Iain Crichton Smith
Reading through Iain Crichton Smith's Selected Stories one might be reminded of two comments. One is the famous Wittgenstein remark about remaining silent whereof we cannot speak, and the other is Kafka's less known but wonderful comment about literature's purpose being perhaps to allow for truthful words from person to person. There is a strong feeling in many of these stories that characters remain silent as they cannot find the wherewithal to share their thoughts, yet the very presence of the stories indicates that silence is far from enough: that one may often remain silent as situations don't present themselves and characters remain self-enclosed, but Smith would seem to agree with Kafka that literature can allow for the honest conversation life, or at the very least social circumstance, often denies us. "Though I was born and brought up in it. My thoughts had never been the villagers' thoughts", the central character in 'The Hermit' says, "they aspired to be higher and more permanent than the business of the seasons." And again in the same story, "Only I, I was convinced, knew the meaning of his [the hermit's] silence for I partially shared silence with him. Only I knew the depth of the question that he posed. Only I knew the threat his silence was to us." In 'The Black and the Red' a character says, "So little honesty now, don't you agree. I mean real honesty" before going on to make a passing mention to none other than Wittgenstein. In 'The Wedding', the narrator says at one moment, "I don't know exactly what I felt. It might have been shame that the waitress had been laughing. Or it might have been gladness that someone had spoken naturally and authentically about his own life." In 'The Play', the central character despises a fellow teacher given to snide, snobbish remarks and thinks: "You stupid bitch...you Observer Magazine-reading bitch who never liked anything in your life till some critic made it respectable, who wouldn't recognize a good line of poetry or prose till sanctified by the voice of London..." Each comment contains the private thought finding personal expression.
Though a small country, what is interesting about Scottish fiction is the geographical range of voices available. Whether it happens to be Glasgow writers like Kelman, Gray, Agnes Owens, Edinburgh based Muriel Spark, Brian McCabe and Ron Butlin, Highland writers like Neil Gunn and Ali Smith, or Islanders like George Mackay Brown (from Orkney) or Smith (from Lewis), the range is broad and the voices distinctive. Some, like Ali Smith and Spark seemed to be so taken up by the literary establishment that one might wonder whether they are Scottish writers at all, where others, like Kelman and Gray distinguish themselves very much as lowland Scottish novelists, and Mackay Brown cannot easily be extricated from his Orkney roots, despite time spent in Edinburgh during the fifties and early sixties.
Yet what is interesting about Smith is that he writes with reference to Lewis, but often from a perspective that is of the island but that offers very little about it. Where Mackay Brown writes like one privy to the island's gossip, and an attendee of its pubs, Smith seems instead like a man who feels the island in his bones rather like a man with cancer of the marrow. He does not celebrate the island; he commiserates with its inhabitants, but does so in an 'imprecise way': there is no reference to the island's capital Stornoway in any of the Selected Stories,and though, for example, it is obvious in a couple of stories that the ancient stones are those of Callanish, the name goes unmentioned.
The searching issue is not the ostensibly literary one about description of place but much more description of feeling when contained by place. It would be too much to say that Smith's work indicates an existential perspective (though 'Listen to the Voice' name-checks Camus and Sartre), but it is an alienated one. His work doesn't generally concern itself with bad faith, where one might assume there is no freedom when there happens to be but that the hero is unwilling to take it and blames all those around him for its absence, but the possibilities of social isolation. Though the stories are rarely geographically specific, they are often emotionally precise, and the setting is less important (far from all are set on an island) than the hemmed in feeling that escape is towards madness and ridicule. When one aging character in 'The Hermit' decides to leave his wife and become a sailor once again, dreaming of his youth in places like Valparaiso, San Francisco and Hong Kong, he doesn't get very far: "I tried to get a job on a ship but couldn't get one. I went down to the quay and there were some men there but when I told them what I wanted they just laughed." In 'Murdo', the title character leaves his job with the intention of becoming a writer, but the flights of fancy lead to his mind crumbling rather than work being produced. He starts sending letters to Dante, the prime minister and puts an absurd advert to the paper where he asks for someone, between the age of one hundred and two hundred and who knows the work of Kant and the poetry of William Ross, to work on the roads for three weeks in the year. The best one can hope for in Smith's world, is to resist the mind falling away either through mental collapse or cultural deterioration.
