Magazine article The Spectator

You Read It Here First

Magazine article The Spectator

You Read It Here First

Article excerpt

Life & Letters:

The Spectator Columns by Allan Massie Quartet, £12, pp. 199, ISBN 9780704372658 It is a safe bet that Alex Salmond has no immediate plans to embrace Allan Massie as one of Scotland's National Treasures. A Unionist in an increasingly nationalist country, a traditionalist in a time of change, an ungoogler engulfed by the internet, and an amateur of creative activities, cultural and sporting, when the fashion is for professional analysis, Massie could hardly be more out of step with the prevailing ethos of his countrymen. Yet, this collection of his Life & Letters columns for The Spectator illustrates why the larger community of readers and writers should clasp him to their collective bosom as a figure of genuine literary distinction.

As the author of 22 novels and 11 works of non-fiction, as well as a stream of journalism - literary criticism, social punditry and an authoritative rugby column for the Scotsman - Massie is evidently not prone to writer's block. In one of these essays, he contrasts the hell that composition caused Joseph Conrad - 'In the course of a working day of eight hours, I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair' - with Anthony Trollope's matter-of-fact remark, 'I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing. On Friday I started another. Nothing frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness.' There's little doubt which school Massie belongs to: 'Without a book to work on, ' he writes, 'we novelists wouldn't know how to get through the day' - but productivity brings its own penalties.

It has long been the business of academic criticism to tuck messy writers into neat silos of literary tradition, but that goal is frustrated by the sheer range of Massie's fiction, from contemporary (in the late 1970s) social observation with a hint of Anthony Powell, by way of historical novels set variously in the second world war, the Roman empire, and the early Middle Ages, through an intriguing exploration of alcoholism, to his most recent, Simenonian detective books located amid the shifting loyalties of Vichy France.

For academia, the present collection of articles on the business of writing offers a solution to its problem because it affords a glimpse of the underlying purpose of Massie's work. But, as Spectator readers will be aware, their wider appeal lies in their intelligence and a conversational style that invites you to share in his ruminations about the way different authors deal with the challenge of putting into narrative form an inchoate swirl of thought and perception. …

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