Alistair MacLeod is a Canadian of Scottish descent, and, like John McGahern who has written a foreword to his collected stories, an astute observer of a very specific local setting – Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; of its landscape and industry, its closed communities, quotidian tragedies and domestic disappointments. In addition, both McLeod’s voice and McGahern’s are recognisably inflected, in certain patterned stresses, by a common Gaelic linguistic inheritance. MacLeod needs McGahern to introduce him because, unlike McGahern, he was, until recently, still a writer with a small, loyal following at home, rather than an international reputation. In thirty years he has produced two volumes of short stories (these, together with two uncollected stories, make up this new book, Island) and one novel, a slender body of work that has only recently begun to attract a wider readership.
Yet if any writer deserves to appeal to a wide audience, MacLeod does. Although his concerns are given late 20th-century contexts, they are the traditional ones of the ballad and the folk-tale: love, death and friendship; the savage intricacies of family ties, the persistence of clan loyalties. Like the balladeer’s, his language rarely shades into lyricism and is always able to contain the tides of strong emotion pulling at it. The folk-tale, of course, purports to be unliterary, with its roots struck in oral or popular tradition, and typically the emphasis in MacLeod’s work is on the telling of the tale, so that we come away believing not so much that it was written as that it actually happened. In their measured homogeneity of tone, his short stories have the cumulative impact of an old saga, just as the episodic No Great Mischief, in the minute attention it pays to scene and flashback, resembles a series of anecdotes. Or, as MacLeod puts it in ‘Vision’, a gripping, telescopic narrative, part reminiscence, part clan folklore, about a love affair turned sour, ‘this has been the telling of a story about a story, but like most stories it has spun off into others and relied on others and perhaps no story really stands alone.’ McGahern’s conclusion that the short fiction, either ‘unwittingly, or through that high art that conceals itself’, introduces us ‘into a complete representation of existence’, applies equally well to MacLeod’s work in both genres. But which is it: true simplicity or cleverly disguised complexity? Although MacLeod’s writing appears to be unmarked by conscious virtuosity or literary influence, there are unmissable hints that he is keen to position it within a sophisticated tradition.
Take ‘The Boat’, written in the late 1960s, one of several stories whose theme is the essential unknowability of the people we are related to. The teller of this tale is the teenage son of Cape Breton fishing people, descendants of the Irish who emigrated to Canada in previous centuries and the Scots who fled there after the Highland Clearances. The boat of the title is a small inshore fishing vessel called the Jenny Lynn. It is named after the boy’s mother, who presides over a rigorous domestic economy, based on the rhythms of the fisheries – MacLeod is as good at detailing the jumble in a bedroom closet as he is the bustle on a wharf – that has hardly changed down the generations. You would be forgiven for thinking that this story is another charmingly unambiguous celebration of the rightness of the old Gaelic ways; something like Twenty Years A-Growing, Maurice O’Sullivan’s classic about the ancient fishing community on Ireland’s Great Blasket. But MacLeod muddies the waters of this clear deep harbour. Jenny Lynn’s husband is addicted to books, ‘very weird and varied’. MacLeod ingeniously suggests the sensual pleasures of reading:
Mickey Spillane and Ernest Haycox vied with Dostoevsky and Faulkner, and the Penguin Poets edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins arrived in the same box as a little book on sex technique called Getting the Most out of Love. The former had been assiduously annotated by a very fine hand using a blue-inked fountain pen while the latter had been studied by someone with very large thumbs, the prints of which were still visible in the margins.
One by one the seven children of the house are seduced by their father’s books. The literary enthusiasms of Jenny Lynn’s son make him as genuinely mysterious to his mother as she, with her literal horizons, is to him. In her hard handsomeness she reminds him of Hardy’s Eustacia Vye. His sea-loving family recalls the Peggotys in David Copperfield. His uncle at the tiller is like Tashtego in Moby-Dick. His mother, on the other hand, has not read a book since high school – ‘then she had read Ivanhoe and considered it a colossal waste of time.’ While her son sits at school discussing the water imagery of Tennyson, his father and uncle pass back and forth in the bay beneath, fishing their ancestral grounds.