Indeed sometimes the need to protect the latter will look like it will result in the former. In 'The Professor and the Comics', the titular prof goes on television and robustly defends high culture, insisting it isn't for the elite but for everyone, for anyone who gives emotional value to the profound. "You asked me whether I have done anything for the working man. Yes, shall I tell you what I've done for the working man? I've spent fifty years trying to nurse in people's minds that love of excellence which prevents us from being animals." He adds: "I say that I've been protecting your civilization, the civilization of all men."
Both Murdo and the professor hint at madness viewed from a certain perspective. But where Murdo allows his cultural awareness to become a muddle of thoughts and deeds, as if so alienated from the culture and people he requires, that madness begins to envelope him, the professor sees himself as a voice of reason against an onslaught of cultural trivialization. He may overstate his case but his position is the most valid in the story, where Murdo's behaviour seems to possess no underlying ethos, but increasingly symptoms of madness. These appear to be the main options available in Smith's world: an elitist alienation, or a descent into instability. But there are occasionally others, even if they're no more optimistic. In 'The Hermit', the central character is the educated man in the village but it allows him to clothe some cheap thoughts in elaborate theoretical garb. He becomes attracted to the teenage beauty Janet, and eventually gets to sleep with her in return for a sum of money that allows Janet to buy a couch she's been eyeing up in the town. By the end of the story, the hermit whose been temporarily living in the village leaves, as if hounded out by the locals in connection with Janet. The central character is cultured enough to see Janet as an embodiment of universal beauty, but he doesn't quite have the ethical wherewithal to accept responsibility for sleeping with her and seems to let the hermit take the blame.
Culture doesn't help the best friend in 'Listen to the Voice' either. Here the central character's buddy has been teaching school-kids for many years, and when he retires writes a book about existentialism. The central character reads it but reckons the book is full of predictable passages, as another story ends on the ostensibly pessimistic. There is jaundice in Smith's work that might very superficially make us think of writers like Ferdinand Celine and Thomas Bernhard and yet the comparison would fail for at least two reasons. One is that Smith is generally not a funny writer, and secondly his work lacks that sense of public excoriation that marks Bernhard and Celine's novels.
If these great pessimists try to redeem the value of the work in the value of the prose - they're both acknowledged as key stylists, as writers who brought new voices into literature - Smith's sentences often seem workmanlike, a little exhausted and functional. Yet this serves the material well, because the stories don't attempt to address the public self but the private preoccupation. The purpose seems not to condemn the social, but to find a space for the personal. Reading Smith is to read someone who wants to create a quiet, hopeful complicity against the general babble of social communication. The idea of writing stylistically is of little interest to Smith because, as we've indicated in our opening quotes from Wittgenstein and Kafka, the purpose is to find a space for speech around much that should remain silent, and that in doing so one feels the presence of an honest communication. Celine and Bernhard are great misanthropists as showmen: writers that, in the best sense, play to the crowd, or more accurately harangue it. Smith would be unlikely to write a sentence like Celine's provocative "those blacks stink of their misery, their interminable vanities, and their repugnant resignation; actually, they're just like our poor people, except they have more children, less dirty washing, and less red wine." (Journey to the End of the Night) Or for that matter one like Bernhard's: "The Schreker woman, who is incapable of developing a simple idea and who has for decades written nothing but nonsense, is regarded as an intellectual writer, just as the Billroth woman, who is, I believe, a lot more stupid still, I reflected; this circumstance characterizes not only our contemporary degenerate Austrian intellectual life but all intellectual life generally." (Cutting Timber) The comment about The Observer Magazine reader is exceptional in Smith's work; it would seem the norm in Celine's and Bernhard's.
