Authors: Neil M. Gunn
Neil M. Gunn
Whittles Publishing Ltd.,
Dunbeath Mains Cottages,
Caithness, KW6 6EY,
Foreword Â© 2006 Dairmid Gunn
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Printed by Bell & Bain Ltd., Glasgow
Neil M Gunn, one of Scotland's most distinguished 20th century novelists, wrote over a period of thirty years, starting in the late 1920s with
The Grey Coast
and ending in 1956 with
The Atom of Delight,
a work that can be described as a spiritual autobiography. His period of creative writing spanned the Recession, the political crises of the 1930s and the Second World War and its aftermath. The word âspiritual' is of immense importance when describing Gunn's work as his novels invariably depict two worldsâthe world of here and now and that in which the meaning of life and the essence of living are explored.
Most of Gunn's novels are set and enacted in the Highlands of Scotland and the backdrop for
published in 1948, is even more specific in terms of location there. The setting is undoubtedly based on that part of the Highlands where Gunn spent his most creative and productive years (1938â1949) in the hill country near the county town of Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty. Resemblances do not end with place; one of the most important characters in the novel, Aunt Phemie, is unmistakably a portrait of Gunn's wife, Daisy.
has another significance; it is one of two novels, the other being an earlier book,
in which some of Gunn's innermost feelings are indirectly revealed. During the years immediately prior to the publication of the book he was concerned and depressed by much of the literature of the time, which, in his view, concentrated too often on negative attitudes and violence, and a destructive analysis of the human spirit; it created an atmosphere of confusion and doubt. A challenge was there for Gunn to accept, and he met it in this enchanting novel through its female characters.
is not what could be described as a âwar' book although it deals in depth with the causes and effects of war. The years preceding the war had seen the emergence of two totalitarian regimes, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany; the latter perished with the Second World War, but the latter remained a protagonist in what was to be called âthe Cold War', and the idea of Marxism as a system still had its attraction in some circles for those who thought that it offered an opportunity to build a better world. The idea presented in a plausibly rational way by its adherents is a vital ingredient to the thought processes explored in this novel.
reflects Gunn's fascination with antitheses, be they darkness and light, reason and emotion or destruction and creation. One of the two principal characters, Nan, a young Highland woman who had experienced the Blitz in London and been a member of an intellectual Marxist clique there, returns to her native country and her favourite aunt, Aunt Phemie, a widow and farmer, to recover from a nervous breakdown. The causes of her mental illness are progressively revealed in her erratic return to health. The names given to the three parts of the novel are related to Nan's condition. The first part,âConvalescence', takes the form of a monologue through letters written by Nan, but not necessarily sent, to her lover, Ranald, in London, a member of the clique she had deserted. The letters are both a paean to the wonders of nature and its healing effects and a searching analysis of herself including allusions to the hallucinations she is experiencing. The prose is complex, a mix of the sophisticated with literary allusions and the simple, expressed in a seemingly innocent way. The writing is clearly a form of release, a way of explaining her views and values without fear of contradiction, the inevitable contradiction that had blighted her thoughts and inner feelings in conversations in the clique. The letters are clearly affected by the unpleasant recollections of living in an amoral circle of people divorced from the traditional norms of social behaviour and obsessed by attaining through a rational approach the aim of building a new world order regardless of the suffering and cruelty that that process would necessitate; they are stimulated by the need to have a loved recipient always in mind to give shape to her thoughts for her own benefit, and for his. Her opening lines are joyous and full of thoughts of Ranald. âI have discovered the world! Today, this very day in the hours that are pastâjust past, for I still hear them blowing in the wind, the softest loveliest wind with clouds coming up over the sky, and even as I write this, in the tail of my eye,just outside the small gable window, a long new branch of the climberâa white roseânot tied up, blows up and down. Oh, I wish I could tell you about it.' But there were dark clouds on the horizon, and Nan's movement towards recovery was interrupted by the news of the brutal murder of a local crofter; a shadow was cast over the landscape that had seemed to be a rural paradise. Nan was affected not only by the deed itself but also because the suspected murderer was a man suffering from a mental disorder caused by his military experiences in the First World War. Her condition was not helped by chance encounters with a local artist, Adam, whose ideas about nature differed so much from her own. There was a ruthless streak in him that revelled in the cruelties of animal life and placed man outside nature as a dominant force. Only Aunt Phemie as a beloved aunt, an educated woman of experience and a trusted confidante could provide the haven of peace she sought, but even her efforts could not prevent a serious relapse on the part of Nan.
