Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon

2 August 2014
Prologue – The Unfurrowed Field and 1 – Ploughing
The Prologue is an oddity, beginning with 800-odd years of mythologised history before a detailed tour of the big houses and farmsteads of Kinraddie, Gibbon’s fictionalised version of a real Scottish village he used to know just south of the Grampians. Once we’re up to date in 1911, the voice in this section is local, gossipy, proudly Scots. In ‘A Note’ Gibbon has already apologised for his use of some Scots vocabulary, so the reader isn’t surprised by enough ‘imports’, only some of them half-familiar, to warrant a seven-page glossary. Any non-Scot feels something of an outsider, but it does make the novel feel rooted in a place where it seems natural to think of Dundee as ‘the south’.

What do I need to say about the eight houses and farms, and their various residents? Newly half-gentrified Irish occupant of the big house, ageing minister – save that for later, because he’ll need a replacement soon – and farmers of diverse enough political and religious persuasions to make this a microcosm. Anglophile monarchist? Check. Socialist waiting for the revolution? Check. Stalwart of the Kirk? Doubting agnostic? Occasional reckless upper-class motorist to remind these peasants who owns the place? Yep, all here. There are ancient standing stones, a loch as deep as a parson’s sin, I think somebody calls it, and land that ranges from fertile black earth to the thinnest red clay. Chae Strachan, the socialist, advocates equality in all things, but there’s no equality here. One of the farms is empty, and we are told that there is to be a new occupant. Cue Chapter 1…

…in which, suddenly, everything in the Prologue becomes background material as the real story begins. We’ve heard of John Guthrie, the new tenant at the farmstead with its ‘coarse land’ that is the subject of a local tag: Out of the world and into Blawearie. Now here he is, with his big family, during a June drought that is testing everyone’s patience. The point of view, we come to realise, is that of his clever daughter, Chris. Usually the narrative is third-person, but often Guthrie is ‘Father’, or the narrative slips into a conversational second person as ‘you’ do this or that. Ok. But when we just about think we know where we are, we’re whisked back some years to Echt, some miles away, where Guthrie had his previous tenancy.

We’re suddenly in the world of D H Lawrence, transposed 300 miles to the north. Guthrie is the tyrannical paterfamilias of a family that keeps growing in size because, despite a highly developed sense of his own sinfulness and his wife’s understated pleading, he keeps fathering more children. The inexorable power of sex is a theme that Gibbon keeps returning to, but it isn’t what brings their life in Echt to an end. Both inside and outside the family Guthrie says exactly what he thinks, and he lets a wealthy motorist know his opinion of her when her driver forces his cart into a ditch. Mistake. She uses her influence to have his routine application for a renewal of his tenancy refused, and he has to look for somewhere new.

Their wintry journey over the high pass to Kinraddie is atrocious, with darkness falling and the sleet in their faces. The mother does her best to suckle the twins, the latest addition to the family and… and so on. But they get to Blawearie and their problematic new life begins on the unpromising soil. A typical scene is one in which Guthrie is righteously incensed when his eldest son innocently but inappropriately uses the name ‘Jehovah’. As the mother and sister beg him not to, he takes the seventeen-year-old to the barn, pulls down his ‘breeks’ and whips him until he bleeds. This is Will, the family member Chris feels closest to. There has been more than one Lawrentian scene in which, without suggesting any direct incestuous outcome, Gibbon has them huddling so close they both feel embarrassed by feelings they don’t feel comfortable with. After his whipping she invites him into her bed, which is innocent enough sibling solidarity, but he feels the need to leave it before his father sees them. The scene sits alongside Chris’s growing but uninformed awareness of sexuality. There is a moment when her only good friend at school demonstrates the kind of embrace and kiss that women can expect from men, and Chris is both shocked and thrilled.

Chris is the clever one of the family, and her father is allowing her to stay on at school. It has nothing to do with altruism: a teacher in the family will bring respect and an income. She had won a scholarship when they lived at Echt, and now she attends a school in which she feels herself divided in two. The aspiring student of literature and Latin is ‘English Chris’, almost a traitor to her class and nationality. But just as often she is still Scottish Chris, deeply attached to everything and everyone she has grown up with. We’re with a subject dear to the heart of novelists almost since the birth of the genre, the almost impossible pull felt by the children of working people who are clever enough to aspire to something different. There’s an ambiguous moment when she takes up the invitation to borrow a book offered by the strapping – and, if the servant is to be believed, surprisingly sexually active – newly married young minister. When he says he hopes she will like it she asks him ‘Did you sir?’ His reply, just before he turns and leaves abruptly, is ‘Oh, like hell!’ She decides not to mention her visit to her father. He won’t like her being mixed up with ‘gentry’, but there’s also the swearing and the sexual ambiguity of his reply. The minister is ‘only a man’ after all, and she thinks of her father’s constant anger. ‘One time he’d shaken his fist at the sky and cried “Ay, laugh, you Mucker!”’

