OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis week Radio 4 aired the first part of a dramatisation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel, Cloud Howe, the second in his A Scots Quair trilogy. I’ve read only the first novel (and made a start on the second since hearing the dramatisation), but have become a fan of LGG’s writing.

Several Facets of Fiction hallmark this writer, not least his use of punctuation. Commas are used to connect, rather than to disconnect, strings of complete sentences. Full stops are used to break up the clauses of long sentences. Even paragraphs fulfil the same function from time to time, beginning with such no-noes as ‘but’ and ‘and’. The effect of this is to speed up the reader’s progress through the text: the commas keep us going where a full stop would halt us. The full stops slow us down, making us take in the image of each clause or group of clauses, but the logic of the sentence as a whole carries us forward. It’s like having a present, first person narrator inside your head, though the narrator is in fact third, and sometimes second person. The voice is that of a garrulous conversationalist, and he has a strong – though not precisely authentic apparently – accent. In fact, the regional dialect that LGG presents is utterly convincing, to the outsider, but apparently mediated to make it more palatable, and perhaps more persuasive. LGG issued a glossary with the American edition of his work, which suggests to me that he expected his reader to struggle. In fact, I suspect that he wanted his reader to have to pay attention – which seems like a bold, but good idea!

Similarly, in both Sunset Song, the first book of the three, and Cloud Howe, he precedes the story with a breathless resume of the entire history of the places in which they are set. Apparently some readers skip these. Bad move. They aren’t there just for show. By the time we have read them we have become locals of those imaginary locations. We have those prejudicial thumbnail accounts, our personal mythology of what they are like, and perhaps of what they ought to be like, and of how we ought to feel about them. LGG is a storyteller who wants us, I believe, to hear the story he is telling, in the voice he is using. He is not doing the Joycean thing of refining himself out of existence, so much as making sure we are getting our ear in, for what he has to tell us. Readers of the blog will know I have issues with the tag ‘show, don’t tell’. Here is an author who is telling us the story. He is not giving us the option of seeing it the way we might want to, but doing everything he can to tell it the way he thinks it was (or is!).

Another facet of the writing is the sparsity of dialogue, made more potent by LGG’s trick of hiding it among the text. Of all his techniques this is perhaps the one dearest to my own heart, though I picked the idea up from George Moore, long before I’d read any LGG. Thoughts, and direct speech is buried in the paragraphs of narrative, among those seemingly misplaced commas and full stops. We have to pay attention there too!

All of which is of necessity, missing from the dramatisation. What we are left with is the speech alone. It’s good to listen to. The voices are engaging, the words powerful. The story, or rather the events that the characters are commenting on, is well evoked. But the storytelling itself is missing. So, however much you enjoy the radio 4 version, make a point of reading the novel too, because, to borrow a line, it ain’t what he says, it’s the way that he says it!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA