So where were you when you heard that Alistair MacLeod had died? You’ve no idea? I thought not. The passing of Canada’s greatest writer in April 2014 made few shockwaves in Britain, where his work remains almost unknown. To his admirers, and I am enthusiastically one, this is both a scandal and a puzzle. For most of us, the books were a very personal discovery, and our feelings about them are commensurately possessive. Don’t say it too loud, but it’s absolutely true: this reticent, unfashionable, determinedly unprolific writer was one of the great masters of prose fiction in our time.
In forty years MacLeod produced just sixteen short stories, later collected in Island (2002), and one not very long novel, the extraordinary No Great Mischief (1999). Notoriously, he wrote at glacial speed, toiling over each sentence by hand until its shape and heft and tune were exactly so. You could read the life’s work in a weekend, but you mustn’t: the stories demand to be savoured slowly, the way they were written. A MacLeod sentence is a tactile thing, with the hard but polished feel of a pebble in the hand. Yet the prose is not ‘writerly’ in any tiresome way: ‘I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it,’ MacLeod once said, and his work retains a strong sense of the speaking or even singing voice – of folk tales or Gaelic balladry.
If the work is small in bulk, it is fiercely precise in its focus. Nearly all of it is set on Cape Breton, the large island at the tip of Nova Scotia where MacLeod grew up and to which he returned every summer. Like most Cape Bretoners, he was descended from Highland Scots who arrived during the Clearances, bringing a Gaelic-speaking culture that continues today. Traditionally, the islanders worked as miners, loggers, small farmers and inshore fishermen, and MacLeod tried all four occupations before lighting on a career in academia. His characters tend to be torn between leaving
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So where were you when you heard that Alistair MacLeod had died? You’ve no idea? I thought not. The passing of Canada’s greatest writer in April 2014 made few shockwaves in Britain, where his work remains almost unknown. To his admirers, and I am enthusiastically one, this is both a scandal and a puzzle. For most of us, the books were a very personal discovery, and our feelings about them are commensurately possessive. Don’t say it too loud, but it’s absolutely true: this reticent, unfashionable, determinedly unprolific writer was one of the great masters of prose fiction in our time.In forty years MacLeod produced just sixteen short stories, later collected in Island (2002), and one not very long novel, the extraordinary No Great Mischief (1999). Notoriously, he wrote at glacial speed, toiling over each sentence by hand until its shape and heft and tune were exactly so. You could read the life’s work in a weekend, but you mustn’t: the stories demand to be savoured slowly, the way they were written. A MacLeod sentence is a tactile thing, with the hard but polished feel of a pebble in the hand. Yet the prose is not ‘writerly’ in any tiresome way: ‘I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it,’ MacLeod once said, and his work retains a strong sense of the speaking or even singing voice – of folk tales or Gaelic balladry. If the work is small in bulk, it is fiercely precise in its focus. Nearly all of it is set on Cape Breton, the large island at the tip of Nova Scotia where MacLeod grew up and to which he returned every summer. Like most Cape Bretoners, he was descended from Highland Scots who arrived during the Clearances, bringing a Gaelic-speaking culture that continues today. Traditionally, the islanders worked as miners, loggers, small farmers and inshore fishermen, and MacLeod tried all four occupations before lighting on a career in academia. His characters tend to be torn between leaving in search of a wider life and staying out of a sense of loyalty and belonging. Those who remain feel trapped or abandoned, while the leavers are racked with a sense of exile and guilt. A small stage, then, but some large, pertinent themes: the rival claims of tradition and modernity, of the tribe and the individual, of nativism and assimilation. These are probably the themes of your family history, as they are (in part) of mine. They also seem to be at the hub of our present discontents. MacLeod’s first published story, ‘The Boat’, encapsulates all this with brutal clarity. The narrator – an unhappy academic – recalls his early life on Cape Breton, in a small fishing community where his world was defined by his father, an autodidact with a yearning for another life, and his mother, a figure of almost archaic rootedness.