His unpredictable (or all too predictable) rages become mixed up both with her confused ideas of sexuality and her ambition to get away and into a new life. His face becomes ‘shrivelled’ with anger when he sees her stripped to the knickers to tread the tub of laundry, and rants of the shame of it until his wife ‘blithely’ reminds him that there’s no man who hasn’t seen a naked woman unless they ‘fathered their bairns with their breeks on.’ Chris is troubled into the night by the look of the ’caged beast’ she had seen in her father’s eyes as he looked at her… and, I’ve just remembered, one of his favourite threats to his sons is to castrate them. This is Freud red in tooth and claw. There’s a terrible effect on her mother, too, as she withdraws into a white-faced stillness that she tries to pull herself out of. Chris thinks about all this out in the fields, as confused as ever, and decides that she is only at the stage of ploughing, ready for whatever comes next. Ah.

As she thinks this the chapter ends, and so does the drought. She hears her young brothers warning her, ‘sounding like calves that had lost their mother,’ as lightning flashes over the Grampian mountains.

4 August
Chapter 2 – Drilling
They go from a family of eight (including the parents) to five to three to two. As this chapter ends Chris, her studies ignored for months now, has had five weeks of struggling alone as her father lies paralysed and bed-bound. He appears to have suffered a stroke so she is left to do the drilling and absolutely everything else.

When the children were crying as though they had lost their mother at the end of the previous chapter it should have rung alarm bells. She had poisoned herself and her infant twins because… guess. The idea of being pregnant yet again led her to take the only way out she could think of, and to the two young Guthrie boys being subject to jibes from other children that their mother was a ‘daftie’. They refuse to go to school and when Guthrie’s sister, well-off and childless, offers to take them off his hands he doesn’t refuse – even when she insists that she and her husband adopt them for good. Which leaves only Chris and Will having to cope with Guthrie and the uncontrolled rages that nearly kill him by the end of the chapter. In other words, it’s as much of a barrel of laughs as it’s always been.

In fact, there’s plenty of the kind of broad humour typical in an isolated community where there’s little enough to laugh at but the follies and misfortunes of the neighbours. It goes with that same local, gossipy narration that we’ve had almost from the start, and I’m still trying to decide whether it’s a viable voice for a serious novel. I could make an argument for it: it locks the story of the Guthrie family into the same village narrative as the story of Chae Strachan’s place burning down and, at the level of scandalous gossip, the minister’s drunken train journey home with a chamber-pot. But at its worst it’s like somebody describing, in more detail than I care about, the plot of a soap opera I don’t watch. Plot? An awful lot seems to happen in not many months.

After the poisoning and the packing off to the auntie’s of the younger brothers there’s the complete estrangement, whilst they’re still under the same roof, of Guthrie and Will. Then, during what seems to be the rest of that same uncharacteristically warm summer, the main theme is sex. Again. Every young man in the village and out of it really does seem to have only one thing on his mind, so updates on Chris’s growing awareness of it compete for space with gossipy descriptions of blushing couples emerging from the woods, or a description of the minister’s scandalous behaviour while his young wife is pregnant. Then – and, typically, Chris first hears a highly inaccurate version of it from a man who relishes the alleged scandal – there’s the subject of Will’s behaviour towards a girl in the next town. Inevitably it contributes to his estrangement from his father – is this the last straw that seals it for Will? – but in fact nothing scandalous is happening because Will is playing a longer game. The following summer, after helping his father bring in the harvest for the last time, he marries the girl and emigrates to Argentina.

All this, alongside the lovingly described cycle of the seasons on the farm – including a description of a drink-fuelled New Year’s first-footing that is all any Scot could dream of – is the background for Chris’s own development. There are occasional set-piece moments of contemplation, and one of these comes after an incident as she makes her way home after the fire in the night at Chae’s farm. Two young men are on the path with her and one of them kisses her roughly. The other makes a move towards her and – and nothing, because her brother and father happen to appear. But oh, the thrill of it…. At home, in front of the long mirror that used to be her mother’s, she contemplates feelings she can’t quite come to terms with. The young man was Ewan, the same one who once – what? I can’t quite remember, but it was another of those threatening/thrilling moments that seem to act as markers in her life. (Another is the one where an itinerant tinker being given a lodging in the barn offers to put an end to her virginal state. In her room after that one she imagines returning to the barn to take him up on it.)

