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Scottish Writers

From:   MikeHarvey1935  (Original Message)      Sent: 9/11/2008 3:39 AM
I've just read The House With The Green Shutters (1901) by George Douglas Brown and enjoyed it immensely. I had my attention drawn to it by reading Alasdair Gray's short history of Scottish Literature. It takes place in the small Scottish town of Barbie in the mid 19th century, a place of petty rivalries and jealousies, and much malicious gossip. The chief character is the unpleasant John Gourlay, a businessman and carrier, who tyranises his wife, and his son John.
Gourlay is inordinately proud of his house with green shutters, a symbol of his eminence in the town.  The story of the novel is the story of Gourlay's downfall, and of the deterioration of his son, a weak dreamer, whose confidence has been sapped by his father. His downfall parallels his father's.  There is a sort of Greek Chorus of Townspeople who are forever gossiping and commenting on Gourlay's life and trying to belittle him and his family. The introduction to my copy (Canongate Classics £5.99) likens this book to a classical Greek Tragedy in that it depicts the downfall of an entire family, however, I thought the book's climax to be melodramatic rather than tragic. But the final chapters with the final confrontation between father and son, with the feeble mother watching in horrified silence is brilliantly done and the book rushes towards a heart-stopping climax.  Brown was a fine writer and it's a very vivid read, with many striking passages of great power, and much entertaining and often amusing conversation in Scots, which is easily understood.
Brown died at age 33 shortly after this book was published.  I suspect he would probably have emerged as  a great Scots writer had he lived.  I enjoyed it very much. It filled in a gap in my reading.  This is a typical passage.
   "...................Lightning, both sheeted and forked, was vivid as ever, but the thunder slunk growling away.
         'The heavens are opening and shutting like a man's eye,'
said Gourlay; 'oh it's a terrible thing the world -'  and he covered his face with his hands.
A flash shot into a mounded wood far away.  'It stabbed it like a dagger!' stared Gourlay.    'Look, look, did ye see yon? It came down in a broad flash - then jerked to the side - then ran down to a sharp point again. It was like the coulter of a plough.'
Suddenly a blaze of lightning flamed wide and a fork shot down its centre.
            'That,' said Gourlay, 'was like a red crack in a white-hot furnace door.'
            'Man, you're a noticing boy,' said the baker.
            'Aye,' said John, smiling in curious self-interest, 'I notice things too much. They give me pictures in my mind. I'm feared of them, but I like to think them over when they're bye.'...'I'm no feared of folk,' he went on, with a faint return to his swagger. 'But things get in on me. A body seems so wee compared to that -' he nodded to the warring heavens.
From:   HeHireDramaticJet                              Sent: 9/11/2008 11:01 AM
Even amongst well-read Scottish people, The House With Green Shutters is more known about than actually read. I must confess to not having read it myself. Despite its classic status (at least in Scotland), the fact that there's only one currently available version (and that published by an imprint dedicated only to Scottish books) tells its own story.

Scottish literature hasn't really made anywhere near the impact that, say, Irish literature has, and seems all too often the preserve only of Scottish nationalists. Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair, for instance, is barely known south of the border, and I've always wondered why that is: the whole trilogy is well worth reading, and that first novel especially - Sunset Song - seems to me quite remarkable. And we have long wondered on this forum why an obviously great masterpiece such as Confessions of a Justified Sinner is so little known.

Possibly Scottish literature has made its greatest mark in the area of good, popular literature. Long John Silver, Jekyll & Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, Richard Hannay, Peter Pan, Toad, Mole, Ratty & Badger - they were all created by Scottish writers. And of course, in more recent times, there's J K Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, and - a great favourite of mine - George McDonald Fraser. That's not a bad list for a small country.

Two fine novelists, by the way, who are rarely considered as "Scottish writers" are Tobias Smollett (whose Humphrey Clinker is surely one of the most delightful of all novels) and the wonderful Muriel Spark.

As far as poetry is concerned, I don't think anyone would seriously question the stature of Burns; the stature of Hugh McDiarmid is possibly more questionable (I've never managed to get into his poetry myself). But the most widely read Scottish "poet" must surely be ... yes, I'm afraid so ... William McGonagall!

