Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you discover a literary classic later in life. Sometimes it can be a disaster. One can only feel sympathy for those readers who came across Le Grand Meaulnes at any point after adolescence. With each rereading the widening distance between one’s long lost youth and the adolescent flash and fire so brilliantly evoked by Alain-Fournier seems more and more unbridgeable. The connection is torn away in what can feel like a minor personal tragedy. Yet to read it for the first time as a 17-year-old is an unrepeatable joy.
The Living Mountain, thankfully, is a treasure that, rather like the Cairngorms it describes so wondrously, stands alone in space and time. Happening on it at any point in one’s reading life brings unexpected pleasure. It is thanks to Robert Macfarlane, who has written a typically penetrating introduction to a new edition, that the book, first published in 1977 after lying orphaned in a drawer for four decades, is now enjoying a second wind. So much so that the recent, universally glowing accolades even include the claim that this is ‘the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. For Macfarlane it is ‘one of the two most remarkable twentieth-century British studies of a landscape that I know’. So we are in serious territory here.
Nan Shepherd, the author of this little-known, rediscovered gem, might have choked on her hillwalker’s flask of tea to read such superlatives about a book for which she was unable – or was it unwilling?– to find a publisher for half a lifetime. When it was finally published, in the same year as Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, it is only fair to say that it created a modest literary ripple rather than an out-and-out splash. And yet.
Books, as we know, can have curious gestation periods and lives of their own. Nan Shepherd was known in her lifetime for a tri
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