The second part of the book, âThe Relapse', sees the appearance of Ranald, who has been asked by Aunt Phemie to visit Nan. The story is now in the third person and the focus moves from Nan to Ranald and Aunt Phemie. The dialogue between them takes up from where Nan ends her epistolary monologue and presents itself as a fencing match between the optimistic, sensitive and emotional outlook of the woman and the bleak materialism and harsh logic of the man. Ranald cannot but admire his interlocutor, who is not only a well-educated woman but also one who runs a farming business effectively and pleasantly. His blueprint for a more effectively organised world stands up weakly against her proven success in getting the best out of her farm and those who work on it. His ideas are rational, ruthless, and shown by history to lead to tyranny and unhappiness; hers are full of the warmth of a human and natural approach to life and have shown themselves to be successful in the small world of her farm. Although Aunt Phemie occasionally glimpses touches of humanity within the confident, self-assured and almost arrogant attitudes of Ranald, she finds him cold and remote and more of a personification of certain political ideas than someone fully responsive to the views and needs of his ill and distressed girl friend. A suppressed dislike is there. Ranald's departure after the beginning of Nan's recovery fills her with a sense of relief and the faint hope that Nan will perhaps abandon her intended return to London.
The final part of the book, âThe Recovery', brings the two women closely together again, and their relaxed and easy relationship is resumed. Aunt Phemie has still some investigative work to do regarding a serious fight between Ranald and the artist, Adam, which has been kept a secret by both men. In the process she gets to know Adam better and tries to understand his strange views on nature, in particular that of man's place relative to it. The idea of man's domination of an environment from which he is separated is at the heart of this thinking and dampens his ability to appreciate the subtleties of nature. When they are both looking with admiration at a beautiful view of a ravine and waterfall, she remarks, âYou can be part of this and still be yourself, only more full of intimacy, of love of it. You don't want to dominate it. That's the very mood that does
arise.' He is responsive to this, and there is a feeling that this is his first step back to spiritual health. Even earlier he pays her a compliment in the words, âYou have a gift of discreet silence.'
Aunt Phemie certainly has that gift and many other attributes natural to the female psyche. Her kindness, her courage and common senseâall loosely bound within the orbit of emotionâmake her the anchor person in the novel. Her virtues are the antitheses of those of Ranald and Adam, who are victims of their own logic and theories. There is no doubt that Gunn had his wife, Daisy, in mind when Nan describes Aunt Phemie in her letter to Ranald, âShe is comfortably slim and though well over forty the gold in her hair hasn't faded. I suppose gold doesn't. She is a tirelessly energetic worker and yet can stand quite still.' It is little wonder that Gunn's inscription on his wife's copy of
should be, âFor one who chases the shadows away.'
This book, beautiful in its own right, leaves the reader with the question of whether the shadows have been truly swept away. It was written at a time when Marxism, or at least a debased form of that system, was seen as the great threat to the concept of democracy and the freedom and welfare of humanity. Today, it is terrorism, but not terrorism alone; in addition, in this era of âpost-modernism' there are distinct symptoms of a malaise at the heart of Western civilisation that takes many forms. The acquisitive nature of a society based on consumerism and individualism, the absence of a spiritual dimension in domestic affairs and the emphasis on rights without a concomitant emphasis on duty are but three of these. Allied to all this, there is a justifiable fear that the process of globalisation will denude the world of the immense contribution made by small communities to the happiness and spiritual health of mankind.
in this world of shadows maintains the strange relevance it had over fifty years ago and perhaps offers the reader a glimpse of hope.