Although the boy manages to resist both the sea and his mother’s expectations and abandons Cape Breton, it is not at all clear, on a first reading, who has the final word. He decides to leave after his father drowns. The body is found shredded to ribbons, its testicles eaten by fish and the eyes pecked out by gulls. Only the brass bangles which the fisherman wore are uncorrupted. The sea appears to have won: ‘there was not much left of my father, physically, as he lay there with the brass chains on his wrists and the seaweed in his hair.’ Or has it? The scene is reminiscent of Ariel’s evocation of the drowned Alonso, but it also brings to mind Horace’s realisation that literature can create a monument to the dead more lasting than any metal. This is precisely what the story, as memoir, has done. Although the narrator ends the tale with an image of defeat, we know that he has been sufficiently impressed by this truth to shape his life accordingly: in the framing narrative at the start of the story he tells us that he is a teacher at a Midwestern university – a teacher of literature, presumably, like MacLeod himself. The collection as a whole abounds in literary allusions and this adventitious knowingness gives an edge to MacLeod’s handling of family life and mutual incomprehension on the part of his characters.
‘The Closing down of Summer’ is a sombre and restrained meditation on the many small separations that prepare us for death. The speaker – the word comes irresistibly to mind, even though this is technically a short story, rather than a monologue – is one of a crew of Nova Scotian shaft and development miners about to fly out to South Africa to work in the Transvaal gold mines. The hiatus created by the last few days of the Cape Breton summer gives him a chance to take stock of ‘the nature of my work and perhaps some of my entombed feelings’ – which he would like to tell ‘to those that I would love, if they would care to listen’. Despite the confessional format the piece is tightly wrought, taking the medieval chanson as its unexpected literary model. The anonymous speaker’s words have an emblematic courtliness that corresponds to the heraldic scars, the result of wounds sustained underground, which emblazon his body. They strike the note for what follows: the translation of personal experience into motifs which have a collective significance.
The death of the miner’s younger brother fifteen years earlier in a Newfoundland mine, although keenly felt when it happened, has assumed a fictional quality, seeming ‘somehow to fade with the passing of time, or to change and be re-created like the ballads and folk-tales of the distant lonely past’. His wife has become equally inaccessible, a belle dame sans merci who has ‘gone permanently into a world of avocado appliances and household cleanliness . . . lost and separated and unavailable for communication’. His sons, he knows, will go to university to study dentistry or law ‘and to become fatly affluent before they are thirty’. Precisely because they have followed his advice and left the mines, he is now doomed to ‘an increased sense of anguished isolation and an ironic feeling of confused bereavement’. In different forms, all this – the longing for the past, the failures of communication, the farewells – has happened countless times before to earlier generations. On leaving for Africa the speaker feels less like an individual in command of his own life than ‘a figure in some medieval ballad who . . . goes out to meet his fatalistic future’. To complete the identification he will take sprigs of Cape Breton spruce with him as a talisman, ‘much as our Highland ancestors, for centuries, fashioned crude badges of heather or of whortleberries to accompany them on the battlefields of the world’. As the allusions to other fateful historical and literary quests stack up, they contribute to the impression that time is re-peating itself. Even the ‘new world’ of South Africa won’t provide an escape from the loop of diminution and defeat. There the mines are manned by Zulus – warriors turned workers, just like the dispossessed Scottish clansmen about to join them as the employees of Renco Development.
Missed emotional connections, the passing of a way of life, qualified only by a doomed sense that there will be endless repetition even in change: these are MacLeod’s subjects, typically controlled with such a light hand that we hardly notice the professional solidity of the framework beneath. A man returns to the remote Newfoundland fishing village where he spent some time as a student researching folk-songs, hungry for a glimpse of the son he fathered by a local girl, only to discover that she has since died and that it is now too late to reveal himself (‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’). Trying to tell his grandson how much he loves him, another accidentally lets slip that the boy’s parents weren’t married when he was conceived (‘The Vastness of the Dark’). A third has tried to cut himself off from his Nova Scotian mining family to please his middle-class Montreal wife, but still hankers after the certainties of his childhood home. Ten years have passed since his marriage when he eventually visits his parents, and by then they are alienated from him (‘The Return’). ‘Getting the most out of love’ is much more difficult than it might appear.
No Great Mischief represents MacLeod’s triumphant attempt at depicting the circular nature of time and the polluted undercurrents in family feeling on a larger canvas than the short story affords. It, too, seems to be effortlessly told, and once again the narrator is an emotionally displaced male – one of the affluent dentist sons so deeply regretted in ‘The Closing down of Summer’. He is Alexander MacDonald, known to the extended MacDonald family on Cape Bret-on as gille beag ruadh (‘little red boy’) to distinguish him from his numerous other kinsfolk in clann Chalum Ruaidh (‘the clan of Calum the Red’) with the same name. All are descended from the original red-headed clan founder, Calum MacDonald, who was driven out of Scotland during the Clearances and resettled his family in 1779 in ‘the land of trees’. The Glencoe MacDonalds who were slaughtered by the Campbells in 1692 and are mourned in the well-known Scottish ballad were a branch of the same family. The MacDonald clan also fought at Cul-loden, and later at Quebec for General Wolfe, who sent them into the battle because he thought it would be ‘no great mischief if they fall’. The present-day MacDonalds of Nova Scotia are miners and loggers, and it is pathetically clear that their luck is finally running out. The MacDonalds may have won at Quebec, but the moment of their fall was merely postponed.
