Feeling Scottish…

March 9, 2009 at 7:21 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Music, Poetry, Scotland)

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.

careful

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith

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.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

(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:

macdiarmid

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

**************************************************

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.

jurascotland460

The Paps of Jura

The Paps of Jura

(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:

Cover painting: Poets' Pub by Alexander Moffat (1980)

Cover painting: Poets’ Pub by Alexander Moffat (1980)

In its opening pages, I discovered an object which I loved (and wanted to hold) instantly: the mysterious Towie Ball.

towie

**************************************************

Here are some portraits by Scottish artists:

Margaret Lindsay, by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784)

Margaret Lindsay, by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784)

Niel Gow, by Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

Niel Gow, by Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, by Henry Raeburn

Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

And here, a cityscape I find immensely appealing:

The Tay Bridge from my Studio Window, by James McIntosh Patrick (1948)

The Tay Bridge from my Studio Window, by James McIntosh Patrick (1948)

***************************************************

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.”

25 Comments

  1. frances wang said,

    I, too, appreciate McCall-Smith’s Isabel D..
    It is so interesting to seem to be inside the head of a woman whose mind is always active.
    She is particularly appealing, to me at least, when she is self analyzing. She can be both formidable and fragile.

    I am totally besotted by the Ladies #1 Woman’s Detective Agency series.

    Frances

  2. Nan said,

    Oh, what a wonderful post. It was like attending the very best kind of class. I don’t have words, really. But thank you so much. I’ll be back to read it again.

  3. Kay W said,

    Roberta, thanks for your long and thoughtful review and for tracking down all the original poems. For most of my life, I was just too busy for poetry, but now that I’m retired I’m trying to read one new poem every morning. To my surprise and delight, one poem can convey more wisdom than an entire novel and be as satisfying as the best whodunit.

    As ever, you are a gem!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kay, thanks for this gracious comment. The same thing that happened to you is happening to me: after a long absence, I am coming to poetry!

  4. Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript provides yet another occasion of exuberant good times, not to mention no-holds-barred assessment, for the Usual Suspects « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] W.H. Auden wrote it; the title of the poem is “Musee des Beaux Arts.” It appears in full in the post entitled Feeling Scottish. […]

  5. Jacquelyn said,

    I stumbled across this blog post while reading this book and trying to hunt down all the poetry in it. Thanks for assembling it in one place like a study guide. As an aspiring poet I’ve been writing and writing and writing and this book has encouraged me to sit down with a still pen and just think.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks you, Jacquelyn, for causing me to revisit this post. I worked so hard on it, and it’s been gratifying to see that it’s been appreciated by, among others, a poet such as yourself.

      This post encompasses just about everything that’s precious to me: poetry, music, art – and Scotland.

      BTW – As a Francophile, I love the way you spell your name!

      If you find any of the poetry that I couldn’t locate, I would love to see it. Also, I would be delighted to read some of your own poems, if you are inclined to share them.

      Scotland is such a rich repository of artistic treasures; I admit, I didn’t appreciate the truth of this before reading McCall Smith.

      • Jacquelyn said,

        Scotland is in my blood but not in my bookshelf and this book really struck a chord and sparked an interest for me as well. For what it’s worth (and it’s not worth much, I can only call myself an “aspiring” poet) here is my poetry blog

        http://rhymingcouplet.blogspot.com/

        enjoy!

  6. The Millions: best fiction of the new millennium « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] crime fiction? No Reginald Hill, Kate Atkinson, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Alexander McCall Smith? IMHO, they are among the finest writers at work today. Kate Atkinson Donna Leon Reginald Hill P.D. […]

  7. Jessie said,

    Hi, I came across your post while doing a search for the Norman MacCaig poem, which Alexander McCall Smith refers to again in his chapter of “The Dog Who Came in from the Cold” published today (Chapter 30). After a little more searching, I found the full-text in Google Books and thought I’d share the page with you: http://books.google.com/books?id=7wBjrKxRPv8C&lpg=PA142&ots=6IMJV8Yywu&dq=%22norman%20maccaig%22%20%22%22I%20go%20sidelong%2C%20I%20rock%20sideways%20…%20I%20draw%20in%20my%20feet%20to%20let%20Aviemore%20pass.%22&pg=PA142#v=onepage&q=%22norman%20maccaig%22%20%22%22I%20go%20sidelong,%20I%20rock%20sideways%20…%20I%20draw%20in%20my%20feet%20to%20let%20Aviemore%20pass.%22&f=false

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Jessie,

      I am deeply grateful – thanks so much!