It is not to the crowd that Smith's writing plays, but to the solitary, the figure equally alone and introspective as the narrators and central characters. This approach is not so much stylistic as performative, with the writer finding the voice that most conveys intimate necessity. This is writing whose tone doesn't assume a readership but hauntingly hopes for one, hopes to find in having isolated thoughts and feelings the possibility that they can be both conveyed and shared. However, sometimes Smith does this through denial more than confession, with the characters unable to confront themselves except allusively. In 'Survival without Error', the barrister narrator opens by saying "I don't often think about that period of my life" as the story explores his years doing national service. The narrator fits in nicely, but another character Lecky gets treated as the outfit's scapegoat. One day he asks the narrator if he can borrow a razor blade, knowing that he can't possibly turn up on parade unshaven, and the narrator refuses. The parade goes wonderfully well without Lecky, as the narrator talks of having the "extraordinary experience of becoming part of a consciousness that was greater than myself", and afterwards he returns to the barracks and sees that Lecky has shot himself in the mouth. Told within the context of a contemporary court case where the judge bemoans that national service is no longer compulsory and that the three youths he sentences could have benefitted from it, so the solicitor is reminded of his own days doing in the army. The story contain the ambiguous irony of national service working for one man and not for the other, so who knows how it would have worked for the youths, but it also contains denial within the barrister's reminiscences. When he says "There's one thing about the army: it teaches you to be clean, I was never so fit and clean as during that period I spent in the army", it is offered as an excuse for why he didn't lend Lecky his razor. "It would be a disgusting thing to lend anyone else one's razor blade."
Within the context of Smith's work, though, where the personal is explored and the social suspect, the solicitor might be a figure of respectability, but is he not also, and finally, a piece of social puppetry? When he thinks of "Sheila and a childless marriage and a solicitor's little office", he sees national service as the best time of his life, but could it also have been the time where he was moulded into the social individual he became, and where he couldn't confront his own conscience? Is the childless marriage and the oblivious attitude consequences of that wonderful time? National service gave him the character the judge would like to see the youths have too, but it is a homogenised sense of self that Smith's work usually counters as it searches out the inner recesses of the individual.
However, we notice in Smith's stories an interest also in the free spirit, but this is usually given female form, with figures like Janet in 'The Hermit', the central character in 'At the Fair' and Fiona in 'The Black and the Red'. Here the characters are much more pro-active than the men, and they are figures in space rather than people given to thinking. Fiona is more intellectually inclined than the others, but even here Smith presents her as a physical force. "Her face is very intense and pale. I don't think she wears lipstick. The pallor however is of the kind which is rich, almost creamy, and not a wasted whiteness." Later the narrator, Kenneth, notes that "not that she was as calculating as this: no one as passionate as she is could be as calculating as that..." as he starts to have feelings for her. 'The Black and The Red' is one of Smith's most optimistic stories: with an unequivocally happy ending as the tale (which is made up of letters from central character Kenneth to his mother) concludes with a letter noting it has been sent by both Kenneth and Fiona.
Perhaps part of the optimism in this instance rests in the nature of the action. Many of Smith's characters are thinkers, but they are at the same time procrastinators, figures who allow thought to replace action when action needs to have taken place earlier in one's life. Much of the sadness of 'The Hermit' is that the central character's fascination with Janet comes not just from her youthful beauty, but also the sense of missed opportunity. He has lived an unfulfilled life, and the technicolor actuality that is Janet, leads him not only to think of her, admittedly, but to act in a manner that might be deemed pathetic in its original sense. He manages to have sex with her but at a price, and a price perhaps greater than the hundreds of pounds he spends. While he comes away from the experience satisfied, he can't deny that the sexual exchange would be perceived as a scandal in the village. Indeed, throughout the story he hears about a local woman's daughter in London who is rumoured to have taken to the streets. Janet has done exactly that in the very village in which they live. Kenneth's thoughts and his actions are without much delay as he acknowledges his feelings in a moment of political resistance. Fiona has been unfairly arrested after an altercation with the police, and in the court Kenneth shouts out that the police man is lying: that events didn't happen as the cop claims. He is a young man who acts; the central character in 'The Hermit' is an old man it appears who has never managed to do so.