have discovered the world! To-day, this very day, in the hours that are pastâjust past, for still I hear them blowing on the wind, the softest loveliest wind, with clouds coming up over the sky, and even as I write this, in the tail of my eye,just outside the small gable window, a long new branch of a climberâa white roseânot tied up, blows up and down. Oh, I wish I could tell you about it! I wish I could tell you, as I did tell you every step of the way. No, not every step. Oh dear, it's going, even as I write. It's going away. But it was lovely telling you. Am I incoherent? I can't help it and I don't care. Listen to me, Ranald. Oh, listen, listen! And forget all about my mental breakdown. Please. Though seeing the sly destructive ones called me neurotic, why shouldn't I be allowed some small licence in conjuring up hallucinations and all inconsequence? Anyway I'm taking it. Just as I should love to take the smile from your face as you read this, tear it off and throw it on the wind, and cry to it hurrah! as it sailed away with the storm of thistledown.
And what a storm! That's what started it. I was going up by the hollow between the two great fields. It's really a tiny ravine, with occasional elm trees growing out of it, gnarled and old. But I won't start on the trees just now. There's a thousand things I won't start on. And I hadn't much on myself. Anyway it felt as thin as the thistledown and was as white, including the legs and the canvas shoes, and the wind hardly noticed them in its way. Well, as I was saying about the thistledown. But first there was this field on my left. It's a great breast of a field and the up-slope is fairly steep. Till now, I have found it very tiring. It's been a secret measure of my strength. I think the field knew this, for often I sat down on it. It's been a sort of game between us. The field never encouraged me once. But then it's an extraordinarily patient field. And it's big, not flat, but with the slow curve of the earth itself. Sometimes there are three brown horses in it, two of them young but no longer gawky, and one of the two with a grey face (whorls of grey, like thin lichen on a stone). The first time I came on themâat least they came on meâI was terribly frightened. I felt suddenly caught and they were enormous, and with their manes and their heads up, they stopped and stood there against the sky.
I thought. Does that give you, far in, an uncanny feeling? For it's queer, isn't it, that if you say wild anything elseâlike
âit's not the same? Wild lions would lie flat to the earth, their ears flat, their tails slowly twitching, and then spring. But in wild horses there is something
Terrible and wild, not looking but
They are imminent, or is it immanent? I was always a little confused with these two words. Like that something which is always behind a real legend, or in it, or in a fairy story, the true fairy storyâthe kind that comes back. Can you remember that? Can you get a quick glimpse of a child face, a still face, listening with the eyes, but with a growing reserve, because it knows the something in the story as ominous, a wild gleam of peril? I can't see my own face like thatâbut I can see yours. A very good-looking child (were you?) withâalready!âits hidden reserves, the certainty that it will take its own wayâor have a way with it (if that's different)!
The involuntary chortle, please, made me forget what I was going to say about the horses. You always were a little surprised at the way in which I could forget the facts. You have always thought me a little bit scatter-brained. I know that. You really believe, deep inside, that I belong to the Party because you were in it before me. You're quite right, of course. Isn't it delightful? But you're not quite right, all the same. You see, you have the facts, the terrible economic facts, and you can produce themâyou doâwith inexorable and devastating power. (I tried these rolling adjectives on the field, but they rolled off it. It is so patient.) But I just feel it's splendid being in the Party, fighting for better things. And I know that's right. Deep in me, Ranald, I know. And I know it's glorious to be young, and fighting for what one believes, without thought of reward. The facts are absolutely necessary, all the statistics. When I have just read them and realised what they mean, they make me so angry that afterwards if I may not remember them
I remember their gleam.
Then the young horse with the grey face came towards me, with movement of its head against an invisible bit, in pride and power, and its brown eyes shone, and its nostrils curled, and all the flesh melted on my bones and my skeleton shook at the knees. I think perhaps my skeleton rattled, for the beast stopped. As a small boy, my brother Archie had a hen's foot. He pulled a sinew in the leg and all the toes jerked. I squawked the first time it was done on me, and they roared with laughter. Well, this time the sinew was in me and something or someone pulled it, and every limb jerked, my arms flew up, and a surpassing discord proceeded from my lips. At once the wild horse threw its head aloft, reared against the sky, pivoted on its hind legs, and in a thunderous manner pounded back to its companions and once more formed into line above me, looking down from the sky.
