Magazine article The Spectator

Life & Letters

Magazine article The Spectator

Life & Letters

Article excerpt

A novelist is rarely well-advised to write his masterpiece in his fifties, unless his position at the top of the tree is secure. His themes and style are no longer likely to be in fashion. A younger generation of writers is occupying the attention of reviewers and speaking with greater immediacy to the public.

This was Eric Linklater's experience. He had achieved popularity and critical respect in the Thirties with Juan in America and his best prewar novel Magnus Merriman, and maintained his position after the war with Private Angelo and Laxdale Hall. But by the mid-1950s, when he wrote The Dark of Summer, he was, if not in the wilderness, at least on its fringes.

Yet this is a great novel, beautifully crafted, its themes sombre and important. It deals with war, with the deformation of character which may result from clinging to unhappy memories, with an act of treason, with courage and cowardice and the possibility of redemption through love and, in two instances, self-sacrifice. The second of these, in the Korean war, moves me to tears every time I read the book; it is so brave, so necessary from one point of view, so totally uncalled-for from another.

It's a novel of an extraordinary range.

It moves back and forward in time, as far back as to an interpolated section which recounts a squalid sequel to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, through the 1939-45 war and up almost to the time it was written.

The setting is various: Shetland, London, the North Sea, the Faroes, the Western Desert, the Italian campaign and the grim battle for Monte Cassino, Korea, Paris. It begins and ends in Shetland and that is where its heart is.

You may think this is a lot of travelling for quite a short novel -- little more than 250 pages. A lesser writer might indeed have made a book three or four times as long from such a wealth of material. Yet nothing is skimped, while no scene -- and there are some tremendous scenes -- is prolonged beyond what is required. It is written with a sharp-cutting economy, like Waugh's Sword of Honour.

At the same time it's curiously leisurely.

There is no suggestion of haste; there are moments of reflection. The narrator is a professional soldier, and the novel's most ironical sentence is his disclaimer: 'I cannot tell my story as neatly as, I daresay, a professional author would tell it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.