A long struggle with Calvinist guilt;Books

15th October 1999 at 01:00

Carol Gow reviews a study of how Scottish novelists have constantly tried to escape the shackles of religion and class

Cairns Craig examines and refutes the notion that Scotland's culture has produced successful individual novelists but has failed to establish an identifiable narrative tradition. He finds characteristic key elements in the novels of Stevenson, Brown, Barrie and Buchan - and strong links between them and the contemporary novels of Gray, Kelman, Galloway and Kennedy.

The word haunted perhaps springs too readily to Craig's lips throughout. But he argues, usefully, that the legacy of Calvinism hovers over the Scottish novel. Scottish writers, he says, find themselves engaged in a guilty dialogue within an imprisoning text, trapped by the twin histories of romantic myth and absence. As he traces the way writers have coped with this tight squeeze, Craig reveals the formal techniques they have developed to write themselves out of captivity and into an expansive tradition.

His chapter titles play with such oppositions as "Enduring Histories: Mythic Regions and Doubtful Imaginings". But Craig argues that notions of schism, split or schizophrenia that define a sick culture in Scotland are misleading. He shows how writers rework the oppositions he explores into a healthy space where dialogue can take place.

He does see a destructive narrative opposition between the fearful self and the fearless self which underpins the narratives of Hogg, Barrie and Douglas Brown. He shows how the opposition is reworked in contemporary works such as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. And he identifies this same opposition in the tension between the language authors use to narrate and the dialect that characters speak.

Historically, writer and reader have colluded in a hierarchical English, while the characters have spoken in common dialect. Craig illustrates well how this disjunction has preoccupied and challenged Scotland's writers.

He also shows how the problem of a hierarchical English beset Neil Gunn. Gunn's attempt to recreate and preserve a Gaelic way of life is subverted by the language in which he writes - the language that has erased the Gaelic culture. With satisfying chunks of quotation, Craig traces the way in which writers have dramatised this guilty dialogue. And he connects the techniques through which such different writers as Nan Shepherd, Grassic Gibbon and Kelman have all overcome the divide between authorial voice and character.

Craig uncovers a powerful preoccupation in Scotland's writers with the text itself. Is the text, fixed on the page, nailing characters to their futures, a mirror of Calvinistic predetermination? Or is it a representation of a real world of choices? Muriel Spark explores this dilemma in textual metaphors. Other writers, however, see the type itself as a medium, like paint, transformed from a jailer to a muse.

The argument is carefully worked, using a limited number of canonical texts and providing generous quotation. Senior pupils may find some of this material useful at Advanced Higher level. Particularly welcome is the acceptance of writers like Irvine Welsh into the debate.

But Craig's argument is set against a broad backdrop. For example, references to theorists such as Derrida and Bakhtin demand a working knowledge of critical theory and linguistics, and some areas of the text may prove too challenging. However, undergraduates, teachers and lecturers will find this book stimulating and thoroughly annotated.

The explosion of Scottish writing Cairns Craig celebrates has not been matched by an equal flowering of criticism. This book is welcome not only because it will stimulate debate, but because it sets a standard for the criticism Scotland's writers deserve.

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