Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Post-Meta-Modern-Realism: The Novel in Scotland

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Post-Meta-Modern-Realism: The Novel in Scotland

Article excerpt

Scottish novel writing presents us with a heterogeneous field of enquiry which has regularly outwitted attempts to contain it within a literary scheme. The 1994 Booker Prize for Fiction demonstrated this in arresting fashion when it produced a provocative Scottish coup; not only was the winner James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late, but it was joined on the shortlist by George Mackay Brown's Beside the Ocean of Time. The infamous uproar accompanying Kelman's win blasted his use of a Glasgow voice and an alarming number of swear words. Brown's novel could not have provided more of a contrast to Kelman's urban sprawl; Beside the Ocean of Time is set on the fictional Orkney island of Norday and evokes the mythic Nordic past as well as the devastating World War Two history of those islands. Tightly structured, lyrical, elegiac and poetic in its engagement with the landscape and island life, the novel and its traditionally omniscient storyteller narrator are in many ways the opposite of Kelman's contemporary Glasgow seen through the complexly presented consciousness of his blinded protagonist Sammy Samuels.

It is possible to characterise these writers as exemplary of two diverse polarities, some would say contradictions, of Scottish writing, a tradition famous for both realism and romance, frequently in the same work. Kelman is more often read as a realist, representing city-bound working-class lives and voices of the present time in an uncompromising vernacular which forces the reader to see the world from the point of view of his all-male cast of protagonists. Brown is celebrated for his association with Orkney, is seen, in fact, as the islands' literary representative and consistently portrays his rural home in his poetry and fiction. Beside the Ocean of Time is the story of Thorfinn Ragnarson, a young dreamer through whom the reader encounters stories evoking Orcadian myth and history, from the distant Nordic past to the battle of Bannockburn to seal wives and their strange ways. The latter part of the novel relates the devastation of Norday in the Second World War when it is turned into an airbase for the British Air Force. Thorfinn, now a writer, eventually returns to the deserted island after his experience as a prisoner of war and contemplates the creation of the 'unattainable poem' of his birthplace. History and biography entwine with myth, folklore and an abiding interest in ritual in Brown's writing constructing a sensibility more often placed within the romance region of the Scottish tradition.

However, on closer, more patient examination the polarities begin to break down and contradictory characteristics emerge. Brown, with his enduring belief in myth, can be conceived of as a modernist writer on a quest for 'a universally applicable value system'. (1) Yet Schoene believes that Brown is 'a modernist writer with postmodernist tendencies' where 'his resolute conflation of fact and fiction, his disregard for generic boundaries and his firm belief in the text as a means of reconciling disparate aspects of an essentially discontinuous reality' (2) are all postmodern features of his work. His artistry is never disputed. In contrast, Kelman, seen as a quintessential working-class writer, is by that definition artless in directly disgorging his experience onto paper in an unmediated manner. Of course, this hackneyed perception is thankfully fading now and Kelman's radical stylistic innovation is more widely valued. The interiority of his work, with its stream-of-consciousness sensibility, is qualified by disorientating slippages of pronouns and linguistic registers, placing his narrative voice on the boundary between the internal and external worlds of his protagonists. Kelman's taking up of this modernist strategy draws attention to the instability of texts and the selves they represent and defies grounding categorisation. Take the opening of How Late It Was, How Late:

    Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear,
the
   thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember
   and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can
   ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words;
there's
   something wrong; there's something far far wrong; ye're no
a good
   man, ye're just no a good man. … 
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