellow-travellers. They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance. I am against this". (Paris Review) Subsequently one ends on a confrontation not with the epistemological abyss, but the trivializing of the self and all its accoutrements: to a mode of writing where facetiousness is the key. Mackay Brown remained in many ways a committed writer, committed not so much to the political as Robbe-Grillet proposes was true of Sartre, but of locale.
Few writers have committed so completely to their own geographical sphere as the Orkney writer, and out of this commitment comes a refusal to simplify what he represents, which makes him a very fine writer, even if he refuses most of the time to struggle with what this representation means, which perhaps stops him from being a great one. He is a writer committed finally to place rather than to form, and would probably wholly concur with Bernard MacLaverty (ironically a writer who settled in Scotland rather than his native Northern Ireland), when quoting Flannery O'Connor and her notion of a writer having been given the gift of the region. Mackay Brown is the opposite of Arthur Rimbaud who insisted in A Season in Hell, "one must be absolutely modern", yet this isn't at all to say that Mackay Brown settled for the nostalgia of simply being old-fashioned.
© Tony McKibbin