The Blackhouse is a big, ambitious novel. Its chief protagonist is Finlay MacLeod is a police officer in Edinburgh. As the novel begins, Fin is investigating a homicide that took place in that city when DCI Black, his boss, suddenly informs him that he’s being sent to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It seems that a murder there closely resembles MacLeod’s Edinburgh case as regards the killer’s MO. One other important point: Fin MacLeod was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis.
Fin has not been back to Lewis for a long time. There are reasons for his lengthy absence. He has no living family members still on the island. But he does have friends, a former lover, and other associations still there. The woman he had loved, and known from childhood, was called Marjorie – Marsaili in Gaelic, pronounced Marshally in that language. Fin’s best friend had been Artair Macinnes. Artair and Marsaili were now married; they had a son named Fionnlagh, which is Fin’s own Gaelic name. If this sounds like a complex and potentially fraught situation – it is.
Nevertheless, Fin must follow orders and return to Lewis, to look into the murder of Angus Macritchie. In times past, Macritchie had been the archetypal schoolyard bully, disliked by Fin and pretty much everyone else on the island. Now he was dead, and it’s up to Fin to find out who killed him and why.
Meanwhile, Fin’s personal life in Edinburgh has been slowly and painfully disintegrating. He has suffered a terrible bereavement, and his marriage is on the rocks. It’s a good time to get away from Edinburgh. But Fin is apprehensive about returning to the Isle of Lewis – and it turns out, he has good reason to feel that way.
Peter May’s depiction of life on this remote outpost is meticulous and vivid. Here, Fin recalls a moment from his childhood on the island:
The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled with them. Usually doublers. We watched one that day, forming fast over the peatbog, vivid against the blackest of blue-black skies. It took away the need for words
In a later scene, Fin and a fellow officer are driving up the west coast of the island:
He watched the villages drift by, like moving images in an old family album, every building, every fencepost and blade of grass picked out in painfully sharp relief by the sun behind them. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere….The tiny village primary schools, too, were empty, still shut for the summer holidays. Fin wondered where all the children were. To their right, the peatbog drifted into a hazy infinity, punctuated only by stoic sheep standing firm against the Atlantic gales. To their left, the ocean itself swept in timeless cycles on to beaches and into rocky inlets, , creamy white foam crashing over darkly obdurate gneiss, the oldest rock on earth. The outline of a tanker, like a distant mirage, was just discernible on the horizon.
Peter May’s writing is powerful and persuasive, at times ascending to the poetic. This gift serves him well when he comes to describe an event of supreme importance to the people of Lewis: the guga harvest. Every year, a limited number of men are invited to be a part of this unique island tradition. It begins with a boat trip across treacherous waters to a rocky island called An Sgeir, where thousands of birds arrive during the summer months to nest and procreate. The guga, or gannets, are considered delicacies by the people of Lewis. The job of the guga hunters is to capture some two thousand birds within a two week period. The young chicks are plucked from their nests while the frantic parents flap their wings and screech in protest. The necks of the chicks are quickly broken; then they are plucked clean, slit open to receive sea salt as a preservative, and otherwise made ready for the return trip. Ultimately they will be presented to the islanders of Lewis, perfectly preserved and ready to eat.
It is considered an honor to be selected as a participant in the yearly guga harvest. Fin received just such an honor during his last summer before leaving the island to attend university in Glasgow. It is a distinction he could have well done without. He has no desire to go, but once chosen, it is virtually impossible to decline. And so, with a heavy, heart, he joins the team of hunters. After the inevitable rough crossing Fin catches sight of An Sger for the first time:
Three hundred feet of sheer black cliff streaked with white, rising straight out of the ocean in front of us….I saw what looked like snow blowing in a steady stream from the peak before I realized that the snowflakes were birds. Fabulous white birds with blue-black wingtips and yellow heads, a wingspan of nearly two metres. Gannets. Thousands of them, filling the sky, turning in the light, riding turbulent currents of air.
(The white streaks are actually bird guano. Fin had smelled An Sgeir before he’d seen it.)
An Sgeir was barely half a mile long, its vertebral column little more than a hundred yards across. There was no soil here, no grassy banks or level land, no beaches. Just shit-covered rock rising straight out of the sea.
Fin adds that he couldn’t imagine a more inhospitable place. But this is just the beginning. While engaged in the arduous labor of unloading two weeks’ worth of supplies, Fin discovers how hard it is to maintain your footing on the island. The rock is made slick not just by the guano but by the slimy green vomit produced by petrel chicks terrified by this sudden human invasion. Add to that the unceasing racket generated by the avian multitudes, and you have a sort of Hell on Earth. And there they will stay for two full weeks, carrying out the multifaceted operation of catching, killing, and preparing the birds.