My mother was of the sea, as were all her people, and her horizons were the very literal ones she scanned with her dark and fearless eyes.While the father’s room is a chaos of magazines and books, the house is otherwise ruled by a woman who boasts of not having read a thing since school. As time goes on, the daughters of the family grow restless, marry ‘out’ and move away. Although the narrator also longs to go, he is held back by pity for his father, whom he sees visibly ageing:
And there came into my heart a very great love for my father and I thought it was very much braver to spend a life doing what you do not want rather than selfishly following your own dreams . . . And I knew then that I could never leave him alone to suffer the iron-tipped harpoons which my mother would forever hurl into his soul . . . I told him one night very resolutely and very powerfully that I would remain with him as long as he lived and we would fish the sea together.So father and son fish through the summer heat and the autumn mists and into the first snowy blasts – until one day ‘I turned and he was not there and I knew even in that instant that he would never be again.’ The old man’s body is found a week later, ‘And the fish had eaten his testicles and the gulls had pecked out his eyes.’ As the story ends we hear how the narrator has made a career in the States, while his mother stays at home, increasingly bitter that her only son will not return to fish the family’s ancestral grounds. Despite himself, the narrator cannot escape a feeling that she is right: ‘it is not an easy thing to know that your mother looks upon the sea with love and on you with bitterness because the one has been so constant and the other so untrue’. Rather like Henry James, MacLeod plays infinitely subtle variations on a small number of themes and situations. In ‘The Return’, for example, a Montreal lawyer returns to Cape Breton, bringing his wife and 10-year-old son to meet his parents for the first time. ‘You have been a long time coming home,’ remarks the grandfather, still working the mines at the age of 76. There is awkward social comedy, but the thing no one forgets is the grandmother’s great speech of reproach to her son, in which she speaks for the ‘stayers’ everywhere:
Because in the end that is all there is – just staying. I have lost three children at birth but I’ve raised eight sons. I have one a lawyer and one a doctor who committed suicide, one who died in coal beneath the sea and one who is a drunkard and four who still work the coal like their father and those four are all I have that stand by me . . .The son makes the obvious, common-sense objections – but these sound flimsy after the grand biblical cadences. MacLeod may avoid taking sides in these culture wars, but his nativists certainly get the best tunes. The backward-looking, in-turned side of Cape Breton life is not glossed over. In ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’ the old tumbledown farm where Grandma lives alone is almost too neatly symbolic. The house stands at the end of a long, little-frequented road; it is sinking into the earth and its doors open inwards; there is no electricity, gas or telephone. Even the livestock come from ‘fiercely inbred generations’ who will eat hay only from these fields. Quite reasonably, Grandma’s family are trying to nudge her into a home. But it is the stubborn, unreasonable old woman who gets, if not the last word, then the word that lasts:
It does not matter that some things are difficult. No one has ever said that life is easy. Only that it is to be lived.MacLeod once compared writing to playing an accordion: ‘When I pull it out like this, it becomes a novel, and when I compress it . . . it becomes this intense short story.’ No Great Mischief may lack the compression of the stories, but ‘pulling it out’ enabled MacLeod to extend the cast of characters and to deepen the sense of history, bringing the Highland past directly into the tale. This allows for the most concerted treatment of his great theme – the strength, and the danger, of tribal solidarity. The novel’s narrator is another of MacLeod’s exiles – Alexander MacDonald, a wealthy orthodontist now living in Ontario but who is haunted by his youth on Cape Breton. His story unfolds in three broad time-phases: the present, where Alexander fixes the teeth of the rich while also trying to care for his older brother Calum, an alcoholic wreck; the remembered past, in which we gradually learn of the events that brought Calum to this pass; and the ancestral past, the tragic history that drove their great-great-great-grandfather across the ocean with his wife, children, dog and violin. ‘Always look after your own blood’ Alexander is taught as a boy, and it is a lesson that he is never permitted to forget. One winter night, his parents are drowned while crossing frozen waters on foot – a catastrophe that evokes one of the great set pieces in MacLeod’s writing:
The tide was going out when they vanished, leaving nothing but a lantern – perhaps tossed on to the ice by a sinking hand and miraculously landing upright and continuing to glow, or perhaps, set down after its arc, wildly but carefully by a hand which sought to reach another . . .Thereafter he is brought up by grandparents, a delightful couple steeped in the simplest ideas of clan loyalty. By contrast, the three older brothers are allowed to run wild in the old MacDonald home, where they sleep with loaded rifles under their beds and piss joyfully out of the upstairs window. (The humble act of urination has an odd prominence throughout MacLeod’s writing.) While Alexander is able to finish school and embark on a lucrative career, Calum and the others team up with their cousins and go to work in the mines. From this point on, No Great Mischief becomes the story of three men with the same ancestral name. On the day that our Alexander MacDonald picks up his degree, he hears that his cousin and namesake has been killed in the mine:
