‘By being born therefore, or even conceived, one became involved.’
Robin Jenkins, The Cone-Gatherers (1955)
I must read more Scottish literature. I’ve heard of Alasdair Gray’s great Glasgow novel Lanark, of course, and Ali Smith is really good, but I’ve been stuck for some time with the – obviously misguided – prejudice that Scotland and its writers are a bit back of beyond and don’t really have anything important or contemporary to say, or at least that by default they don’t merit the sort of merit which the likes of Rushdie or García Márquez or Chabon have themselves deservedly claimed.
And so I am happy to admit the wrongness of this prejudice, and point with grateful fingers to Jenkins who has finally provided me with the proof for which I was looking. The Cone-Gatherers might seem like a pretty pared down novel about class tension, a dwarf, and a madman (although I suppose what’s not to like about that?), but I have to say it stands up for me as a very fine example in the tradition of Gothic literature (good vs. evil, monsters and madness, that sort of thing). The “villains”, to take an example, are not mere archetypes in a countryside fable. Jenkins makes them troublingly and pointedly sympathetic: Duror is basically a countryside Nazi, so he’s a pretty good example of the text’s capacity to blur the lines between the good (he seems to have feelings) and the evil (he’s misguided); and you also have the highstrung Lady Runcie-Campbell, an upper class lady who I so want to despise but again this stupid well written novel has made me care about people that aren’t like me. (Frankly I hold this novel up as the best book I’ve ever read about class, because I could actually feel the good Lady’s struggle to maintain the system of living which she has always known, even if that system does, to me, seem pernicious and archaic.) The whole idea of the quintessential Gothic struggle between “good and evil” feels so very out of date now that in order to work it needs to be modernised to be made to feel important. It is a sign of the novel’s strength, therefore, that Jenkins deals with these sorts of ideas in sophisticated and ambiguous ways.
Mostly I want to really stress the Scottishness of the literaryness of it all. It gives me real pleasure to read a book and feel like I belong to its place. The natural imagery feels familiar to me (but of course it’s also significant in a metaphorical way and stylistically arresting and I like that, objectively, too). When I say the text is literary, what I mean is that it’s not just about two fellows pottering about a woods that happens to be a little Scottishy. No, what I mean is that the novel engages with the very essence of what it meant to exist in a specific national and cultural and political context at a specific time. It deals with class and madness and sex and violence and dysfunction and sadness and loyalty. It asks what it means to be a part of the world. It asks how it is possible to reconcile a benevolent god with a nature that is, as Tennyson famously put it, ‘red in tooth and claw’. This is the kind of thing that deserves a canon. I still can’t quite draw my conclusions from it, though the terrific ending (for which the suspense was built up with excruciating gusto – I saw it coming five chapters from the end and it still hurt) is seared into my brain.
Really I’m just impressed. Jenkins’ text reminds me to remember that I share an interesting place with interesting people. And that I should probably read Lanark immediately.