I’m oversimplifying, but not much. English Chris wants to make her own way in life without being at the beck and call of any man, but English Chris hasn’t had much of a look in since she had to give up her education. And I find it hard to believe that the Chris who is left is any more than the product of one man’s limited imagination. I’m not really believing any of it, and I’ve been wondering why Gibbon chose to make his main character a girl. Is she meant as some kind of metaphor for Scotland? The chapter titles, from the Unfurrowed Field through Ploughing and Drilling seem to refer to Chris, but don’t quite make sense if they only refer to her. Might they mean something else in the development of a nation’s sense of its own identity? I’ll have to think about that. What might the ‘Seeding’ in Chapter 3 refer to?

14 August
Chapter 3 – Seeding
Obvious, really, what the title of the chapter refers to. By the end of it Chris is pregnant, not that Gibbon ever uses the word. Instead, we get a page or more of the intense emotions that erupt in Chris from the knowledge of it, of a vivid image she has of ‘Chris Guthrie’ leaving the house forever leaving ‘Chris Tavendale’ in her place, of such a terrifying disruption to her sense of herself that she rages at her new husband until they end up in a fist-fight. That’s our Chris, and that’s our emotionally underdeveloped Ewan. And that’s our Lewis Grassic Gibbon, turning up the emotional dial to eleven at least.

As in the previous chapter, Gibbon begins this one by leaping forward several months to a moment of such intense feeling for Chris that she has had to make her way up to the moors for some much needed me-time. In Chapter 2 this narrative technique confused me: I caught the reference to the events of ‘last year’, but missed the rewind, so for some pages I thought Gibbon had skipped a year. It doesn’t work for me in Chapter 3 either, because the opening page or so, in which she contemplates drowning herself in the loch, only makes sense when re-read at the end of the chapter. She’s made her bed and she’s now realises that she’s got to lie in it. (It’s a technique used all the time on TV these days: moments of particular interest or drama from the up-coming programme are shown at the beginning. I find it highly irritating.)

It takes Gibbon nearly 80 pages to get back to where he started, and it’s all about how his capable, self-assured heroine can get herself so trapped. For me, it’s the best thing in the book so far. I’m still unconvinced by the faux-folksiness of the narrative voice, but I’m prepared to accept it as a representation of the isolated provinciality of all these people’s lives. Gibbon uses Scots vocabulary and rambling, half-connected clauses to suggest a welcome lack of sophisticated over-education. And, of course, Scots dialect is such a part of their identity that Gibbon has Long Rob argue its merits with the minister. There are some things you just can’t say using English words.

The language is part of a bigger theme, the sense of belonging that Gibbon articulates through Chris. It’s never straightforward with her, and the crisis at the end of the chapter is to do with her sense of loss at having thrown in her lot with a lifestyle she knows to be severely circumscribed. The stubborn way she turns her back on the life that ‘English Chris’ might well have lived – dried-up spinsterhood and the small-mindedness of the middle classes she thinks she knows – reveals her as the daughter of the mulish John Guthrie. But she has inherited his good qualities too, including an ability to work tirelessly and to see through the schemes of relatives who want to keep her in her place. After the death of her father, and the reading of the will that leaves everything to her, the aunt and uncle presume that she will want them to take over on her behalf. Hah.

It’s the mixture of qualities that makes me wonder, again, whether Chris represents Scotland. In her desire to retain all that is sentimentally dear to her, including her newly discovered but apparently primordial attachment to the land, she rejects too much else. Gibbon never makes it into a simple heart/mind dichotomy, but we witness her willingness to embrace a kind of gut instinct rather than any rational assessment. When sex comes along she’s lost. She knows about Ewan Tavendale, remembers that incident on the road after the fire and the rumours about his behaviour – rumours whose truth he confirms when she asks him – but the blood, or passion, or whatever it is wins out. A trip to a secret cove that is as symbolically resonant as anything in Thomas Hardy and the prospect of her land becoming his land – and, let’s face it, her undisguised visceral need for him – lead to the inevitable. They marry on New Year’s Eve at the end of what must be 1913. Gibbon hasn’t referred to the year since that single mention in the Prologue, but it isn’t difficult to keep track. And we know that any novel written after the War that predates it in this way is only heading in one direction. Chris is pregnant in the spring of 1914.

