Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Neil Gunn

I have been trying to find copies of one or two Neil Gunn novels, but many seem to have gone out of print. It is a real pity.

I read the Silver Darlings many years ago, with more than passing interest- my own family were part of the great herring trade whose history Gunn evokes so keenly- my great-grandfather was a cooper who made barrels for the storage of the fish. It was a hard life, and my grandfather recalled meeting cousins who were very much the stereotype of the fisherfolk of the North East. Nevertheless we see the ruin of the formerly prosperous fishing towns of Buchan, it is hard not to feel anger more than regret for a passing of a long history.

Neil Gunn is, in some ways, a more sympathetic figure than some of his contemporaries in the Scottish literary scene of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike Lewis Grassic Gibbon or Hugh MacDiarmid, Gunn chose to write in English, rather than in a newly minted literary Scots, whether Lallans or Doric. It was a source of bitterness amongst his former friends that he should do so.

Yet Gunn is a better writer- the Communist archetypes that Grassic Gibbon created in a Scots Quair become nothing more than marionettes as the series advances. It is also hard to be sympathetic to MacDiarmid, who joined the Communist Party shortly after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolt in 1956. Although the melancholy of "The Little White Rose" is a bitter-sweet evocation of Scotland: "The rose of all the world is not for me/I want for my part/Only the little white rose of Scotland/That smells sharp and sweet and breaks the heart", it only partially off-sets the general arrogance of the man.

Gunn is, together with Nan Shepherd, a more optimistic writer- his characters are not defined by their conditions. Nan Shepherd allows her heroine, Martha, a kind of redemption, while Grassic Gibbon does not allow Chris anything more than to be crushed by what he sees as the inevitable oppression of bourgeois society. Perhaps Grassic Gibbon might have matured in the same way as Gunn, had he lived, but his extant work is an angry indictment of his homeland. Gunn, by contrast, believed in the strength of what he saw as Scottish- and particularly Highland- virtues.

Gunn is a more human writer and far more critical of totalitarianism, as he moved away from his early socialism. His novels are more spiritual and in later life, as he studied such schools as Zen Buddhism, they acquire more humour too.

I will now try to find copies of The Silver Darlings, Bloodhunt and Green Isle of the Great Deep - it will be nice to re-read them again.

2 comments:

dvhrt@aol.com said...

if you are looking for Neil Gunn books look at website www.greenmetropolis.com
currently for sale
The King of the Chest
The Silver darlings
Higland River
The Serpent
it is an excellent site and I use it regularly and is good way to recycle books

Cicero said...

Cool- Thanks