It is this sense that while thought is vital and society questionable, the refusal to act in society and to create rationales for not acting are troublesome, and it is here where me might see an interest in bad faith. Consequently when the central character in 'Listen to the Voice' admits to his friend that the book is no good, it is trying to turn into good faith a bad situation. For years the friend has been working on this tome, but has it perhaps not been a work of procrastination? Like Causabon in Middlemarch the important thing isn't so much the book as the process of delay for which the work allows. If women have an important place in some of these stories even if they do not take central roles, it lies in their catalytic function. They bring out elements of undeniable procrastination, regret, desire, impulse and guilt that without them might leave the stories too cerebrally focused. In 'The Hermit' it may be the title character that is the stranger in town, but the surprise in the story lies in the narrator sleeping with Janet. Without this desire and its realisation, we would have instead a meditation on the similarities and differences between the narrator and the hermit.
With the women in a number of the stories Smith generates events without relying on facile narrative devices: Janet's place in 'The Hermit' brings out the theme as well as pushes the tale. When the narrator says, "the young girl was a banner, unconscious and engraved, against the stupidity of death", it is part of the thematic pull of the story, where when he says "there is in the village a girl called Janet. She is about eighteen years old, with long black hair, a diamond pale face and a marvellous bum", we might be more inclined to read it narratively: here is trouble. But Janet isn't only there to instigate desire, she also allows for the opportunity for the narrator to feel regret. "[His wife] Mary was never as beautiful as Janet, not even in her youth. Her face always had a serious expression as if she were concerned with some deep problem imprinted on it." His affection for Mary was contained, and contained within the possibilities of description: she can be summed up prosaically and precisely. But concerning Janet, "language is running away with me because language cannot explain what I feel, because a young girl's perfection is beyond language". Women can help characters get out of their heads, even if it leaves the characters unsure of what is going on in their bodies.
In his introduction to the Selected Stories, Douglas Gifford notes that "this reduction of the human connection to the anatomised actuality pervades nearly all Smith's stories", but what has concerned us here is much more the atomisation. Mortality undeniably hovers over much of Smith's short fiction, but it does so often within the context of the alienated self. In 'The Dying', the narrator says, "all that night and the night before he had been watching the dying though he didn't know it was dying. The grey hairs around the head seemed to panic like the needle of a compass and the eyes, sometimes open sometimes shut, seemed to be looking at him all the time." The imagery doesn't bring us closer to the other but acknowledges its distance. In 'At the Fair', the female central character (like the 'Adoration of the Mini', one of the few female 'leads' in Smith's stories) looks at someone billed as the fattest woman in the world. "With her huge head resting on her vast shoulders the woman was like a mountain of flesh...the hands too were huge and red and fat and the fingers, with their cheap rings, as nakedly gross as sausages." In each instance the rudimentary metaphorical use of imagery leaves the other aloof to the watchful eye. When in 'The Black and the Red' the narrator says "our lecturer is a rather small man with a half-open mouth like that of a fish", it is another example of Smith's 'dead' metaphors. They're dead not in the sense that they're idiomatically stale, though they are hardly fresh; more that Smith utilises them to create a distance between self and other.
Smith is finally an interesting example of the writer as minor but at the same time personally significant. What do we mean by this? Frequently one reads writers who are deemed culturally important but who have very little to say, little in the sense that they speak unproblematically for the establishment, the majority, or at the other end vociferously against these things, but at each end arrive at the unoriginal. They announce themselves as major writers in the subjects they choose and the statements they are making, and the press they generate, and the awards they receive, but the work is second-rate. They are not minor writers, but they are, finally mediocre ones. If we mentioned Kafka initially it is because he shares with Smith a minor ambition that happened to contain within it (in Kafka's case) an astonishing fertility. Kafka's capacity to seek out the honest encounter also transformed literature at its base. Smith is not such a writer, of course, but his modest achievement is nevertheless much less dispiriting than reading many a writer much better known and more acclaimed. He understands one of the main reasons to write is to reach out from a position of isolation and move towards the possibility of shared comprehension. Great literature alters the form and the self, but fine literature, the sort of work Smith produced, can assuage, can give credence to the 'small self'. These are the frets and worries of the quotidian: a quotidian mediocrity perhaps. As Gifford says, "the final hallmark of all Smith's work is his unremitting emphasis on the need to recognize the ordinary, weak, tragic, but vital nature of undistinguished people." But it is also the performative manner in which he does this that makes his work quietly memorable.
© Tony McKibbin