The wedding incorporates every possible aspect of a celebration that would make any Scotsman proud. At nearly 20 pages it’s the longest set piece in the book, beginning with the first flakes of a snowfall that will make it magical. Gibbon is never in any doubt concerning the liberal use of the pathetic fallacy, from the thunderstorm that marks the mother’s suicide to the rain that ruins the only day-trip of the newlyweds’ married life after such a promising start, and the snow on the wedding day plays its part. The celebration indoors is made all the warmer by the contrast with the harshness of what is outside. Of course it is. The dancing, eating, singing, playing of instruments, debates about the Scots language and, of course, the drinking is as good as it gets. There’s even a moment of hypocrisy-puncturing farce when the Anglophile minister is glimpsed in flagrante when a curtain briefly slips. English Chris – who isn’t mentioned, of course – wouldn’t know what to do, But Scottish Chris does. It ends as it should, with the newlyweds going to their bed and – what? Gibbon doesn’t say exactly, but it sounds nice.

Things go well at first, with both of them working hard to make a success of the farm… but the downpour at the end of that day trip offers an ominous clue as to where things might go. Chris unaccountably keeps her pregnancy secret from Ewan but, unsurprisingly, it begins to affect everything about her. It reaches a crisis one morning, and both she and Ewan lose their tempers. Chris is nursing a bruise on her cheek when she blindly makes her way to the loch and the standing stones near it. Eventually, after losing all track of time, she responds to Ewan’s calls… but we’ve seen what we’ve seen, and so have they. I’m reminded of one of my favourite sentences from another novel dealing with a mismatched couple: ‘Has any one ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?’ Thank you, George Eliot and Middlemarch.

It’s April 1914. Not long now.

19 August
Chapter 4 – Harvest
As ever, the chapter title is to be taken on several different levels. There’s childbirth, with Chris painfully reaping what’s been sown. There’s the harvest of all that is sown in the little incident in the Balkans that means nothing in Kinraddie. And there are real harvests, from the one in 1914 that distracts the village from news of the outbreak of war to the one at Blawearie in 1917 after Ewan has finally given into the senseless pressure on all men to enlist. Nobody can accuse Gibbon of making it too subtle.

The best thing by far in this chapter is the presentation of that madness that seems to have taken over in Britain after the outbreak of war, and the effect this has on ordinary people. As I write this during the month that marks the centenary of that same outbreak, the British media are so full of it that what Gibbon describes now seems utterly unremarkable. But in 1932, when the book was first published, I suspect that there were few authors who were being so explicit. There are references to the horrors of war and the grief of bereaved families, but what is really striking is the almost palpable sense of the injustice of forcing men to fight in a conflict that was meaningless to them. Any differences between the issues of class and Scottishness are glossed over, so that these good Scots lads are being sent to the slaughter by a government that is not only of a different class but of a different nationality. The cutting down of working men for a war fought for impossibly remote reasons has never seemed so pointless.

The War and its effects are the main theme of the chapter, but plenty else is going on in the life of Chris Tavendale. Her experience of pregnancy and birth is as overwrought as we’ve come to expect – and, now I come to think of it, so is everything else she goes through between 1914 and 1917. As ever, her life is a series of intensely felt episodes, so that I’ve never lost that impression that I’m being told the plot of a soap opera. The weeks before the birth, the event itself and the changes in Chris’s life that it brings become a set piece that runs alongside the declaration of war and the certainty that anything happening so far away cannot possibly be important. The changing family dynamics – baby Ewan now months old, then old enough to talk as the other Ewan grows, it seems, into the hardworking, careful farmer Chris hoped he would be – take place in the context of Chae being the first to enlist, Long Rob refusing and coming back from prison almost (but not quite) a broken man, the finger-pointing attitudes of neighbours, epitomised by Mutch of Bridge End and his ‘futret’ wife, who make it impossible to have anything like a rational discussion. Even the minister, when he realises that his lurid prophecies of the Apocalypse at the start of the War only make him enemies, begins to preach instead that all Germans are monsters and that not to enlist is an act of treachery. The fact that he ends up with a safe job in Edinburgh tells us all we need to know about how Gibbon feels about all this. As if we need telling.

