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There are writers you will enjoy reading, sure enough, but there ones also that the sheer joy of the flow of words will make you wish you could shake them by the hand. For me, one of those writers is Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I’d barely read two dozen pages of the man’s work before I knew this, and of those pages the first twenty three and a half were written in a style so subtly, yet distinctly different from that of the page I turned to next that I almost laughed out loud with the excitement of it; such a rich and savory sauce to pour on the chew and gristle of what I had just read.

I am reading Sunset Song, first in the trilogy A Scots Quair, Grassic Gibbon’s masterwork. He died young, after a relatively short writing career, in 1935, and wrote in a rich amalgam of Scots and English that grew out of his roots in the north east of Scotland, near Stonehaven. It is a language not totally unfamiliar to one who speaks northern English, and lives within earshot of the Dumfries and Galloway hills, and so is not I suspect, an actual dialect, but rather a creation of his own, intended to evoke a sense of time and place that is accessible to all English readers. He provided a glossary, for the American market, which has been updated in the Canongate Classics paperback that I have.

Whatever delights the characterisation and storylines hold, and I found it a powerful and moving story, it was the use of language that grabbed my attention, and did so from the very first page.

Not only the tone of voice, the clever, intermittent use of the second person, and the cheese-grater phrasing, Gibbon’s sentence structures, and the groupings (rather than paragraphing) of his sentences are fascinating. I’m reminded of Kinglsey Amis’s reference, in his Paris Review interview, to ‘A’ and ‘B’ writers; that is storytellers and users of language, and I suspect we have one here who seems to be a writer who does one under the cover of doing the other. I’m just not sure yet which way round that is!

In a nineteen seventies essay by Graham Trengove (in the Sottish Literary Journal vol 2 (2), 1975, p47-62) ‘Who is You?’, which I managed to get hold of through my one time tutor at Glasgow University, Gibbon is credited with the first systematic use of the second person in literature. This is not his only peculiarity, it seems to me. There is a use of punctuation that defies grammatical logic, but serves the function of instructing the reader how to read the work. What seem like whole paragraphs of sentences are rendered into single statements, by the use of commas as separators, instead of full stops. In other places, he does the opposite, splitting what are, grammatically, long sentences into fragments, creating a montage of images. Dickens, I know, did something similar in terms of montage, but the Gibbon technique seems startlingly innovative.

In his introduction to the novel, Tom Crawford has pointed out that Gibbon advised those who were unused to a Scots dialect to skip the opening Prelude (those first twenty three and a half pages), and read it later, but to my way of thinking that would be to skip the starter to a gourmet meal, and to miss that wonderful juxtaposition of styles that first prompted me to write this article! I suspect that our exposure to widely differing forms of English (& Scots!) is greater these days, which should help here. That Prelude, too, is an astonishing virtuoso piece of writing, giving us a history of Kinraddie, the location of his story, from the stone age to the eve of the events described, and, using the second person voice, doing it as if we were incomers to the village being given our grounding in the place we are about to inhabit. In fact, by the time the protagonists arrive, we have been ‘living’ in the area since time immemorial, and we see them from that perspective.

This writing is so good, I’m almost afraid to read another by LGG, in case it doesnae match it!

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