Have you ever staggered against a roaring river? Neither have I, until then. But I reached the five-barred gate. It never occurred to me to try to open it. I just climbed over it and fell down on the other side. I won't say that I wept, and I won't say that I was nearly sick, but I will say it took a little time for the flesh to fall asleep on the bones, and for those awful heart-thumps, like thuds in an empty pump, to grow less and less and fall away into sleep, too. I had no idea the heart was so terrible and fierce an engine.
But you'll be tired of these horses (they're pets really, and Greyface eats now out of my hand) and I have forgotten what it was I was going to say about them. Probably it was a thought I had. But the awful thing about thoughts is that I am inclined to forget them, almost as if they were facts. Not that I mind. You can have no idea, for example, how interesting you are when you stop thinking. Oddly enough, when I think about it, you are interesting, too, on a soap-box, speaking facts, with the night and the dark crowd around. But perhaps also the facts then are not the most interesting thing about you. This is all so difficult that I can't work it out. And please don't ask me toâor criticise. I know all you're going to say. But I also know something else.
Didn't I tell you it was a patient field? You think I should tell a thing and be done with it. But the field doesn't think that. And it wouldn't think it if they put a dozen tractors on it at once this minute. Do you hate that sort of dumb patience? All right. I shan't speak of it any more. For of course we're in a hurry. We must go ahead at once, and man the barriers, and die fighting if need be. (Oh, Ran, how lovely life is!)
Well, there was the field, full of thick grass and myriads of thistles, and not a horse to be seen, only the wind. You could see the wind coming, like waves of the sea. Doesn't some poet make the folk dance like a wave of the sea? Yeats, wasn't it? Oh, yes, I rememberâ“The Fiddler of Dooney”.
And dance like a wave of the sea.
But that, of course, must have been before Yeats took to Thought and became a real poet. It's me for the Fiddler of Dooney! (Oh, Ran! Ran! to dance like a wave of the sea!) I'll study poetry maybe when the dance is over. It will be a
Isn't that the word the psychoanalysts use?
The wind came blowing across it from the west, from the mountains far away in conic sections blue against the utmost boundaries of the sky. And it came over pine forests that sometimes look black, swooping with a swish over lochs in the hollows of the low hills, and with a scurry across screes, and a rushing up glens, and here it was where the thistles grew in the old patient field. The thistles, too, were old and grey-headed. And they had been waiting for this windâbut oh, with so different a kind of patience.
Do you remember, as a little boy, how you ran out and held your hands up to the falling snow and shouted and ran, catching the flakes? Don't tell me you never did that.
The high wind caught the thistles, caught the thistledown from the grey-heads, and from all across the field they came, thick as any snow shower, flying upon me and past me, soft round balls, eager, in a mad soundless hurry, myriads of them, filling the air. Never had I been caught in such a shower before, and it was exciting. Oh, it was the wildest, maddest fun. Somehow it never occurred to me to try to catch them. I just stood, my ears filled with the wind, and when I opened my mouth it filled, too. Have you ever been choked with a rushing warm wind when the sky is blue behind great sailing clouds? Warm, but with the tang of freshness, of fragrance, in it, that exhilarating scent of clover and the second growth of hay?
I tried to follow themâtiny balls of spun lightâand at first I thought they were all being hurled into the little ravine, as indeed most of them were, but no sooner were they down than the up-eddy from the off side caught them and ho! there they were off again, off over the next field and lost to sight, each one of them hurrying to a new home of its own.
Yes, I know. It shouldn't have happened. The thistles ought all to have been cut long before to-day. This is very bad for agriculture. But they are desperately short-handed on the farmâthat's the true reasonâand only managed to cut a few.