There is only one place to shelter on An Sgeir. It is a blackhouse.
Although Fin can’t help but admire the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and just plain toughness of the guga hunters, he finds the two weeks on An Sgeir an awful experience, an endurance test that can’t end soon enough. And at the end of two weeks it does end. But not without two momentous occurrences, the full import of which Fin does not grasp until many years after the event.
Peter May’s evocation of life on the Isle of Lewis is deeply resonant. The geography of the place, the social order, the dominance of the church, the entire way of life – all are presented here in minute detail. There were times when I thought it might be too minute. The anthropology threatens to overwhelm the mystery. The actual crime was, for this reader, the least memorable aspect of the book. The cast of characters is fairly large; moreover, the complex narrative alternates between the present and the past. This brings up a certain aspect of the narrative style employed by May in this novel: the events of the present time are set forth in the third person, while the sections dealing with Fin’s boyhood on the island are recounted by him in the first person. It took me a while to get comfortable with this method of advancing the story.
Until I read The Blackhouse, the only knowledge I had of the Isle of Lewis had to do with the famous Chessmen, almost certainly carved by Norsemen in the early Middle Ages and discovered on the island in 1831. (In the novel, Fin recalls a bit of island legend to the effect that the crofter who found the tiny carvings, mistaking them for the “…elves and gnomes, the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore,” fled the scene in fear for his life.)
Peter May’s description of the guga harvest is riveting and bizarre to the point of almost seeming hallucinatory. Off hand, as regards its affect on the reader – this reader, anyway – the only recent fiction I can readily compare it to is Karen Russell’s astonishing story “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” So - is there actually such a thing as the guga harvest? Indeed there is, as you will see if you click here.
There are actual blackhouses remaining in the Outer Hebrides, although few if any still serve as dwelling places. Here is Fin’s description:
The Blackhouses had dry-stone walls with thatched roofs and gave shelter to both man and beast. A peat fire burend day and night in the centre of the stone floor of the main room. It was called the fire room. There were no chimneys, and smoke was supposed to escape through a hole in the roof. Of course, it wasn’t very efficient, and the houses were always full of the stuff.
He adds: “It was little wonder that life expectancy was short.” (Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the blackhouses.)
The Blackhouse presents some structural challenges for the reader, and there were times when the plot seemed somewhat labored, if not downright irrelevant, given the fascination of the setting.. But Peter May writes beautifully, and he’s created an enormously likable protagonist in Fin MacLeod. This is the first novel in the Lewis Trilogy, and I look forward to the next one.
Isabel Dalhousie’s mind is a wondrous place in which to spend time. I love the way quotations from her beloved W.H. Auden invariably come to mind on apt occasions. At one point in The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, she spies a banner reading “We must love one another” draped across the facade of a church. She is immediately put in mind of Auden’s poem “September 1939,” in which the last line of the penultimate stanza is “We must love one another or die.” Auden subsequently altered that line to read “We must love one another and die.” (Italics mine.) He then repudiated the poem altogether, calling it, in Isabel’s words, mendacious. She hastens to add that in her view, the work still retains “a grave beauty.”
In my view, the revised version of the line in question achieves a whole new level of profundity. Click here to read the entire poem, and here for an article that appeared in the New York Times in December of 2001: “Beliefs; After September 11, a 62-year-old poem by Auden drew new attention. Not all of it was favorable.”
The Isabel Dalhousie novels invariably feature expressions of love for Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside. Early in the novel, Isabel finds herself driving out of the city. Her route takes her past Stirling Castle and the monument to William Wallace. It seems that Scottish rugby fans are wont to sing the praises of Wallace, even though his triumph over “the English army of cruel Edward” is seven hundred years in the past. Asking herself why this custom persists, the answer that comes to her first in an unwelcome one: “Because we may not have very much else, apart from our past.” But she immediately rejects this rationale as untrue and unworthy:
We did have a great deal else. We had this land that was unfolding before her now as she turned off towards Doune; these fields and these soft hills and this sky and this light and these rivers that were pure and fresh, and the music that could send shivers of pleasure up the spine and make one so proud of Scotland and of belonging.
She concludes: “We had all that.”
(The musical accompaniment is from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.)
As is usual in these novels, the mystery is of a mild nature; though intriguing, it generates little actual suspense. A painting by Nicholas Poussin has been stolen from an avid art collector; a mutual acquaintance enlists the assistance of Isabel, who is herself a collector, primarily of Scottish paintings. In the course of the investigation, she mentions having been to exhibit entitled ‘Poussin and Nature.’ That was in fact an actual exhibit: I saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and will never forget it.
Isabel Dalhousie not only thinks deeply, she feels deeply as well. Putting Charlie to sleep, she feels as though she could break down in tears: “…she could have wept for the love of him, as any mother might while watching over her child” (and any grandmother, I might add).