  8. LottieP said,

    I think the Alvarez poem about clouds is the same one that I’ve just posted on my blog – I’m not absolutely sure whether that’s the whole of it though.

    Regards

    LottieP (from Edinburgh, now living in Hong Kong)

  9. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – C.J. Box Suffer the Little Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of His Dreams – Donna Leon Careful Use of Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – Alexander McCall Smith Price of […]

  10. Virginia Bass said,

    I came across your site while myself trying to find the MacDiarmid poem “Island Funeral” online. How wonderful that you have made all this research available to other McCall Smith fans! As you say, it would be helpful to have a concordance for “The Careful use of Compliments”––and for his other books in the series as well, I might add. If such a thing existed, it could go on McCall Smith’s web site. Why don’t you suggest this to him and offer to do it yourself, with his input? He would probably be delighted to help you find the things you can’t locate yourself.

    By the way, a friend of mine has sent me a paperback that I think McCall Smith readers would enjoy: “Bruno, Chief of Police” by Martin Walker. Vintage Press. It’s set in the Dordogne region of France, and is the first in a series, I believe. Like McCall Smith’s books, it has delightful, kindly characters, local color, and is more a novel than a mystery.

  11. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] the following: Donna Leon, Donna Leon, and Donna Leon. But no – there are, of course others: Alexander McCall Smith, both the No.1 Ladies Detective novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series; Archer Mayor‘s […]

  12. Marie said,

    this was such a great site. I really enjoy the Dalhousie series and so appreciate all the work you lovingly put into this site. Bless you.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thank you so much for these extremely gracious words, Marie. The blog is very hard work – too hard, I sometimes think. Writing does not come at all easily to me, so appreciative sentiments like yours mean a great deal.

  13. Fledge said,

    Funny how I was also looking for that quotation about the buzz-saw and angels in Italy, but in “Importance of Being Seven”, which at the time I am translating into German. I am trying, too, to find out about (at least most of) the quotations and allusions, and this one has proved to be rather elusive – there is not much about Mr Alvarez to be found.
    You are so right, pretty much ALL McCall Smith’s book ought to come with a concordance or an appendix explaining all the quotes and things, And a map of Edinburgh, an Atlas of Scotland and a guide to some galleries might be a good idea too.
    Thanky you for doing this great research into a book that many will just look down upon as a trivial piece of light reading, but which is such a lot more than that.

    • Elisabeth said,

      I find that whoever thinks that this book (and as far as I have been able to read, at least other five in the series) is a trivial piece of light reading, well, has some not so trivial issue with his/her IQ…McCall Smith is a master in an extremely appealing and elegant socratic way. His subject, how to live an ethically meaningful life, has much in common with what we can find in Plato’s Dialogues, and (or maybe, “but”) he is able to put it in words so gracefully, that it seems even “trivial”. I cannot think of a better way of dealing with moral Philosophy, and I’m a Philosopher-mum of four, feeling how much need there is for talking explicitly about Ethics, and applying them. Applied Ethics is not a quarterly question in family life… Many young people grow up having never heard (about) moral dilemmas…
      And yes, his books SHOULD come with an extensive appendix, because they are so intensive, there’s so much knowledge in the author’s mind- human nature has been rarely so closely and lovingly looked at…
      A great THANK YOU, Roberta for your wonderful work putting together the poetry- I came across your blog looking for McDiarmid’s “Island Funeral”, and found the research for the other quotations “bell’ e fatta” (nice and done) as we say in Italy. Grazie!

      • Roberta Rood said,

        Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Elisabeth. I am a huge admirer of Alexander McCall Smith. He has an absolute gift for presenting profound truths about the human condition in an unassuming way.

        I’m so glad you like Book to the Ceiling. I put an enormous amount of effort into it – writing does not come easily to me – and comments like yours are deeply appreciated.

    • Barb Miller said,

      Fledge, in case you’re still looking, see my post further down with the text to “Angels in Italy” and a url for a web page about his 2002 book which contains the poem (reprinted from his previous book, which dates from the mid-70’s).

