The voice of the ignored
Neil Philip reviews a sometimes painful collection of writing by novelist Alan Garner
Alan Garner shot to fame in 1960 with the publication of his first children's novel, The Weirdstone of Brisin-gamen, a wild fantasy set in Garner's stamping ground of East Cheshire. It has become conventional to disparage that book as mere apprentice work, too feverish and slap dash to stand alongside the intricate focus of Garner's mature work. But in The Sunday Times of July 23 1995, the novelist David Profumo launched an eloquent defence of the "clumsy brilliance" of The Weirdstone, a book that had held him "spellbound" at the age of seven. "Books that exert such a frisson are rare," he wrote.
Profumo is only one of a generation of English writers - such as Adam Thorpe and Paul Binding - first entranced and then influenced by the hypnotic power of Garner's children's books. Since 1960, Garner's reputation has steadily grown, and last year his first novel for adults, Strandloper, was warmly received.
Yet Garner's output has been sparse. After the apprentice novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, came a transitional work, Elidor, followed by two ferociously powerful novels for adolescents, The Owl Service, which won the Carnegie Medal, and Red Shift, a triple-focused study of time and violence. Then came the four novellas known as The Stone Book Quartet. This is Garner's undoubted masterpiece - an emotional and spiritual history of four generations of his own family, in which all his preoccupations about time, place and personality mesh into a pure and utterly lucid prose that is, as Garner himself observed, "long narrative poetry".
After that came 18 long years of virtual silence, broken first by Strandloper, an account of spiritual discovery, set half in Garner's Cheshire backyard and half among Australian Aborigines, and second by the book under review, which collects 16 pieces of writing from the past 30 years to construct - in counterpoint to Strandloper - a creative autobiography. It makes fascinating and sometimes painful reading.
Strandloper itself stands to the conventional novel much as a map of the nervous system does to a fleshed body - every synapse exposed. The Voice That Thunders makes it clear that the visionary intensity on the page derives from crippling neurasthenia in the life. As Garner told the Australian journalist Michele Field, speaking of William Buckley, Strandloper's 19th-century hero: "Everything William experienced - even the 'Aboriginal dreaming' and the trans-hallucination - I have experienced myself. I am a Western European trained to be a classics professor and I had to let go of all that. The Aborigines say that Europeans have 'one skin more and one sense less'. I had to pray for one sense more, I had to jump, and there was somebody there to catch me."
Garner's account of his mental breakdown when filming The Owl Service, "Inner Time", is one of the best things he has ever written. It is echoed by a more recent piece, "Fierce Fires amp; Shramming Cold", which explores the relation between the writer's manic depression and his creativity.
What "Inner Time" isolates is a truth that Garner rediscovers throughout this book - that first he has to write his crises, and then he must experience and overcome them. In doing so he has learned to trust what the Aborigines call "the voice that thunders" - the inner voice that keys you in to the absolute now-ness of the moment.
But there is another voice just as important to Garner as this - what he calls "the voice in the shadow". This is the voice of the ignored, specifically for Garner the local speech. It is a voice he first tried to use in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, in a clumsy approximation of his friend and mentor Joshua Birtles as the farmer Gowther Mossock. In The Stone Book Quartet he successfully incorporated this shadow voice into his narrative as well as the dialogue, and in Strandloper it is triumphant. Strandloper is a book in which the way something is said tells you as much as the words themselves.
The way the "essays and lectures" in The Voice That Thunders are phrased is elegant and satisfying in an old-fashioned, classically educated way that is far from the jump-cut narrative and bruised dialect of Garner's fiction. They lapse at times into a kind of intellectual defensiveness that may stem from Garner's sense that in order to be a writer he had not to be a classics professor. They tell you, perhaps, that here is a man who needs to put on his best and least comfortable clothes before he can face an outsider.
In the 1920s, John Drinkwater published a collection of children's poetry entitled All About Me. The same title could have served for Alan Garner's new book. Some readers may find its relentless navel-gazing suffocating, but others will value it for its naked insights into the agony and ecstasy of the creative process, and into the soul of one anguished and inspired creator.