Finally, one of the great pleasures I’ve experienced in following this series is watching the love of Isabel and Jamie grow and mature, seeing Isabel gain confidence in Jamie’s devotion to her, and seeing Jaimie himself increasingly amazed by what a treasure he has in Isabel.
He looked at the clock; Charlie would have to be fetched in half an hour or so. He put his arms about Isabel and embraced her, pulling her to him. Her hands were on his shoulder blades. It was warm in the house and the sound of a mower drifted in from over the road through an open window, bringing with it the smell of cut grass.
Ron and I were deeply moved and impressed by our 2007 visited to the newly opened Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh. I’ll be interested to see if, in upcoming installments in this series, McCall Smith treats specifically of Scotland’s push toward independence. A referendum on the question is scheduled to take place in 2014.
As I fell under the spell yet again, I asked my self, What is it that makes the fiction of Alexander McCall Smith such a glowing and beautiful thing?
In The Charming Quirks of Others, Isabel Dalhousie is asked to assist in the process of vetting three candidates for the post of headmaster at a prestigious school for boys. But – no matter; she could be asked to vet three ducks for king of the pond and we’d be equally enchanted. After all, we’re not here because of the detective assignment! There is suspense, of course – there’s always suspense. But that story element has its roots in the mind of our protagonist – and in her heart as well.
One does feel at times vicariously exhausted by Isabel’s unrelenting analysis of the moral dimensions of every situation. Exhausted, yes – but fascinated and stimulated at the same time. Socrates counsels us that the unexamined life is not worth living. No chance of Isabel Dalhousie’s having that problem!
So then: what are the qualities of these novels that make them, for this reader at least, so compelling? First and foremost, the character of Isabel is a marvelous creation. This is a woman for whom the life of the mind is supremely important. But it does not take precedence over matters of the heart. Both have a claim on her and have been known to compete for her time. Isabel also places a high value on the fine arts. She is, in fact, a collector, especially of works by Scottish artists. I knew virtually nothing about these painters until I started reading this series. Now I have several books on the subject. I’m going to insert several works here, just for the sheer joy of gazing at them!
(For more of the same, click here.)
In The Charming Quirks of Others, Isabel is eager to acquire a Raeburn painting in which two of her ancestors appear. She has deep roots in Scotland, a country she loves with unabashed ardor. In fact, each novel in this series is in some way a celebration of the glories of Isabel’s native land (and the author’s too, of course).
Motherhood came late and unexpectedly to Isabel. She had been in the midst of a rapturous affair with Jamie, a young musician. The affair has matured into a committed relationship, strengthened by a mutual adoration of their son Charlie. Here are Jamie and Charlie returning home from an outing:
Charlie had fallen asleep in his pushchair – a tiny bundle of humanity in Macpherson tartan rompers and green shoes. The rompers were damp across the chest with orange juice and childish splutterings; the shoes had a thin crust of mud on them. She smiled; an active morning with his father. She kissed them both: Charlie lightly on his brow so as not to awaken him; Jamie on the mouth, and he held her, prolonging their embrace.
Isabel holds a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University. A woman of independent means, she owns and edits a highly regarded professional journal, The Review of Applied Ethics . She and Jamie are engaged to be married. Grace, her housekeeper of long standing, has slipped easily into the role of occasional child minder. On the surface, it would appear that Isabel has as intellectually and emotionally fulfilling a life as a woman could possibly yearn for. And in the main, this is true.
But where Jamie is concerned, Isabel is at times terribly anxious.. He is some fourteen years younger than she, a beautiful youth as well as a gifted musician. She herself is comely and attractive, but she fears that she is no match for the younger women who frequently cross Jamie’s path. Despite his reassurances to the contrary, she feels vulnerable, insecure – and sometimes downright jealous. And you Dear Reader, in the best tradition of great fictional love stories, suffer right along with her.
In The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings offers this analysis of the artistry evident in the author’s depiction of Kitty Fane, the protagonist of The Painted Veil. Maugham, says his biographer, “… displays an extraordinary empathy, an ability to create a woman as seen not from a man’s perspective but from that of the woman herself; he completely inhabits and possesses Kitty, knows her from the inside, down to the very nerves and fiber of her being.” This is precisely what Alexander McCall Smith does when he writes about Isabel Dalhousie.
So: what else do I admire about McCall Smith’s fiction? There’s deep insight into the human condition, his realistic depiction of the contradictions in our character that make us what we are. Brilliant, brainy Isabel is as insecure in love as any green school girl. Her vaunted powers of reasoning avail her nothing in the struggle to control her emotions. Strength of will, though, does enable to master her feelings most of the time. Most, but not all. There’s a fraught moment in this novel when she lashes out at Jamie; I confess I was shocked by what she says to him. She regrets her words, of course, the minute they’ve been uttered. As do we all in such circumstances.
