Livi Michael is the author of four novels for adults, including Under a Thin Moon which won the Arthur Welton Award, and nine books for children, among them The Whispering Road. She has taught English and creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Sheffield Hallam University. Livi is currently a freelance writer. Here she discusses Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair.
Livi Michael on A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
I was twenty-eight years old and a third year undergraduate at Leeds University when I first read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair. I had taken an option in 1930s literature, which included other politicized novels such as Love on the Dole. A Scots Quair, however, was a revelation to me, in terms of both subject matter and style.
The Quair is a trilogy about the displacement of the Scottish peasantry. Dispossessed of land, they can only fit themselves into society at the lowest economic level - as factory workers, rank and file soldiers, the unemployed or emigrants. The last book of the trilogy, Grey Granite, is about the creation of an industrial proletariat.
The Quair is also the story of Chris Guthrie, one of the 20th century's most memorable female characters. Torn between her Scottish ancestry and her English education, her love of the land and her love of learning, she is caught up in the conflicts of a changing society and her own changing class position. Chris herself is alienated, divided and subject to the dialectic of change, yet still a powerful unifying presence throughout The Quair.
Characters in The Quair are defined and motivated by their ideology rather than by a desire for personal power or glory. On a deeper level, it becomes, in a sense, their fate. As the most reflective character, Chris is constantly engaged in a process of producing meaning from the relationship between time, nature and change:
And then a queer thought came to her there in the drooked fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across... Sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learned... they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog on the hills, but the land was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurted you. And she had thought to leave it all!Ultimately, Chris is drained by and subsumed into the land. Her son Ewan's life develops along the lines laid down by his Marxist ideology. This determines both his identification with, and alienation from, 'the keelies' he strives to represent. And her second husband Robert is driven mad by his inability to make meaningful connections between his religious ideology and the society or congregation he is supposed to lead.
She walked weeping then, stricken and frightened because of that knowledge that had come on her, she could never leave it, this life of toiling days and the needs of beasts... (Sunset Song, p. 97.)
None of this is unique in the 1930s novel. Love on the Dole, written one year earlier, features a Marxist proletarian leader, the criminalization of political protest, and the presence of a female character who surrenders her place in the community, and ultimately her identity. The Quair goes further, however. It has a broader sweep and is bolder in its depiction of controversial issues such as incest. But the real difference between The Quair and other novels of the time is Gibbon's narrative technique.
Until The Quair, there had never been an attempt to fully resuscitate Scots in prose. It is possible that the selection of a representative style of Scots was the most difficult problem Gibbon had to face - a problem shared with other Scottish writers from Lewis Spence and Hugh MacDiarmid to James Kelman. The narrative of the Scottish language is one of decline. Ever since the introduction of the Geneva bible in 1561, the English language has been the language of power, philosophy and debate. Scots became the language of domestic life and agriculture, used in literature for sentimental or comic effect. Each writer has had to tackle this problem in his own way. Hugh MacDiarmid created his own version of a literary Scots from a variety of dialects, and referred to it as 'Synthetic Scots'. Lewis Spence excavated mediaeval Scots vocabularies. Lewis Grassic Gibbon 'moulded the English language into the rhythms and cadences of Scots spoken speech, injecting into the English vocabulary such minimum number of words from Braid Scots as that remodelling required.'
Gibbon's other literary device is 'the speak', an anonymous folk narration that gives voice to an entire community or class of people, and is by turns funny, judgemental, intrusive, lyrical or cruel:
For there were worse folk than Munro, though maybe they were all in the jail, and though he could blow and bombast till he fair scunnered you. He farmed his bit land in a then and now way, and it was land good enough, the most of it, with the same black streak of loam that went through the Peesie parks, but ill-drained, the old stone drains were still down and devil the move would the factor at Meikle House make to have them replaced, or mend the roof of the byre that leaked like a sieve on the head of Mistress Munro when she milked the kye on a stormy night. (Sunset Song, p. 24.)
Gibbon emphasizes this colloquialization of his prose by using devices such as interruptions and exclamations ('och!' 'feuch!'), but his language is never arbitrary or folksy. It is always directly connected to the characters and the community, and it immeasurably enhances the depth of his narrative - try reading this passage out loud to get the full effect.
If Gibbon's narration is contrasted with the prose of Love on the Dole, it is possible to see the extent of the innovation. Lancashire dialect has deteriorated even more irretrievably than Scots, and Greenwood writes his narrative in a grammatically correct Standard English, reserving a kind of creole dialect for his dialogue, in a way which suggests, inevitably, that the oral medium is inferior.
It was the narrative of The Quair that impressed me so profoundly as an undergraduate. It is a uniquely flexible medium, applied to the complexities of contemporary society, and dealing not only with passion and pity, but with philosophical and political thought. Each character in The Quair is placed according to their appropriation or rejection of the Scottish language, and in this way the contradictions and divisions of an antagonistic class system are shown to be embedded within the structures of language itself.
'Influence' is a tricky word. It is often difficult to trace the influence of a writer you deeply admire on your own writing. It is doubtful whether anyone would see the connection between A Scots Quair and Under a Thin Moon, the novel I was writing while at university, and the first of my books to be published; but there is, in fact, a direct link. Under a Thin Moon is concerned with the lives of four women on a council estate in Greater Manchester – the estate on which I grew up, in fact. I lived there from 1966 to 1984, and in that time it underwent several dramatic changes.
In 1966 the estate won an award. It was seen as offering hope, and a better standard of living to those in slum housing. Over the years, government policy changed until the estate became a 'no-go' area. People were housed there who could not be placed elsewhere - ex-convicts and drug addicts. Finally, when the labour council became the first in the country to get rid of its council housing, the estate was sold to a company that evicted all the tenants.
In terms of narrative technique, however, what Gibbon offered me was a way of colloquializing my prose so that I could foreground the speaking voice rather than imposing a literary medium which would have been alien to the people I was writing about. I did not adopt a device similar to 'the speak', since in my novel there is no community, just a series of alienated voices, but the narrative weaves between one character and another in a way not dissimilar to The Quair.
Unsurprisingly, no one has ever picked up on this, but I would never try to deny the connection. I have read many great books since, books I love, books I wish I had written. I can't think of any that have had a more direct connection to my own.