From:   Chibiabos83                                       Sent: 9/11/2008 11:26 AM
Is Muriel Spark really not thought of as a Scottish writer? Her Scottishness - her Edinburghness, at least - is something that I've always found very strong, but I suppose this perception varies from reader to reader. You mention two writers - Hogg and Gibbon - I have long meant to read. Perhaps a new year's resolution beckons...

From:   HeHireDramaticJet                              Sent: 9/11/2008 11:54 PM
Isn't it principally The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that is primarily regarded as a Scottish novel? (Or an Edinburgh novel at any rate?)  You're probably right, though.

From:   MikeHarvey1935                                   Sent: 9/12/2008 2:35 AM
Chib, do read The Confessions of A Justified Sinner.  It's a remarkable book.

From:   fiveowls                                               Sent: 9/12/2008 2:42 PM
What an interesting thread. Amongst the more popular fiction mentioned by Himadri I was, many years ago, gripped by Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona. Another Scottish writer I have enjoyed, with works set in Caithness is Neil Gunn, especially his Highland River. Then, read only this past year and stimulated by the Big Readers' Cup, I was given an intriguing and unexpected read in Alasdair Gray's Lanark.

I saw Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair televised many years ago and was completely gripped.

There's certainly some good literary material written north of the Border. Amongst Scottish poets there's the estimable Edwin Morgan, born in Glasgow.

From:   lunababymoonchild                                Sent: 9/12/2008 2:57 PM
Muriel Spark is Scottish, Liz Lochead writes very well, there's John Buchan, Sorley MacLean, Alistair MacLean, Nigel Tranter, Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and more that I've never really heard of :
Well, well, who'd have thought?
Never heard of The House With The Green Shutters, though.

From:   fiveowls                                              Sent: 9/13/2008 12:10 AM
Yes, as well as Norman MacCaig and Edwin Morgan amongst the Scottish poets, there's today's Kathleen Jamie, a writer of some very beautiful poetry, evocative of landscape and people, and some beautiful prose.

From:   MikeHarvey1935                                   Sent: 9/13/2008 3:18 AM
I suspect that Ian Rankin would be rather put out not to be mentioned in a discussion of notable Scots writers.

From:   Wyspianski8             Sent: 9/13/2008 4:04 AM
I've recently read Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by R.L. Stevenson with a view to making the same journey in the near future, something I've wanted to do ever since I first read the book as a teenager.
No one has mentioned the wonderful incomparably brilliant, stunningly clever, breathtakingly stupendous Janice Galloway.

From:   MikeHarvey1935                                 Sent: 9/13/2008 4:36 AM
Good luck with your proposed trip, Wysp.
Might I draw your attention to Richard Holmes' delightful book Footsteps - Adventures of a Romantic Biographer(1985) in which he describes doing precisely what you propose?  He follows Stevenson's footsteps through France, and then in subsequent sections he traces Mary Wollstencroft and Wordworth in Paris, Shelley in Italy and Gerard de Nerval in Paris.  It's a most enjoyable book.
Might I ask if you are in the process of training your especial Modestine?

From:   Wyspianski8                                       Sent: 9/13/2008 10:48 AM
Thanks very much for that info Michael, I see it is just £7:99 at Waterstones, so is now on my order list.  I like the sound of Shelley in Italy ~ though of course I'd steer clear of any sailing ships.  I've an updated Modestine in the shape of a grumpy temperamental Land Rover.

From:   Evie_again                                          Sent: 9/13/2008 2:08 PM
Andrew Greig is a very fine contemporary Scottish writer (novelist and poet, though I have only read his novels).

Wyspianski - I know LizzySiddal is a big fan of Janice Galloway too, I really must get round to reading her.

I must read Neil Gunn too. Another who I don't think has been mentioned yet is George Mackay Brown - I have only read Beside the Ocean of Time, but it is outstandingly wonderful, so I must read more of his books.