I love the way in which Isabel grapples gamely with life’s Big Questions. It is incumbent on her to do this as a philosopher, but this vocation is one she has deliberately chosen, and she never shirks what she sees as her intellectual responsibilities. McCall Smith conveys Isabel’s thought processes as profundity tempered with a touch of irony: “One of the drawbacks to being a philosopher was that you became aware of what you should not do, and this took from you so many opportunities to savor the human pleasure of revenge or greed or sheer fantasising.”
In Isabel’s world, small events can have large implications. At one point, Jamie tells her of an incident from his childhood, when he threw his teddy bear over the Dean Bridge. Isabel finds herself speculating on what could have motivated the child Jamie to fling away a cherished possession:
He was punishing him, no doubt – or perhaps he was punishing himself. And if he was punishing himself, what for? She would ask a psychotherapist friend who knew all about such things. The friend had once said to Isabel that we punish ourselves for all sorts of reasons, but for the most part, we did not deserve it. ‘In fact, Isabel had said, I wonder who truly deserves punishment, anyway. What good does it do to punish a person? All that does is add to the pain of the world.’
Her friend had stared at Isabel. ‘Yes,’ she said. And then, after a further few minutes of thought, she had said yes again. ‘That sounds so right,’ she said. ‘And yet I suspect, Isabel, that you are very wrong.’ And Isabel thought: Yes, I am. She’s right; I’m wrong.
Words or comments casually dropped can initiate a whole new train of thought. Charlie’s childish enunciation of the word “rabbits” – he leaves off the ‘r’ – tickles his mother’s fancy:
Hearing this, Isabel thought of its crossword potential. Cockney customs? Abbits. Senior members of monasteries? Abbits. Not the right thing to do? Bad abbits.
McCall Smith’s descriptions of the city of Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside are worth lingering over. In this scene, Isabel is heading out of the city:
On the drive out she stopped just after Silverburn to watch a bird of prey hunting over the lower slopes of the Pentlands. It was a large hawk, waiting to swoop down on its victim. She drew up at the side of the road and watched as it was mobbed by a flock of smaller birds and ignominiously chased away. The small birds, like tiny spitfires in some unequal, heroic Battle of Britain, twisted and turned in dizzying aerial combat; the hawk, outnumbered and irritated by the onslaught, suddenly flew off towards higher ground and disappeared. Isabel sat for a moment, the engine of the green Swedish car idling, before she resumed her journey. The little battle was so close to the city and yet belonged so completely to another world – as did the man feeding his cattle in the field a mile further along the road, emptying a sack of food into a metal hopper while the cattle thronged about him, jostling for position at the trough.
When Isabel thinks about her love for Jamie, and about what makes the feeling so powerful, she focuses on one exemplary trait:
It is not because you are beautiful; not because I see perfection in your features, in your smile, in your litheness- all of which I do, of course I do, and have done since the moment I first met you. It is because you are generous in spirit; and may I be like that; may I become like you – which unrealistic wish, to become the other, is such a true and revealing symptom of love, its most obvious clue, its unmistakable calling card.
From the specific to the general: spoken like a true philosopher – in this case, a philosopher who is deeply in love.
Alexander McCall Smith will be appearing at the Howard County Library on Sunday April 10, at 6 PM. For information on registration, check the March – May (Spring) issue library’s publication Source, coming out on or around March 1. You can also check the library’s website.
“If you lived on an island six miles long and two and a half miles wide, by the time you were ten you knew every inch of it.” – Red Bones, by Ann Cleeves
In Red Bones by Ann Cleeves, we are once again back in Shetland, this time on the island of Whalsay. Folk are deeply connected to one another in this small island kingdom, sometimes by consanguinity, other times by long association over the years. Violence is not a usual feature of life on Whalsay, so two deaths occurring quite close together are jarring and disruptive. The first appears to be a regrettable accident; the second, a tragic suicide. But is either fatality what, at first glance, it seems to be?
The quote in the title of this post refers to Sandy Wilson, born and raised on Whalsay. Sandy is a young policeman, serving under veteran Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. (Jimmy himself hails from tiny Fair Isle, Britain’s remotest inhabited island.) As in the first two novels in the Shetland series, Perez is the lead investigator, but Red Bones is really more about Sandy Wilson. The first person to die is a member of his extended family. As the investigation proceeds, the involvement of his family members increases. It’s an interesting family, with its share of tensions and secrets. In addition, Sandy lacks confidence in himself as a police officer. He is a vulnerable person, both professionally and personally, and one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve encountered recently in crime fiction.
As in Raven Black and White Nights, the first two novels in this series, Cleeves makes the most of her exotic, remote setting. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the little people called trows. A certain mound of land has been called a “trowie knowe.” Hattie,an archaeologist working on the island, elucidates: “You know the myths about the trows, the little people. It was supposed to be a hole in the ground, a place where they kept their treasure.” (Orkney Jar is a great site for further exploration of the fascinating lore of the Shetland and Orkney Islands.)
I began my review of White Nights by saying , “Sequels make me anxious.” So they do, ordinarily. Loving the first book in a series is no guarantee that you’ll be equally smitten by the next one. But I now feel that where the work of this fine author is concerned, I can put those worries aside. Red Bones is replete with fully realized characters and wonderful writing. It is, in short, a winner!
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ann Cleeves, first in England and then again at Bouchercon in Baltimore.Not long ago she very graciously arranged for her U.S. publisher, St. Martin Minotaur, to send me an advance copy of Blue Lightning, the fourth entry in the Shetland Quartet. My only reservation about reading it is that it must perforce be the final novel in this hugely enjoyable series. Or…must it…?
“It was a landscape of mists and distances, beneath a sky that was somehow washed, attenuated, softened.” – The Lost Art of Gratitude, by Alexander McCall Smith
Ron and I have a favorite table at Tersiguel’s Country French Restaurant. It’s a small table for two in an alcove on the first floor. The window right next to it is stained glass; it depicts a fox with russet fur, a sinuous body and the trademark bushy tail. This creature always puts me in mind of the fox that frequents Isabel Dalhousie’s back garden in Edinburgh – she calls him Brother (or Br’er) Fox.
Yes I know – oft have I written of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. But each time yet another finely wrought gem in this series falls into my hands, I am moved to sing its praises anew.
In The Lost Art of Gratitude, we find ourselves once more in beautiful Edinburgh with Isabel, her musician lover Jamie, and their little son Charlie. These three people are enclosed within a tightly woven web of love. Here, Isabel, thinks with happy anticipation of the time when Charlie will begin music lessons:
‘She smiled at the thought of Charlie with his unformed lips and a violin. He would attempt to eat it if she gave him one now, but they could start when he was three, which would come soon enough. And then, after the violin, when he was old enough, ten or so, he could learn the Highland bagpipes, starting on a practice chanter before proceeding to a real set, ebony drones and all, to the full, primeval wail that sent shivers down the spine. He would wear the kilt–Macpherson tartan again–and play the pipes; oh, Charlie, dear little Charlie.
Alongside Isabel’s newly acquired domestic bliss, two plot lines unfold. One involves a wealthy investment banker named Minty Auchterlonie. Minty is harboring a secret that she fears will endanger her marriage. She entreats Isabel, whom she knows only slightly, to help extricate her from the quandary in which she finds herself. At the same time, Isabel is once more fending off assaults on her professional integrity from her nemesis, Professor Christopher Dove and his assistant nemesis, Professor Lettuce.
(Isabel has a great time with the latter’s name: “Poor Lettuce: his salad days were over.” “Professor Lettuce must have gone through his childhood being the butt of mockery from other boys–fortunate boys not named after vegetables–simply because of his unusual name….”)
Isabel has a showdown with Lettuce over lunch (appropriately) that had me wanting to stand up and cheer!
As with all the Dalhousie novels, The Lost Art of Gratitude is suffused with a love of Scotland and Scottish culture. And, of course, Isabel cherishes a particularly strong affection for Edinburgh, a city she has known her entire life:
‘Everywhere in this city, everywhere Isabel went, there were memories. As an eighteen-year-old, she had come to a poetry reading on this side of the square, in the School of Scottish Studies; it was given by a Gaelic poet, who read both his own language and English. Isabel had been unable to understand his Gaelic, but had followed it on a crib sheet thoughtfully provided by the organisers; it had sounded like the wind and waves breaking on the shore; the words of a language that suited its landscape.
At one point in the novel. something happens to Brother Fox that calls forth a compassionate response from both Jamie and Isabel, and from others as well. I found this entire novel to be compulsively readable, but this scene was especially riveting. It said more about the characters than any wordy description possibly could have done.
Not to mention, downright synchronous. Because six days ago I posted “Feeling Scottish,” and lo! here is an article on visiting Jura in the Travel section of the Sunday Washington Post. (Yes – that’s the same Washington Post that recently discontinued the much-beloved Book World insert.)
As its title implies, Paul McHugh’s “Finding Orwell’s Source of Hope” is primarily about the author of 1984 and his island hideaway and only incidentally about Jura itself. McHugh does note that once you’ve made the trek to Barnhill, “…you appreciate the isle of Jura as Scotland’s best wilderness, home to 5,000 red deer but only 170 people.”
