downloadI’ve just finished reading Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Grey Granite, third in the trilogy,  A Scots Quair.

Writing in the foreword to the 1976 Pan paperback edition Ivor Brown makes the following remarks about it:   ‘gives the impression of being hasty and the end is unworthy of the whole. The great pattern appears to crumble in the author’s hands……..The book has some tiresome coarsemess.’   In a longer essay, the introduction to the Kindle edition of the trilogy, takes a different tack. Grey Granite, in this version, is a culmination of what has gone before, and the piece goes into some detail about the genesis of that third volume. Like his main character, Chris Guthrie, Lewis Grassic Gibbons himself returned to his roots to finish the story. My own experience of the book aligns more with the latter introduction. There is a crumbling, but to my way of thinking it is not so much ‘in’ the authors hands, as ‘by’ them. The society that Gibbons describes over the course of the trilogy is a changing one, and changing not for the better from the books perspective. Written between 1928 and 1934 – the first volume in a mere six weeks – the trilogy looks back over a quarter century of Scottish life, centred on a fictional remembering of Gibbons’ own part of the country, described by Brown as that lying ‘between the Grampians and the North Sea.’

Local, and detailed, beginning at rural Kinraddie in Sunset Song, passing through the town of Segget in Cloud Howe, and culminating in the city of Duncairn in Grey Granite, the general is found in the particular, for A Scots Quair is really a trilogy about that literary territory that we all inhabit, the human condition. Gibbons does not paint a pretty picture. All three of the societies he depicts are unsustainably divided, and the divisions deepen, and multiply as the scale increases. Words like ‘tinks,’’toffs’ and ‘keelies’ are used freely, carrying the freight of more widely used words that we shudder to hear and read these days! The reference to people as ‘dirt’ surprised me, and Gibbons satirises his own narrator by putting such words into his mouth, as well as into those of his characters. Divisions within Chris Guthrie’s family, and within Kinraddie, become, in Grey Granite, the class struggles of a nation, during the General Strike and its aftermath, the rise of Fascism. The crumbling is in part the introduction of greater and greater diversity, of characters and viewpoints, and of class strata, matched by a sort of disintegration in the narrative threads. At the same time, there is a breaking down of the bonds between individuals, even between Chris herself and her son Ewan. Progressively, as he becomes drawn into communist agitation, he loses his ability to maintain personal relationships. At the end Chris is alone, not only as we are all, internally alone, but also separated from family and society. She moves back to where she came from, but does not connect with the people living there, and then there is that controversial ending, which Brown saw as ‘unworthy.’

It’s an ending worth getting to via all the books of the trilogy. I find it a culmination. And don’t skip the prologue to Sunset Song: it is what makes you a citizen of Gibbons’ world, and makes you the ‘you,’ on occasion, of his sustained second person narration. This stylistic device, is used in several distinct ways throughout the trilogy, and there’s a good essay on that use, if you can track it down, by Trengove. Sometimes the you is the reader, the ‘crony’ of the narrator, but often it is one or other of the characters, and the changes between the usages come fast and thick, and without warning, especially in Grey Granite. It is Gibbons’ writing style that is the most obvious attraction of his work – though what he has to say is profoundly moving when we stop to reflect upon it. I can’t think of many other writers with such a powerfully evangelistic and compelling style. Cormac McCarthy would be one, but Gibbons,’ for me at any rate, outperforms even him. At the heart of this style lie two elements. One is the vocabulary of Gibbons’ fictional area of Scotland, based on Aberdeenshire. Words like ‘trauchle’ and ‘greeting’ and ‘gowk’ and ‘loon’, don’t need, for the speaker of Scots and Northern English, the glossary he added to American editions. And indeed, for any responsive reader of English, the context usually gives the sense of the word, if not the exact meaning – I’ve never quite got to the bottom of ‘ben,’ seemingly shoved into sentences, sometimes appearing to suggest ‘to’, other times to suggest ‘then,’ often seeming without meaning, but fitting in nevertheless. The greater element though, is Gibbons’ manipulation of the rhythms of the language, which turns this three novel masterpiece into a sort of song. And if it is a song, it is one which moves like the storms he so often describes, lashing against our imaginations, and stirring our passions. His technique is in some ways remarkably simple. Strings of short sentences are made into single long sentences by the use of commas, rather than full stops to separate them – actually to join them. Paragraphs begin with ‘ands’ and ‘buts’. Long sentences are fragmented by full stops. Unlike traffic lights on the blink, these devices don’t slow down the traffic, but speed it up, so that we read – even when not aloud – at a breakneck speed, arriving at points of heightened emotion in an already breathless state.

The BBC did a radio dramatisation of Cloud Howe recently, which I blogged about a while ago. It was a fine drama, but entirely lost the beauty and intensity of Gibbons’ narrative voice. There is dialogue in the books, but always embedded within that narrative, and to strip it out seems to me to lose something of the essence of the Quair experience. The trilogy is rightly hailed as a masterpiece of Scottish literature, and cited for its powerful evocation of the landscapes, and weather, in which it is set, but it is more than just that. It is a thesis about the fall of mankind into civilisation and organisation from a state of primitive innocence.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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