There’s only one useful outcome. Will returns from Argentina in the uniform of the French foreign legion, and spends a few happy days doing the rounds and helping on the farm. Otherwise the War – and therefore, of course, the reckless bunch of English toffs running things – can be blamed for absolutely everything that goes wrong. On top of the death of at least one local man and the blinding of another who had enlisted early on comes the felling of the woods that have sheltered the farmland for centuries, leaving the land open to the pitiless winds from the mountains. Neighbours become enemies, so that Long Rob finds that nobody wants him to mill their grain any more. And, most catastrophic of all is the (highly melodramatic and implausible) brutalisation of Ewan at the army training camp. The man that Chris had been moulding into a thoughtful husband and father returns on leave a complete thug.

It’s this that brings about the final crisis of the chapter, and a doleful kind of resolution. Given only short notice of the visit, Chris spends a day preparing a loving welcome based on all that she and the farm can offer. But the man who returns is not the Ewan she knows. He brags of his whoring, speaks to her and little Ewan with contempt and a constant edge of violence and… and so on. She puts up with it in a perpetual state of shock and disgust – until, on the last morning, she does that thing where she pulls herself together, ties all her disgust and resentment into a little bundle, and refuses to be cowed by him ever again. When he calls for her to get his breakfast she tells him to get his own, responds to his threat of violence by pulling a knife on him… and so on. Exit Ewan, forever. Enter Long Rob, to help with the harvest and other manly duties. Next day, having had enough of the incessant nastiness in the village and town, he enlists. Gibbon tells us that he won’t be returning.

That isn’t the end of it. Chris receives the inevitable telegram informing her of Ewan’s death, and she goes through such a turbulent – and entirely predictable – period of self-blame that it sends her almost mad. There’s more finger-pointing from the nasty neighbours – does she think she’s the only woman to have lost a dear one? – but they don’t understand that only now does she realise that he was still a frightened boy beneath the army swagger. She should have been more understanding, should have… etc. And then she has a visit from Chae, home on leave from the same regiment. He tells her that he saw Ewan on the night before he was to be shot for – wait for it – desertion. But it’s not how it sounds. In the stupid trenches, Ewan had realised that he had left things on an unsatisfactory footing with Chris, that there was nobody in the world more important to him, and that he had to get back to put things right with her. He simply started walking away from the front, but was arrested within ten miles of where he’d set off. He finishes what he has to say as dawn breaks, and he has only fifteen minutes left to live. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Are we nearly there yet? And is the ‘Epilude’ going to be as pointless as the Prelude?

22 August
Epilude
Does anything unexpected happen in the rest of the War and its aftermath? Long Rob dies a hero’s death, saving others. Chae dies an hour before the armistice – and I wonder if Gibbon was the first to try out this little trope in fiction about WW1. (Pat Barker does it in The Ghost Road, written sixty years later, and I wonder how many others have done it before and since.) Mutch has made a lot of money from the sale of poultry during the War, so his role as one of the villains is confirmed. He and the Irish owner of the big house are able to buy up empty properties as the ‘Trustees’ – more villains to hiss at – force tenants to pay an impossibly high price to buy their holdings or leave. I might have got the details wrong but you get the gist: the old way of life has been killed off as surely as the village’s best men. The land, rendered unsuitable for crops by the felling of those trees, is now only fit for sheep.

Gibbon is using the same voice as in the Prelude, that of a local gossip more likely to crow over the failings of others than celebrate any successes. There’s a new minister – the old one now comfortable in New York – who tells it like it is. The gossips hate him, but Chris is so impressed that he is able to spend five hours talking to her in Blawearie, not yet sold up. You can guess how the neighbours view this, but it’s another trope: Chris’s labouring man can vouchsafe for their behaviour as much as he likes, but it doesn’t go down well. Soon she’ll be sitting pretty in the manse, because she’s going to marry him. (There’s another marriage, reported as a risqué anecdote. The daughter of one of the profiteers is as impressed with one of the Labour Party electioneers as Chris had been with the minister, and lets her parents believe that she is pregnant so that they sanction the marriage.)

What else? The minister has the standing stones turned into a memorial for the four local men who had been killed, so that the end of this little world is given a far bigger significance both by him and by Gibbon. Previously in the novel the role of the stones had been as a conduit for Chris in her communion with the land in moments of crisis at the beginnings and ends of chapters. Now they are a symbol of – what exactly? Damned if I know, but it has something to do with the eternal essence of Scotland. And it’s never going to be the same.

The end. And I can’t tell you how tiresome I’ve found Gibbon’s self-invented Scots vernacular with its wilful rejection of conventional syntax and liberal peppering of dialect terms. At a guess, it takes me twice as long to read his prose as that of two other determined users of different Scots vernaculars, James Kelman and Irving Welch. I won’t be reading the sequels.

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