One small quibble concerning this piece: McHugh states that “Blair [Orwell's real name] attended college at Eton.” Eton College – the name can be misleading, especially for Americans – is an independent preparatory school whose students range in age from 13 to 18. Almost all of them go on to university, with approximately one third of those matriculating at either Oxford or Cambridge.(Orwell himself did not receive any higher education. His family had no money for it, and he was apparently not a candidate for a scholarship.)
Because I’m listening to M.C Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mysteries and being mesmerised by Graeme Malcolm’s beautiful, subtly inflected reading and by the author’s loving evocation of the Highlands, and
Because Friday night, I led a discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments. Re-reading this novel, I was enraptured all over again.
I love Isabel Dalhousie, ethicist and intellectual. I love the mixture of elements in her: brainy one minute (and not averse to showing it off), passionate the next; possessed of an insatiably curious nature and yet at times preferring solitude, and the possessor of a heightened aesthetic sense that makes her exquisitely responsive to poetry, music, and art.
I was especially taken this time around by the by the poetry quoted and alluded to in this novel. W.H Auden is a great favorite – Isabel calls him her poet. While she and Jamie are bathing little Charlie, she finds herself reflecting on one of Auden’s best known poems:
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
(I was ready to identify the artist as Pieter Breugel the Elder; however, a Wikipedia entry claims that this attribution is now considered to be highly doubtful. I tried in vain to find additional information about this controversy. The work resides in The Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels – aka, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts.’)
As she and Jamie exclaim over Charlie’s perfect little body, the poignant “Naming of Parts” comes to Isabel’s mind:
LESSONS OF THE WAR
by Henry Reed
To Alan Michell
Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria
I. NAMING OF PARTS
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
Later in the novel, when Jamie exclaims that he is falling in love with Jura, their vacation destination, Isabel quotes the following, again from Auden:
Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
Anything will do:
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.
Click here to read the poem, “Heavy Date,” in its entirety.
I had trouble finding the full text of “Heavy Date.” Tracking down the other poetry referred to in the novel turned out to be even more of a challenge. I was so determined to locate Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Island Funeral” that I am now the pleased owner of this book:
In this edition of MacDiarmid’s works, “Island Funeral” is eight pages in length. Here’s an excerpt:
“They are weather-beaten people with eyes grown clear,
Like the eyes of travellers and seamen,
From always watching far horizons.
but there is another legend written on these faces,
A shadow–or a light–of spiritual vision
That will seldom find full play
On the features of country folk
Or men of strenuous action.
Among these mourners are believers and unbelievers,
And many of them steer a middle course,
Being now priest-ridden by convention,
But not one of them betrays a sign
Of facile and self-lulling piety,
Nor can noe seee on any face
‘A sure and certain hope
Of the Resurrection to eternal life.’
This burial is just an act of nature,
A reassertion of the islanders’ inborn certainty
That ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’
The poem concludes with these lines:
“The cornet solo of our Gaelic islands
Will sound out every now and again
Through all eternity.
I have heard it and am content for ever.
I have not had the chance to read the other poetry, but “Island Funeral” was powerful and moving and well worth the cost of the entire volume.
When the scheming yet superficially congenial Christopher Dove comes up to Edinburgh to confer with Isabel concerning his upcoming assumption of the post of editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, a post cherished and heretofore admirably filled by Isabel herself, she must struggle to be civil to the man. He mentions that he’ll be returning to London on the sleeper train, an experience he has previously enjoyed. “‘Norman MacCaig didn’t,” she responds, and goes on to quote the following: “‘I do not like this being carried sideways through the night.’” I love that line, especially the rhythm of it, imitating as it does the actually rhythms of riding on a train. Research revealed that the poem is entitled “Sleeping Compartment.” I have not yet obtained the full text.
During the bath scene, the Auden work puts Isabel in mind of yet another poem:
“‘There’s a poet called Alvarez who wrote a lovely poem about angels appearing overhead. The angels suddenly appear in the sky and are unnoticed by a man cutting wood with a buzz saw. But [she adds] then it was in Tuscany, where one might expect to see angels at any time.’
Oh, dear, off to the chase yet again! I’m thinking that the Alvarez in question is A. Alvarez. Years ago, I read a powerful book by this author, a meditation on suicide entitled The Savage God. I have not been able to find the poem alluded to above. The final puzzler is a poem by an Irish poet “which suggested that we could all be saved by keeping our eye on the hill at the end of the road.” No title is given or author named.
I’ve concluded that this novel should come with a concordance!
Near the novel’s end, Isabel attends a concert in which Jamie, a professional musician and music teacher, is playing the bassoon. The second half of the program is to consist of the works of contemporary composers: Peter Maxwell Davies, Stephen Deazley, and Max Richter. There’s a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that I really like, though I haven’t heard it for quite some time. It’s called Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, and there are bagpipes at the end, which is probably why I’ve never forgotten it.