From:   MikeAlx                                             Sent: 9/15/2008 12:12 AM
One of the finest Scottish novels I've read - though I've read little else by the author - is The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin. It's that rare thing, a novel in the second person that actually works, and is essentially a snapshot into the mind of a middle-aged, middle-class alcoholic. I found the writing extremely powerful. It's a shame it's not better known; I seem to recall that Irvine Welsh mentioned it as a 'lost classic' or something a few years back, which boosted its profile somewhat.

From:   KiwiCaro1                                           Sent: 9/15/2008 12:25 AM
I can't even seem to imagine a novel written in the second person, successful or not.  How can it work?  How does it read?  

From:   MikeAlx                                               Sent: 9/15/2008 2:01 AM
Hi Caro, There are a couple of examples of second-person novels. In the case of Butlin's book, it is really more of an interior monologue, with the narrator addressing himself as 'you'. It doesn't seem at all artificial or forced - or didn't to me, anyway.

A different use of second person is in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, which directly addresses the reader, who then effectively becomes a character in the book. This is more of a postmodernist approach, whereas Butlin's approach is closer to the high modernism of Woolf or Joyce.

There are a few other examples; Michel Butor wrote a second-person novel called La Modification, which sounds interesting, but I haven't read it. Georges Perec's novella A Man Asleep (which I have read, albeit a long time ago) takes a similar approach to Butlin.

Wikipedia has a list of second-person narratives here:

From:   lunababymoonchild                              Sent: 9/15/2008 7:10 AM
Or you could read an extract of the actual book here:

From:   KiwiCaro1                                          Sent: 9/15/2008 10:35 PM
Thank you both for that.  I am not sure I would cope with a whole book written like that, or maybe you get used to it.

Shamefully I have not read a single one of those books mentioned on Wikipedia, Mike, though I have read one or two of the authors.  Not recently.  Would like to read Day sometime.

From:   lunababymoonchild                              Sent: 9/16/2008 2:31 AM
The Butlin is a very short book, some 128 pages according to Amazon, Caro, should that make a difference.

From:   MikeHarvey1935                                   Sent: 9/22/2008 8:18 AM
I've just read A Beleagured City by Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) a little-known but hugely prolific Scottish writer.  It contains this arresting sentence: -

     Why should it be a matter of wonder that the dead should come back? The wonder is that they do not.
The story takes place in France in the mid-19thC. A character makes the remark that an event that has just happened is enough to bring the dead out of their graves.   And that is exactly what happens.  The dead swarm around the city walls and eventually occupy it, casting out its inhabitants.  The mayor, who tells the story ventures outside the walls with a companion to investigate.

      There was in the air, in the night, a sensation the most strange I have ever experienced. I have felt the same thing indeed at other times, in face of a great crowd, when thousands of people were moving, rustling, struggling, breathing around me, thronging all the vacant space, filling up every spot. This was the sensation that overwhelmed me here - a crowd: yet nothing to be seen but the darkness. The indistinct line of the road. We could not move for them, so close were they around us. What do I say?  There was nobody - nothing.
How the townspeople regain possession of their city is the burden of the tale.  Strange and eerie, and not quite what you might think from these extracts, because M. Oliphant has an agenda apart from her desire to thrill.

A Beleaguered City - and other tales of the Seen and the Unseen by Margaret Oliphant. (Canongate Classics £7.99)

Wow  - that was a monumental undertaking, Castorboy!  I've just now seen this post in searching for a place to put a question about Alexander McCall Smith.  Has anyone read The Unbearable Lightness of Scones?  It's just out here in paperback, as well as his new hardback, the title of which escapes me right now.  I just wondered if it is worth investing $15 in?

There were so many interesting posts and I had the time so it was a pleasure to paste them over from the old board.

You probably know the novel is the fifth one in the Scotland Street series featuring Isabel Dalhousie who also has her own series of novels. I have read one Dalhousie novel where she operates as an unofficial detective - I had a quick look in the Sub-forum - Crime fiction but there doesn’t appear to be any reviews of a McCall Smith.

Hmmm, well a search on the net turned up many positive reviews.  I was wondering whether or not to invest $15 in it.

Kudos on the Scottish authors page!

Very Happy  Very Happy

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