Sunday, April 19, 2015

Neil Gunn's last novel

"The Other Landscape" was not well received.  The signs had been there for a time - the gifted novelist of social realism and Scottish community life had slowly been descending into 'mysticism' - and now here it was in full display, puzzling his readership, taking it to places, away from the kitchen sink, to some other place, where they could not follow. Gunn lost his readership.

Had another decade past, into the 60s, he might have been rediscovered by a younger audience, who having 'tuned in' may dropped through to this other way of seeing, Zen like, in its detached clarity. But here too, he may have been missed because this clarity emerges in the wholly unexotic context of everyday, Highland life. Hippies piling into their camper vans went off on their journeys to the East in search of the other shore, not staying amongst the familiar landscapes of home.

Gunn stayed put, within a place actually loved and known, his community but he knew that the deeper one looked, the quieter one's attention, something universal would emerge, an experienced unity of seeing, a clarity of apprehension where subjectivity and objectivity meet, and are transformed, where the mystery at the heart of things is revealed as the truth that is in silence, that can only be tasted, shown, never said.

"The Other Landscape" is an undoubtedly odd book. A composer has come to live with his young, Highland wife, at a white house, overlooking the sea. Annabel, the wife, dies in childbirth, as her husband, Donald, searches in vain for the doctor or the nurse on the night of a storm. Donald has strangely written a manuscript of a story that portends this fate, of coming grief, and submitted it to a London magazine. From where, after the tragedy, comes Urquhart from the magazine to discuss publication. Urquhart is a young anthropologist which is a profession whose relevance to the magazine is never explained. Urquhart is the book's narrator and though there is a flow of action that carries the book along what matters are the dialogues between Donald and Urquhart where Gunn explores what it might mean for a man to find meaning, where stripped to the barest grief and where is that meaning to be found.

For if God is rational, fitting within the traditional theological stories, he is the Wrecker, the image is Donald's, and there is no answer, except perhaps to put such 'traditional notions' to their rest and stoically face a world of indifference, flaring beauty and tragedy in equal measure.

But perhaps one can see through the Wrecker to a different landscape where something awaits an act of seeing and loving that brings a world to conscious completion, and that sees the world after the light of eternity, where everything is present and nothing lost. To say this, and more, is probably self-defeating, but to seek the consciousness of it may not be. And this is what Donald does, and where, in their conversations, Urquhart seeks to follow.

For those with the insight, or a yearning, for such seeing the book is richly rewarding. There are moments when Gunn manages to say it just right - a detachment born of bearing grief that Donald exhibits, seen unflinchingly or the way Gunn uses the analogy of Pilate's question to Jesus of what is truth that can only be answered with a face of compassionate silence.

But also the way the 'commonplace' sub plots help anchor this into the daily choices that life presents us with. In the hotel, where Urquhart stays, is the Major, a former soldier and diplomat, whose untold life suggests similar tragic scars to that of Donald but who has never been able to lay down his ego before them, has resisted them rather than entered them, who being afraid of their dark, has never grasped the light beyond them. He envies Donald from afar and inflicts his woundedness on others, rather than bears it for others.

It is a beautiful, complex book, not in every part realised, but that perhaps is the imperfection of words before mystery, and full too of Gunn set pieces - man pitched against the elements, a storm at sea, full of evocative, beautiful writing and man pitched towards the woman he will love, tossed and turned in the manner of it, love's dance.

It will continue to seek out its readers, I trust, and remain a part of this great novelist's oeuvre, even if the earlier, more 'conventional' books will continue to gather the most readers. 

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