But would it matter, please, if one here and there landed, say, in a ditch, or on a bit of waste land? Yes? I'm afraid some of them will, though. Oh, they will! I saw it in them, the eager lovely things, the rushing grey-white ghosts, lighter than any snowflakes, and so determined to be born.
I'm exhausted. Yet I had so much to say. For that was only the beginning of the discovery. I walked on and on. But now I can't write any more. As if all my strengthâeven my loveâhad departed with the thistledown. I'll write again tomorrow. Goodbye.
That lovely frenzy in which I wrote you yesterday is gone. Ah, it was going before I wrote. Sometimes you can make up things on the way, when you're writing, and that's delightful, but there's an experiencing of the thing itself, so swift, so inexpressible, that nothing ever can catch it and set it down. Not ever. Oh, Ranald, it just can't. This page of paper is pale, like an empty face. All my images have pale faces. Perhaps I shouldn't have said empty. I don't know. For what happens when all is drained away?
Curious this seeing of things in images. For now, to-day, I see everything in images. They are remote a little and wait or walk quietly. Can you see their faces, with ghostly balls of thistledown for eyes? A faint smile is born somewhere at that last image, for I know it is a little literary. At least I think so. Yet I am not really sure. I wonder if there is an instinct in us to dramatise? Not only ourselves, but others and everything? And if it is really an instinct, there must be a need. And if a needâthen drama is just as necessary as your economics. Do you think there may be the beginnings of a new theory somewhere there? I don't mean
new, but yet with a direction to it?
Am I being awfully dull? You must forgive me. I know I overdid it yesterday. I was quite stiff this morning and two long muscles are still sore. The world inveigled me on and on. I couldn't stop. There was a frenzy in it. I wish I had that book of what's-his-name on the old Greeks. I know I'll read a certain dionysiac section of it now as never before. I have a sort of preliminary feeling of revelation!
Look, Ranald, we'll really have to have a talk about this sometime. Oh, I know how you detest the irrational, how it irritates you when people begin talking “ideals”. The flash in your eyes when you turned on them and said: You drug yourselves with ideals. Ideal drug-addicts! I loved you at that moment. (And it not the only one, woe is me.)
Please don't be in a hurry and stuff this in your pocket and say you'll read it again. Do you ever do that? You see, I am not sure.
I am not sure of anything to-day. Suddenly, in a moment, these two balls of thistledown have become eyes in a real face. I see themâand the face. Terrible! terrible!
Speak to me, Ran. All these ideas behind the slums and the loss of self-respect and wars and horrorsâthey are splendid. Yes, I know, they are consistent, too. They are real and scientific. They are the truth. Not emotionalism. The only final truth on which a sane and healthy society can ever be built. Oh, I agree. It's splendid and comforting and full of hope. How I wish you were here, talking to me now. The very sound of you would drive that awful figure off and his eyes.
This is being morbid and I shouldn't be writing you at all. But I feel a bit lonely. Feelings can come quickly somehow. They get born out of nothing. And I
becoming stronger. I am really quite well. I feel health coming like something wonderfulâalmost like falling in love again!
That's better, isn't it? And, Ran! Ran! I have a sudden idea. You know how in our political philosophy everything finally is tested in practice. There can be no truth unless it stands the test of experience. Hurrah! Now what if I begin investigating this morbid condition of the individual who is left alone. You see what I mean? (Please keep your smile to cool your porridge, for if you think I'm thinking of youâI touch wood.) And when she is left alone she has morbid fancies. Now that's an experience. That's something you have never had, so I score over you there and can talk with authority thereanent.
For what is the next dialectical step? (Oh, dear, the sweat is coming out on me.) It's this. (I can't get the words! They won't form!) It's this. The individual by becoming too much the individual, by living too much for himself, loses touch with social relations and so goes morbid. The condition is unnatural and therefore unhealthy. Where individuals pursue each his (or her) individual way for his (or her) individual profitâthe profit motiveâthen when you consider them in the groupâthat is, in societyâthey must arrive at a total condition which socially is unnatural and unhealthy. (I'm exhausted. The sweat has turned cold on my forehead and I can't find my hankie.)