Saturday, December 11, 2010

Drinking deep at the well

I finished Neil M Gunn's 'The Drinking Well': stepping out of its world with the reluctance of leave taking.

It is a beautiful novel of one young man's awkward awakening and precisely captures the slow, stop-go, forward-back nature of growing awareness.

There are wonderful set pieces - herding the hoggs (yearling sheep) back through a late winter storm in which every detail is well-wrought: the effect of cold on the body of man, dog and sheep; how snow falls in deceptive blankets that yet with time and experience can be read; and, how close stalks death in such elemental encounters and how it can either spur or sap will.

As with all Gunn's work there is both a political edge, explicit here, about ownership of land and the depredations of landlords; and, a metaphysical subtlety that, as it developed, rather bewildered his readership, used to his earlier social realism.

Here it is partly carried by Mad Mairag - the local eccentric who speaks as easily with the dead as the living and who owns a well of crystalline water whose attraction acts as a 'metaphor' of Iain's (the main character's) desire for the land - that the land be a place that could be worked fruitfully rather than fled but more deeply can be loved.

It also lovingly evokes 'community' not as some sentimental ideal but as the necessary place of work to build and maintain values, always balanced between what is received from tradition and what might be new learnt. There is nothing romantic about Gunn's depictions of real people attempting to make this so (and failing to do so) - his are communities of diverse folk, light and shadows.

Last night I dreamt long and involved - but part of what I took away was my own longing for 'fixity' an address - a place to be my own. It runs counter to an equally vivid 'wanderlust'!

I am also intrigued at how I have come by a cluster of Scottish writers of whom I am so deeply fond - Edwin Muir principally but also his one time student, George Mackay Brown and now Neil Gunn.

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