The Requiem by Gabriel Faure comprises the first part of the program. These are Isabel’s reflections on it:
“It was not complex music, with its cautiously developed melody and its utter resolution; it was a lullaby really, and that, she thought, was what a requiem really was. If one were to be taken up to heaven, then it would be Faure who might accompany one….Grant them rest, rest everlasting; they were such kind words, even in their finality, and the music that accompanied them, as in this requiem, should be gentle.
Not a believer herself, she nonetheless concedes that “this was music which might, for a few sublime moments, nudge one towards belief…” – belief, she means, in some kind of afterlife.
The following are excerpts from the Requiem:
Sanctus, performed by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge
Pie Jesu, sung by the incomparable Lucia Popp
The concluding movement, In Paradisum, performed by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Carl Marie Giulini.
I first encountered this music when I sang it with the Chorus of my alma mater, Goucher College. From it I have received both exaltation and consolation all my life, and yes, Isabel, I hope it sees me off into the next!
Now art, of course, is the springboard for the plot of The Careful Use of Compliments. Alas,the group felt that the intrigue, such as it is, surrounding the fate of painter Andrew McInnes is the least interesting aspect of the novel. I couldn’t help but agree with them. Far more compelling are Isabel’s efforts, which seem at times almost desperate, to keep the dominant elements of her life in some kind of harmony. There’s her much younger lover and all the insecurities entailed in that relationship, despite the fact of their having a child together. The intensity of feeling is stronger on her side, and she knows it. To further complicate matters, she is also far more financially secure than Jamie.
Then there’s her niece Cat. Each is the other’s only near relation in Edinburgh – in all of Scotland, for that matter. But Cat is a mercurial, rather shallow young woman who is capable of spiteful and injurious behavior toward Isabel, despite the latter’s kindness .
Finally there is Isabel’s position as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. Isabel does not have a “day job; her inherited wealth relieves her of the necessity of shouldering that particular burden. But her work for the Review is a labor of love, one that keeps her connected with her chosen field of study and with colleagues from all over the world. When that position is threatened – by the oily Christopher Dove no less! – her first instinct is to acquiesce with as much grace as she can muster. But then another instinct arises within her: the instinct to fight.
Isabel decides to use her vast resources in order to save her position and the Review itself from further interference by potential adversaries. But she has qualms about doing this. Is she using her money in an arrogant, unscrupulous manner? Eventually she overcomes these reservations, and once she has made her move, does not look back.
The group did not have a problem with Isabel’s actions in this case, but in some of the book’s ticklish social situations, we felt she could have acted with more tact. Showing up at Cat’s flat with Charlie in tow seems a particularly egregious act, especially considering that young woman’s prickly nature and extreme sensitivity regarding Isabel’s relationship with Jamie, her own former lover.
Although the mystery surrounding the painter Andrew McInnes does nor engage the reader as it might have, it does nonetheless provide motivation for the journey Isabel and Jamie make to Jura in the inner Hebrides. McCall Smith’s description of this windswept island make you want to go there immediately. Approximately 170 persons currently live on Jura, while the population of red deer is about 5,500.
(I was delighted to read about the Paps of Jura, as they immediately reminded of the Grand Tetons. This, then, is the second time I’ve encountered mountains named after that portion of the female anatomy!)
Included in this portion of the book is fascinating (and factual) background on George Orwell, who stayed at Barnhill, a house on Jura, while he wrote 1984. And here’s news for all you intrepid vacationers: you can now stay at Barnhill yourself! But you’ll need a Land Rover to get there…
My reading of the Dalhousiee novels has awakened me to the rich heritage of Scottish art. I acquired this fine book:
In its opening pages, I discovered an object which I loved (and wanted to hold) instantly: the mysterious Towie Ball.
Here are some portraits by Scottish artists:
And here, a cityscape I find immensely appealing:
With one exception, I had the feeling that group members were not quite as enthusiastic about The Careful Use of Compliments as I was. For one thing, they had not read previous titles in the series, and I think that proved a disadvantage. In particular, they lacked the back story of Isabel’s ongoing and rather tortured relationship with Cat. Even so, I think we all agreed that the conclusion was pure poetry.
Just before drifting off to sleep, Isabel and Jamie are sharing a few intimate thoughts. Then:
” Isabel closed her eyes. There is a sea of love, she thought. And we are in it.”
Every time a new issue of British Heritage arrives, I make myself put off reading it until I can’t stand it any more. I can be certain that I’m in for a treat once my self-control gives way, but I have to say that the May 2008 issue is really exceptional. For one thing, there are so many fascinating news items in the “Dateline” section at the beginning of the magazine that I have yet to move on to the longer articles at the heart of this splendid publication!