  14. bmill07 said,

    Like Fledge, I found this page while trying to pin down the allusion to “Angels in Italy” at the end of _The Importance of Being Seven_. For what it’s worth, Google Books includes a book containing a poem with that title. (Alfred Alvarez: Autumn to autumn, and selected poems, 1953-76): http://books.google.com/books?id=sZQIAQAAIAAJ&q=ANGELS+IN+ITALY&source=gbs_word_cloud_r&cad=5 . Of course, the book itself is not online, but you can search in it enough to see that there is a poem with that title in the book. If you click “Find in a library” you will be taken to the WorldCat page showing which libraries have the book.

    • Barb Miller said,

      Thanks to the efforts of the reference librarians at the University of Washington library, I have the text of “Angels in Italy”, which appears in Alfred Alvarez’s 2002 collection: New and Selected Poems” http://waywiser-press.com/alvarez.html. Because this page seems to be a source for others who are looking for this poem, I am typing the text here (Roberta, feel free to take this down if you are uneasy about copyright–it is my hope that reading this poem will attract people to seek out other Alvarez poems and perhaps buy the slim book, as I just did at http://www.abebooks.com/9781904130079/New-Selected-Poems-Alvarez-A-1904130070/plp ):

      Angels in Italy
      They make no noise, though their wings move,
      Pale white against pale blue, upwards and slow,
      Watching us, curious, clear eyes, clear foreheads,
      Hair streaming away behind, sun in sun,
      Till the flank of the mountain hides them.
      Chestnut, spruce, scrub oak and fir
      Tangling up to the ridge. Then blue, blue, blue.

      Such solitude. Calm faces, falling hair,
      Poised wings and sinewy pinions. The clouds
      Have them now. Soaring, circling. Gone away.
      Leaving the murmur of water, vine leaves saying, “Shush,”
      Leaves of the walnut rattling like dice.

      A car rasps in the valley. Someone is cutting
      Wood with a buzz-saw, harsh, not letting go.
      Now come the children, the wives, the gossip and cooking,
      Evening and thickening light. A brisk wind sweeps
      From ridge to ridge bringing silence.
      Each of us pauses, absent, lost in himself,
      Stilled by the sound of the river.

      A glint of white against blue.
      “Clouds,” you say, “clouds.”
      No, wings. Listen. Wings heavily beating,
      Rustle of feathers, shoulders flexing smoothly
      Beyond the ridge. But I answer,
      “Clouds, yes, clouds.
      Tomorrow, love, tomorrow there’ll be rain.”

      • fledge said,

        Thanks a lot for this. It is a really amazing piece of poetry indreed. I would so like to have editions of McCall Smith’s works with illustrations of all the works of art he mentions and the poetry he alludes to. However, such editions would be unaffordable, alas. I do feel to fully appreciate it all, you would need to have all the pictures together with the text – just, for example, the Fall of Icarus, which you can only understand having seen the painting…

      • Barb Miller said,

        I know what you mean about wishing for illustrations, although their absence allows for a lifetime of exploration and discovery. I’ll never forget the first moment I stepped inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, jetlagged on the afternoon I had arrived on a transatlantic flight. Before leaving for France, I had been reading Henry Adams’s “Mont Saint Michel and Chartres”, wishing for illustrations of the gothic architecture he was describing, and suddenly, there it was in front of me (a different cathedral, but similar architectural features). This week I got to see a bit of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” come to life in an exhibit of Isabelle de Borchgrave’s life-size paper dresses inspired by the designs of Mariano Fortuny, including one that could have been the Albertine’s dress described in the novel–it’s one thing to see something described, even in Proust’s exquisite words, and quite another to actually see it in front of me. In the case of Alexander McCall Smith, my husband and I had a morning to spend before a flight home from Edinburgh, and I suggested we walk through the New Town, as I had been reading one of the Scotland Street novels and was curious to see the neighborhood in which it is set. I wasn’t all that surprised to see that the addresses on Scotland Street itself stopped before reaching 44, but it was quite startling to see a number of the landmarks mentioned were actual places. So I look at his novels as an invitation to explore the world wherever we find ourselves, with a bucket list of artists and poets to get to know in the process.

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