Simon Sylvester, author of The Visitors, recently wrote about a book that means a lot to him both as a reader and as a writer. He wrote eloquently on Roald Dahl’s Henry Sugar and then urged me to do the same. Just back from the book tour and jet-lagged, I didn’t feel much in the mood but today, while ironing, a thought sparkled in my sleepy mind: there’s one book that I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, and here’s the very chance.
This One Book
‘Scotland, my schooling had at times implied, at times openly professed, was a small, cold, bitter place that had no political clout, not much cultural heritage, joyless people and writers who were all male and all dead. As modern Scots, we were unfit to offer Art, politics or philosophy to the world, we were fit only for losing at football games. Not so, this book said: on a number of levels, not so.’
Janice Galloway wrote that in the introduction to the Canongate edition of Alisdair Gray’s Lanark, also available here on The Guardian’s website.
Writers like Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead are rightly credited with showing a generation of Scots that Scotland is as valid a setting for literature as London, Paris or New York. By the time I came along wielding my pen and a folder of bad poetry, the war had been, to a large extent, fought and won. Duncan McLean, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy and Alan Warner had all ran with the baton. Kelman received the Booker in 1994. In 1996 Trainspotting conquered the world thanks in a large part to the film. Few with any sense were decrying writing in Scots languages. Scotland was unquestionably about more than losing at football. Young Iain was surrounded by writing set in Scotland. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t write about Scotland.
But something interesting happened on the fringes. A kind of nationalism built up around Scottish Literature. Low key and easy to miss, but there nonetheless. Not in any of the writers, or certainly none I’ve read or met, but in some critics and journalists. Scottish Literature was Gray, Leonard and Kelman. If your work wasn’t like theirs, it wasn’t Scottish. Iain Banks experienced a fair amount of this, criticised for not writing about ‘real Scots’ – by which the critic meant working class Central Belt men. Banks, being Banks, brushed this aside by saying, only partially flippantly in an interview I read and can’t find again (I think it was in an issue of Cencrastus more than a decade ago and which I thought I’d kept) that he wrote about rich leisured Scots because his characters couldn’t go on adventures if they had to be back at work by nine the next morning.
I experienced it myself twice, when people who should know better and will remain nameless told me that I was ‘writing the wrong kind of literature for a Scot.’ I should be writing realism. I should be writing in dialect. All those stories about middle class students and attempts at magical realism should be abandoned. I was young enough and impressionable enough to take this to heart and spent years trying to write like Irvine Welsh and James Kelman. I failed. It’s not my world. I’m not working class, nor do I come from the Central Belt. I was born at the beginning of the oil boom in Aberdeen, grew up in a middle class commuter town populated by professionals and public servants. Precious few novels have been written about geologists working for an oil firm in the 1980s. I will correct this one day. But that’s not, I was told then, what Scottish Literature is there for.
Like Galloway, I came across a single novel that exploded all that and gave me permission to be a Scot who doesn’t have to write about Scotland. That book was Galloway’s third novel, Clara.
Galloway took her lead from Gray and her first novel is one of the classics of Scottish Literature, The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Her subsequent novel Foreign Parts and the two short story collections Blood and Where You Find It were all very Scottish books. Scottish people, Scottish settings, Scottish problems. Clara is set in 19th Century Germany and is the fictionalised account of the life of Clara Schumann, composer, prodigal pianist and husband of Robert Schumann. Something of a left turn for Galloway, but one which I applauded.
The book itself is wonderful, a lesson in how to blend fiction and non-fiction, how to write sympathetically yet critically about the lives of actual subjects and a moving study of the expectations and limits placed upon the ambitions of women. But its lasting legacy for me is the lesson it taught me about Scottish Literature. As Willy Maley proved in his controversial 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time, Scottish Literature is anything we want it to be.
Scots have the right to write about Scotland. To write about our lives, be that taking heroin in Edinburgh, driving around Falkirk with your mates or delving into family history in the Highlands. But we also have the right to not write about Scotland. Clara was the first book I read that clearly showed me that. It took a while for it to sink in. My first attempt at a novel was still under the influence. The second was set in Japan, contained only Japanese characters and lashings of magical realism.
Now I know I undermine my own argument by making my first published novel about a boy from Aberdeenshire, setting my second in the borders and planning my third around a geologist working for an oil firm in Aberdeen in the 1980s, but the point is I chose those stories. I didn’t have them thrust upon me. I have published stories set in Japan, in the Maldives, in China, in Paris, and many years in the future. I’ve also published stories set in Glasgow, in Edinburgh, near Ullapool and in Aberdeen. To the Young Iain, trying to find a voice and a way to be a writer, Clara was to me as Lanark was to Galloway: the key.