Oh dear. My unspoken resolution to write two posts a week, to include at least one review, has gone somewhat awry in the last few weeks. Two reasons for this, the first that I have been doing lots of reading for work (reviews of archives accreditation schemes anyone?); the second that I've been having one of those periodic 'offline' times. Every now and then I take a violent dislike to the computer and quarantine it in the corner of the room. I don't even check my email. The thought of it makes me feel lethargic and impatient, so I have to leave it alone for a while. This explains why I also haven't been commenting elsewhere in the blogosphere. I have an enormous backlog of posts in Google Reader waiting for my delectation.
Then, for whatever reason, I came home yesterday evening with a burning desire to blog. The trouble is that now there is so much to say, where to begin?
Where better than with a spot of George Mackay Brown. You'll be absolutely sick to death of me talking about him by the end of the year, because my TBR is bursting with his work. My most recent foray has been into his short fiction, in the form of Winter Tales, a selection of stories about Yule and Christmas, our festivals of 'light in the dark'. First published in 1995, the year before GMK's death, it has been reissued by Scottish publisher Polygon. The stories nearly all date from the last years of his life when he found himself increasingly perplexed by and drawn to narratives of the Nativity and sacrifice. Forget merry tales about feasting and presents; GMB isn't a Dickensian spirit of the season. Fully half of his tales end with the birth of a child in a barn; some begin that way; nearly all of them are about the dawning of a light in the darkest time of the year. But snow, hardship, silence and loneliness run through the lot. His conception of salvation and beauty has a dizzying bleakness.
Similar language and spiritual rhythms echo through them all, to the extent that the stories feel like extensions, revisions and variations of each other. It is almost difficult to write about them as individual entities. 'The Architect', 'Ikey' and 'A Boy's Calendar' share the same form, following a solitary man or boy through the agricultural year from January to December, each paragraph headed with the name of the month and ending with Christ's birth. Others like 'Nativity Tale', 'The Road to Emmaus' and 'The Sons of Upland Farm' are parables, Bible stories extracted and retold on Orkney. There is a plain roughness to the prose that is different to the poetic stylings of Greenvoe and Vinland. It seems as though some are barely emerged, thought-forms and musings that haven't been worn smooth with working - they've been brought together as an exercise in theme and content rather than literary display. Which is not to say that they are poorly written - not possible for GMB - just plain and functional on occasion.
In 'The Woodcarver' we met with GMB's rather dark sense of humour. This story, about a drunkard fisherman who takes up carving in his garden shed and unwittingly becomes a sensation of the international art world, feels the most ambitious and human of the lot in retrospect. Perhaps in spite of rather than because it recognises the existence of a world outside Orkney, a fact largely absent from GMB's fiction. When the woodcarver is finally convinced of the value of his naive work it is by a tourist party of Americans. He leads them triumphantly home to sell it only to discover his angry wife has set fire to the shed and the masterworks inside. The message is ambiguous: that the value of the work was never in some arbitrary sum of money imposed by the world outside? Or that our achievements in the world are so much smoke? Or simply that we live at the mercy of sod's law?
There is an organic brutality at the heart of all the stories. GMB is a nature-realist. The sea, the landscape, the weather is unrelenting and insatiable. At the same time there is an undeniable beauty and poignancy to human experience in this context, the epitome of which is his characters' transformation by encounters with the Nativity. All of the stories ask the same question: how does the idea of Christ in the world fit into the Orkney landscape, into the lexicon of Orkney stories? I don't think all his attempts deliver satisfactory results, but there is no denying the power of some, like this ending to my favourite story in the collection, 'The Architect':
At midnight, Bishop William began to celebrate the Mass of the Nativity in the monks' shore-stone church. All the people of Gairsay were crowded into that sea-cold chapel. Everyone was there, from old Sweyn to the child who had chased butterflies all summer. The voice of the bishop was grave and sweet as midnight approached... At last the old man took the bread and wine, fruits of the work of their hands and offered it. The lad who had mixed mortar for the new barn in July rang the bell. Then, in purest silence, Christ came down among his people at midnight.
Everything gorgeous and wonderful about GMK is in this extract. His compound words - 'shore-stone, sea-cold'; the mixing-up of the mundane and the spiritual; the repetitious rhythm 'at midnight...as midnight...at midnight'; the balance of the whole between those two 'at midnights', with no word wasted in between. While I suspect I'm going to admire his long-form more than his short, and that Winter Tales is not the best place to begin with him, there is still an enormous amount to admire in it.