Posts tagged Scotland
A guest post by Katrina Dixon from thespectraldimension.tumblr.com
No one reads Elspeth Davie. At least it seems that way. Even in Edinburgh, where the late Scottish writer lived and worked for many decades before her death in 1995, she is still overshadowed by her contemporary, Muriel Spark. Born in 1919 and writing from the 1950s on, her four novels and five short story collections are rare finds even among the secondhand bookshops, and the only book of hers in the Central Library on George IV bridge, though an excellent one, is The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books, the short story anthology published by Canongate in 2001. Five of Davie’s short stories were apparently read on BBC Radio 4 here in the UK in June of this year, but the stories were grouped (wrongly) as horror tales. Perhaps that was the only way a fan on BBC staff could wheedle her on to air.
Yet Davie was acclaimed in the 60s and early 70s, winning awards and settled in among the carefully selected roster at Calder Books that also included Samuel Beckett, Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet and (an already featured writer no one reads) Ann Quin. Robbe-Grillet’s world of people trapped by inanimate objects, or things, would shape Davie’s writing but she created her own take on it, just as she had her own voice. Neither elegantly stylish like Muriel Spark and her Jean Brodie nor provocatively experimental like Alex Trocchi, instead Davie was the quiet one to watch, setting reality at an angle, using the light and shade of Edinburgh, both literally and in the divided personality of the city, and adding a wry, dark but empathetic humour. Variously described as cubist, semi-surrealist, symbolist and impressionist, Davie, a trained artist and teacher of painting for several years, basically wrote with an artistic eye, picking up on the unsettling shades in the ordinary, honing the view with language and intensifying details within the seemingly banal and superficial.
Davie isn’t a difficult author though. She’s down to earth, accessible, funny. It’s just that her world is self-contained: recognizable but abstract. Hers is a world where people struggle with things: sometimes many things that suffocate them, like pots of paint in a school artroom; sometimes one tiny thing, like obsessing over an eyelash on a glass in a cafe. In struggling with things, her characters struggle with life: the boundaries of convention and environment; how to be free; other people. Communication in these surroundings is fractured at best, sometimes impossible, with characters isolated by their own oddities, unable to express what’s important: a lodger that doesn’t like eggs becomes a burden for a landlady; a young would-be couple can only connect when sitting surrounded by the silent visuals of dozens of TV screens in a furniture shop; a man sits stupendously immobile throughout a concerto, apparently ignorant both of an unconscious man being carried out by a crowd and of the farcical concord of music and human movement.
As Giles Gordon wrote in the foreword to The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books, above all Davie “wrote less about the anxieties of the individual than of the ways by which everyday life conspires against the individual’s modest ambitions, hopes and obsessions, and her stories remain entirely grounded in what she called ‘this day-to-day business of living, its mysteriousness and its absurdity’.” Grounded then, but extraordinary.
The Spark (1968, pictured)
Easiest to find:
The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books (2001)
Creating A Scene (1971)
The High Tide Talker (1976)
Climbers On A Stair (1978)
The Night Of The Funny Hats (1980)
A Traveller’s Room (1985)
Coming To Light (1989)
Death Of A Doctor (1992)
From the short story “Concerto”:
The disturbance comes from the middle stalls. Down there a man has got to his feet and is leaning over the row in front. He appears to be conducting on his own account. He too entreats, he exhorts. He too encourages something to rise. Now a small group of people are up on their feet, and just as the horns extricate themselves, this man who is conducting operations down in the stalls manages to persuade the group to lift something up out of the darkness between the narrow seats. It is a tricky business, but at last a man is pulled clear and comes into view in a horizontal position, his long legs and his shoulders supported by several persons who have started to shuffle sideways with their burden along the row. Everyone now seems anxious to support this thin figure. Each leg is held by at least three people and the arms are carried on either side by two men and two women. Someone cups his head. Another handles the feet. Even those who are too far away to be actually supporting any part of his body feel it their duty to stretch out a finger simply to touch him, as a sacred object might be touched in a procession. He moves, propelled by these reverent touches, bouncing a little in the anxious arms. It is almost as if he were bouncing in time to a great pounding of drums. For since the horn-players lowered their instruments the music has grown violent in tempo and volume.
From Davie’s first novel, Providings:
In the time it had taken for the jars to collect on his shelf Beck realised that there were two types of person as far as gifts were concerned. There were those who liked getting them and those who disliked getting them and who might conceive an aversion or even a positive fear towards those who insisted on giving. He was even more surprised and rather alarmed to discover that all along — perhaps from the very first present he had received — he had belonged to the second category. Or had he always known this about himself — dating from the first time his extraordinary luck had been mentioned? After that there was no present made to him by either parents or relations which did not have this word hooked on to it. Luck got in with the school-satchels made of real leather and the school cases, bound with extra strong metal clasps. It made itself felt with the pigskin stud cases and the tooled collar cases, and by the time he reached the silver-screwed trouser-press he was so lucky that his legs and arms felt heavy with it, as though plated in armour so highly polished it was visible to people for miles around. He began to envy unlucky boys. It struck him that they did not have to smile as he had to smile, or that in receiving some unpleasant gift or even no gift at all, they might be permitted to relax their faces in a hideous scowl. Best of all, they would be invisible to other people — not having the radiant quality that luckiness was supposed to give. By this time it was impressed upon him that even death was to bring luck, if he waited long enough, in the shape of the skilfully accumulated savings of his parents which were piling up for him in the bank; and on his 21st birthday his luck was so great that he temporarily lost the use of his legs and had to lie up for some time in his bed.
From the short story “A Visit To The Zoo”:
From that afternoon all the childishness of the zoo disappeared for me, and as the days went by its whole character changed; its cruelty and beauty, its strident colours and harsh cries gradually took the place of all those mild and comic impressions I had experienced there as a child. Now something savage and sad brooded far back in the darkness of the cages we passed. When I stopped to listen I would hear sounds I had not been aware of before — strange rustlings and whistlings from hidden birds, those unidentified croakings and hoots belonging rather to midnight than to noon; and sometimes there came a howl, heart-freezing, yet so distant that it seemed to come, not from the trim confines of the garden, but through the black arctic air and across miles and miles of snow-covered plain.
This is a guest post by Katrina Dixon from thespectraldimension.tumblr.com
Photo: manuscript page from Lanark, held at the Glasgow University Library
No one I know reads the novelist and painter Alasdair Gray, whose masterpiece, Lanark was published thirty years ago and has been called, by no less a personage than Anthony Burgess, “A shattering work of fiction…”
Maybe I need to make new friends.