First, there’s the piece on Sherwood Forest, which used to comprise some 100,000 acres. Alas, it has presently shrunk to a mere 450! Think how exposed Robin of Locksley and his Merry Band would have felt amid such reduced acreage. But efforts are underway to renew and reinvigorate this storied place. The forest still contains 997 old-growth oak trees. And when they say old, they’re not kidding; these trees can live 900 years. These oaks are carefully tended. Pride of place among their number goes to the Major Oak.
And before we go on to other things, have a look at the annual Robin Hood Festival.
Next, interesting news from the art world: Sotheby’s auctioned a J.M.W. Turner water-color for a cool $6 million. Formerly owned by various members of the Vanderbilt family, Bamborough Castle had not been seen publicly since 1889. Meanwhile, a Faberge egg containing a clock fetched an even cooler $18.5 million at Christie’s. This exquisite timepiece, commissioned by the Rothschild family in 1905, is now the highest-priced ever Russian objet d’art.
A sensational treasure trove of “Romano-British artifacts” has been found at the bottom of a well at a place called Draper’s Gardens in London. According to Jenny Hall, the curator of Roman London at the Museum of London, “Nothing like this has ever been found in London before, or anywhere else in Britain.”
Now – on to the Royals. Yes – I do interest myself in their doings, I freely admit to it! Queen Elizabeth has a new grandson, the second child born to Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. (He was actually born right before Christmas. We across the pond here are a tad late getting the news – or, at least, I am.) The little tyke will be known as James Windsor, Viscount Severn.
Finally, two items about Scotland. First: plans are under way for a gathering of the Scottish clans next year. Called, not unexpectedly, The Gathering, the event will be part of a larger celebration called Homecoming Scotland. Prince Charles will be the royal patron. This exciting series of events has all the makings of a party to end all parties!
Finally, news of the Helix Project, the purpose of which is to “…fund a new section of the Forth and Clyde Canal connecting the canal to the Firth of Forth.”
In addition, approximately twenty miles of paths for walking and cycling are planned, and some 750,000 trees will be planted. As if all this wasn’t sufficiently exciting, a sculpture consisting of two enormous horse heads is slated to be the crowning glory of the Helix Project. This massive installation, designed by sculptor Andy Scott, will be about one hundred feet high. The inspiration for this work is the kelpie, defined by Mysterious Britain as “…the supernatural shape-shifting water horse that haunts the rivers and streams of Scotland.”
I speak as an outsider who has spent very little time there, but it seems to me that the spirit of Scotland, animated by a justified pride in that country’s distinguished heritage and bright future, is on the rise. My husband and I felt that we were standing at the heart of this resurgence when we visited Edinburgh this past fall. While there, we toured the new Scottish Parliament building and learned the story of its creation, a stirring tale of triumph mixed with tragedy, like something out of a novel.
Margaret Lindsay, by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784)
Niel Gow, by Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). In Scottish Art (Thames & Hudson, 2000), Murdo Macdonald tells us that “Raeburn creates an enduring icon of Scottish musicianship in this portrait of a fiddler whose music is still played today.”
Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn
Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, by Henry Raeburn. Again, Macdonald: “This work is both a brilliant essay in the properties of reflected light and a portrait not just of two people but of a relationship.”
We’ve come a long way from the Towie Ball…
Two things have gotten me interested in Scottish art: our recent trip to Edinburgh, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels, particularly the latest one, The Careful Use of Compliments. McCall Smith’s deep attachment to the culture of his native country is everywhere evident in the Dalhousie novels. Isabel is a collector of paintings by Scottish artists. The attraction of this vibrant, enormously intelligent character (and her creator) to this art made me curious about it myself, especially since I had never heard of the artists whose names appear in these novels.
Thus it happens that I have been making my delighted way through a history of Scottish art. One of my favorite discoveries is right at the beginning of the book – which, by the way, is Scottish Art by Murdo Macdonald. In the first chapter, entitled “Prehistory and Early History,” the reader is made acquainted with a most singular object: the Towie Ball. This carved stone sphere and others like it are rarely found outside Scotland. No two are alike. Their exact purpose is a matter of speculation; they may have been “symbols of power with a social-ceremonial use.” About four hundred of these spheres have been found, primarily “between the River Tay and the Moray Firth in the fertile area bounding the southern and eastern edges of the Grampian Mountains.”
I am enchanted by the Towie Ball, which dates, incredibly, from 2500 B.C. I would love to hold it in the palm of my hand. Such an ancient connection…
[You can explore this intriguing subject further at the Marischal Virtual Museum on the University of Aberdeen's website.]