I was probably having my picture taken when the bucket came down upon him. There was probably a mortar-board on my head in the instant when he had no head at all.Partly out of guilt, Alexander agrees to take the dead man’s place, to make up the numbers on a job. The chapters that follow are unsparing in their depiction of hard, dirty, dangerous work – while also honouring the pride and fellowship of the miners. When the clan is asked to take in a third Alexander MacDonald, a young man of whom they know nothing, they do so unquestioningly – and it is this act of trust that precipitates the novel’s tragic climax. In the end, the book passes a more critical verdict on the clannishness of the MacDonalds than we might expect. If loyalty to the tribe exerts an atavistic pull, it is also fraught with subtle forms of danger and deception. Regarded coolly, the episodes from Scottish history that are recounted with such pride tell a bleak enough tale – of loyalty and stoicism repeatedly exploited, often by the Highlanders’ own chiefs. The novel’s title alludes to a remark made privately by General Wolfe, as his Highland troops prepared to lead the assault on Quebec: ‘They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.’ These are wide themes, and if their treatment never seems disembodied, it is a tribute to the intense physicality with which MacLeod renders his world. The stories are full of the most precise notations of climate, flora and fauna. Like Hardy, this was a man who ‘noticed such things’: the ‘crashing muddied waves’ of August, so different from those of autumn ‘almost yellow at their peaks’; the distinction between the ‘made ice’ that forms in local seas and the ‘drift ice’ that comes down from the Arctic, with its grotesque forms and dazzling colours. The extremity of the Cape Breton winter inspires some of MacLeod’s most visceral writing. He describes days when walking into the wind makes ‘your toes curl . . . within your shoes as if they are trying to grasp the earth’ and you can feel the weight of the ice as it forms on your eyelashes. Clothes left out on the line ‘creak . . . like sections of dismantled robots’ and a dog sounds like castanets as its ‘ice-coated hairs . . . clack together’. Some nights are so cold you can hear ‘the trees exploding with the frost’. The stories likewise evoke the teeming life of the island in spring and summer. The landscape flashes gold after rain, while bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds sing from the willows; the shadow of a hawk slides across grass as ‘fat deer move among the rotting windfallen apples’. There is the time of trout ‘battling and alive in the rushing, clear, cold water’ and that of ‘brown-dappled horses, rolling in the slickness of their summer fat’. The energies are often explicitly sexual, as with the August rams: ‘Rearing and smashing against one another until their skulls thundered and reverberated like the growling icebergs of spring and their pent-up semen ejaculated in spurting jets . . .’ The frank physicality of the language springs from a life lived in daily proximity to animals: MacLeod notices the ‘sweet, heavy hotness’ of a bull’s grassy breath, the ears of an unborn calf ‘exquisite and fragile and flatly pressed, like the memory of ferns found deep within the darkened earth’. Elsewhere, there are scenes of ordinary life, often involving animals, which haunt like a picture from a favourite childhood book. One such is the sleigh ride in ‘To Everything There Is a Season’ – a magical flight through the cold and dark as ‘snow from the horses’ hooves falls about our heads like the whiteness of the stars’. No Great Mischief is packed with such things: those strangely powerful, almost heraldic tableaux in which the MacDonalds sit around the lamp at night with ‘the huge brown heads of the horses against the window’s frosted panes’. Best of all, perhaps, is the paradisal scene in which Calum is reunited with Christy, his old mare:
All afternoon he lay on the warm grass offering her the bread and sugar cubes while she nuzzled his face . . . placing her great hooves carefully about the outline of his body . . . He sang to her in Gaelic . . . All day they stayed together on the green grass, giving and taking to and from each other.As often in MacLeod, the language stands slightly sideways to the natural English idiom, but it has its own precisions, its shy and secret truths. That last phrase triggers the editor in me; shouldn’t it be ‘giving to and taking from’? Well, no. It’s part of the absolute mutuality that MacLeod invokes here: in love we really do give from and take to; an insight at the heart and pith of his vision.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 61 © Jonathan Law 2019
About the contributor
Jonathan Law is a writer and editor living in Buckinghamshire. His recent books include The Whartons of Winchendon, a short study of one of the strangest families in English history, featuring incest, treason, fairies, diving and the self-proclaimed Solar King of the World.