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Do you consider yourself a defender of a local literary culture (Scotland's) against that of a neighbouring locality (England's) or against the literature of a region containing both? (Britain, as distinct from Britanny.)
Yes and no. YES if the defence is to make the best artwork I can out of my own local experience and the examples of previous Scottish art, while learning all I can from the arts of England, Ireland, USA and all I have gleaned through translations from other languages - for alas, I am monoglot. NO if (as too often) defence becomes attack: as with critics trying to encourage the artists of their own land by disparaging those of another. Hugh MacDiarmid's Anglopobia was that kind of criticism. His best poetry has been more useful to his native land, and more enjoyable to those outside, as he would have wished. But in the first half of the twentieth century his strident Anglophobia was useful because it showed how provincial most Scots writers had become. DH Lawrence said that all good art is local, all bad art provincial. He meant that good writers use local materials without thinking it inferior in the eyes of an audience. Provincial writers have a distant metropolitan audience in mind, so over-explain the local material they use, emphasizing it to the point of distortion, or simplifying it nostalgically as Barrie did in this Thrums and Sentimental Tommy stories, or brutalizing it improbably as in the grotesque first chapter of Hay's Gillespie and the later novels of Irvine Welsh. From the earliest poets of Scottish literature (Barbour, Blind Harry, Dunbar, Douglas, Lyndsay) to the earliest novelists (Scott, Galt, Hogg) Scots writers well knew the differences between their own culture and England's but had the confidence to love the best in English writing and learn from it: as Henryson and Douglas did from Chaucer, Burns from Pope, Scott from Fielding (in his first novels - though his earlier narrative poems were initially inspired by German Sturm und Drang poetry). Most Scots writers lost this confidence between the death of Galt and the coming of MacDiarmid. Speaking for myself: I read Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in my early teens. It described a maker for whom his Irish city was the centre of the known universe, when Ireland was as much an English province as Scotland was through most of my life, and to a lesser extent still is. This helped me to write the Thaw part of Lanark. The Lanark part was stimulated by Kafka's fictions, mostly written when his Prague was in an Austrian province. The notion of uniting the two different narrative modes came from the Cambridge critic Tillyard's book on epic literature, which said that epics could combine all genres - social realism, history, fable, satire and the supernatural. He also said that since Pope's death epics were more likely in prose than verse, and that Scott's novels with Scottish settings amounted to something like an epic cycle. But the two narrative styles in Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner - four styles, if you include the inset comic story of the Devil in Auchtermuchty and the newspaper-report epilogue in which the author presents himself as a local shepherd who refuses to talk about the Justified Sinner to metropolitan enquirers - was the main Scottish influence on my novel. (There is reason to think Hogg's great novel inspired Stevenson's Master of Ballantrae too.)
How do you think Evil characterizes Scottish literature in folktales, religions, social realities?
I could only answer that question if I knew enough about several other national literatures to use them as a comparison. I don't.
Do you feel that schizophrenia - along with the split personality, doppelgänger and other images suggesting broken identities with absurd or tragic losses of wholeness - are likeliest in hybrid cultures, especially those that have been colonized by others? How does Scots literature reflect this?
Yes, I do feel that: and feel every culture in European and USA civilization has been hybrid since the Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures united in a Catholic Church, and European nations from Crusading days to the late nineteenth century used Christianity as a reason for dominating their local peasants and conquering heathen nations, thus splitting human natures in two. But splitting in two - one half good, tother bad - is the easiest of all human tendencies, much easier than love which joins two in one. Hence we have God and Devil, Abel and Cain, Spirit and Flesh: also dualities in which both halves admittedly need each other, though one is supposed to be inferior - the masters and slaves in comedies by Aristophanes and Plautus, Adam & Eve, Quixote & Panza, Pickwick & Weller, Myshkin & Stavrogin, Homes & Watson. The spooky doppelgänger entered popular fiction in the nineteenth century - Faust & Mephistopheles, Baron Frankenstein & his monster, with others in short stories by Hoffman & Hawthorne that seem hatched out of folk tales, like Hans Andersen's tale, The Shadow. My favourite is Poe's William Wilson. But despite Anthony and Cleopatra, Othello and Iago, Prince Hal and Falstaff, Shakespeare's talent is too great for clear-cut dualities. The same is true of Burns, Scott, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Joyce. Even if we agree that Pip & Magwitch, Dedalus & Bloom are halves of a single person, the inclusive imagination makes them part of something much bigger. However, in Scottish fiction we have: The Justified Sinner: Confessions of This becomes a great spooky novel by presenting two dualities - the poor evil bastard brother, the rich kindly legitimate one - and the devil, Gilmartin, who serves and dominates one and can appear as either. Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde Stevenson feared readers would see how much his novel derived from Poe's William Wilson, but had nothing to fear. Wilson's doppelgänger is his good angel - the conscience who the worldly, dissolute narrator murders because it stops him enjoying money, revenge and illicit sex. The worldly but respectable Dr Jekyll resorts to a transforming drug to kill his conscience because he can't enjoy sex otherwise. Many Victorians - English & Scots - felt the same way and used alcohol with similar consequences. Neither Stevenson nor most of his readers noticed that Jekyll's conscience was diseased, because they took it for granted that the sexual act was an unmentionable business which good people only practised when making legitimate children, because bodily restraint = respectability = Virtue, therefore bodily satisfaction = vulgarity = Evil. Poe, Hogg and Mary Shelley used doppelgängers (called fetches in Scottish folklore - meaning ghosts of living people) more profoundly. My favourite RL Stevenson couple is not Jekyll & Hyde but David Balfour and Allan Breck. What about the two masters of Ballantrae? Yes, they occur in one of his best books, and though better known than Hogg's Justified Sinner, were probably inspired by it. But though fascinated by these splittings and couplings I have only written one novel, 1982, Janine, describing a split mind. The narrator tries to escape from his lonely life as a middle-management technician by imagining the feeling, sensitive parts of himself are women he captures and gloats over. Most of my other male heroes are too single-minded to be split.
Would you draw a line between Glasgow and Edinburgh in their approaches to evil and sin? Does the fact that Glasgow has a larger Catholic population through its nearness to Ireland and the Highlands, while Edinburgh is more rigidly Protestant through its closeness to England and Northern Europe, cause a tension between them?
The tension or rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh is a very dull old story. It exists, but only in dull minds. The five main Scottish cities - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness - are wonderfully different, but I refuse to see the differences between any two of them as an especially interesting single tension or rivalry. The main tensions in every city are between the well and badly paid. This is as true of Scotland as everywhere else. In Glasgow most Catholics vote Labour, so are strongly represented in the local government. So do most non-Catholics. The Orange Order is a mainly working-class minority who vote Unionist and have hardly any political power. Nowadays the leaders of the Established Church of Scotland are ecumenical liberals who, with most of their congregations, dislike Orange marches, which would be half their usual yearly size if not swollen by contingents from Ulster. I suspect the class and religious and racial tensions in other parts of Scotland are at least as complex. In the Gaeltach of the Western Isles you have Wee Free Protestant islands besides Catholic ones and I promise you, agnostics like me have spread everywhere. And what about the Hindu and Muslim and Jewish incomers, and recent huge influxes from England? I regard everyone settled in Scotland as Scottish, so the tensions here are too complex to be described by presenting one city or region as the opposite of another.
From a more pagan and mundane point of view, how do you account for the Scottish popular culture's dark side - criminal whodunits - Ian Rankin, Taggart - Irvine Welsh - bleak realism and descriptions of violent, sick and sadistic actions, with or without grim paraphernalia and sadistic humour?
think this has happened because Scotland is now producing and exporting the sort
of popular writing and filming that the USA has produced since the nineteen-thirties.
But does any European nation lack such a popular dark side? I suppose 1982, Janine
and Something Leather are my contributions to Scotland's, though they aren't very
popular. I hope these replies do not disappoint you. You are seeking big simple
generalizations to explain what Scottish fictions have in common with each other
that make them differ from English, Irish, or USA fictions. But be careful not
to over-simplify. Don't take John Knox too seriously. From the days of David Hume,
Boswell and Robert Burns onward no creative Scot has been bothered by Calvinist
guilt, though in moments of weakness we have used it to explain our weaknesses.
You may have heard of The Caledonian Antisyzygy, which makes us wag back and forth
between stark reality and far-fetched fantasy. Has any land lacked writers who
do that? Scotland's queer geography and greater poverty, compared with England's,
have given her a different social history, therefore different material for her
writers to use. But the differences between the best of them are more valuable
than their similarities. This letter is longer than I intended, but I will use
it as an article somewhere, so time spent on it will be useful to me. I hope your
work to get Scottish writing better known in France succeeds. Keith Dixon, editor
of Bibliothèque Écossaise for Éditions Métailié, is helping Anne Marie Métailié
do the same. He lives in Toulon but she, like yourself, in Paris, her office near
your home. McGrotty and Ludmilla has never been out of print, but booksellers
don't notice that unless my wife Morag, who owns the remaining stock, tells them.
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