In the little red boy’s narrative MacLeod has written a restrained lament for the slow extinction of a community with its tribal eccentricities, shibboleths and inherited quirks of personality. The individual members of the clan are skilfully drawn, from Alexander’s relentlessly hygienic mother (who is accused by her 11-year-old son, Colin, of being ‘the only person I know who goes around looking in other people’s ears’), and his equally fastidious maternal Grandfather – who, on finding the notes which his grandchildren leave pinned to his door, ‘would encircle all the misspelled words . . . with his carpenter’s pencil and later on our next visit ask us to spell them correctly because he so wanted everything to be “right”’ – to his ribald paternal Grandpa, whose penis once turned black from frostbite when he fell asleep drunk on the ice. But we are always aware that these lives are nested in other, earlier lives, that their defining moments have already been anticipated in clan history (‘just the same sadness in different packages’, as an uncle of Alexander’s observes).
When the story begins, Alexander’s eldest brother, another Calum, is an ageing alcoholic out on parole after serving 20 years of a life sentence for second-degree murder. The victim was a French Québecois called Fern Picard, the leader of a rival team once hired with the MacDonalds on the uranium mines near Sudbury on the Canadian Shield. Although already bound for dental school, the gille beag ruadh was on the mine that summer to fill the place left by a first cousin who had been decapitated in a freak accident at the shaft bottom. His name, too, was Alexander MacDonald. The first Alexander’s recollections of how Calum’s incarceration came about provide the narrative propulsion for the novel, and constitute his own attempt to deconstruct some of the family legends. Was his cousin’s death really an accident? It seems that long-standing tensions between the French and Scottish Canadian miners at Sudbury may have been a contributing factor. Just how long-standing becomes clear when Alexander visits his sister – who, like him, has created a new life for herself outside Cape Breton – and they delve into the history of the erstwhile Highland MacDonalds, which is also, indirectly, the history of Canada. The murder of Alexander MacDonald of Glencoe was a political one, instigated by the Crown in an attempt to rid itself of a potential pro-Jacobite troublemaker. The particular horror attached to the deed in Scottish national memory derives from the fact that a fellow Scotsman was willing to carry it out – and, worse, in MacDonald’s own house after accepting his hospitality. By 1759, however, after the defeat of the ambitions of the House of Stuart at Culloden, the Highlanders were fighting on the Hanoverian side at Quebec against Montcalm’s French. The hostility between Calum MacDonald and Fern Picard is therefore not just personal but tribal, rooted in ancient strategic alignments.
There is another parallel, too, between the traumatic events of Glencoe and what happens at Sudbury. Soon after the little red boy joins his brothers in the shaft they are asked by their uncle and aunt in San Francisco to shelter their American cousin – a third Alexander MacDonald – who doesn’t want to go to Vietnam and is trying to evade the draft. They take him in unquestioningly, just as MacDonald of Glencoe took in Campbell, only to find themselves in grave trouble when he steals Fern Picard’s wallet. The brawl in which Picard is killed by Calum, who loses his freedom in turn, is a result of this betrayal of trust. Like MacDonald of Glencoe, who was ‘killed to serve as an example to those who chose to break the law’, Calum MacDonald the lifer has been ‘overtaken by his own history’. As the deceitful American MacDonald cousin says shortly before the robbery, holding up the ring on his left hand, ‘it’s a Celtic design. The never-ending circle.’
For the most part, these patterns are introduced almost imperceptibly. Some of the passages of dialogue between Alexander and his sister do not ring true, because they are too heavily freighted with elements of folklore, etymology and family history which are naturalistically treated in the rest of the novel. Overwhelmingly, however, as McGahern points out, Mac-Leod’s talent is at one with his material, a fusion mirrored at a textual level in images evoking the unity of the landscape and its inhabitants – the farm horses in ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’ have eaten the hay of one area for so many years that it’s ‘as if they are part of some great ecological plan, converting themselves into hay and the hay in turn into their wine-dappled sun-strong selves’. The implicit contrast to Walter Scott, Tennyson et al being worked out – both in the apparently low-key tone of these narratives and the pared-down life they describe – is the contrast between the natural and the consciously styled; between truth and fiction. By drawing attention to the fictional status of the literary texts to which he refers, MacLeod’s allusions are intended to reinforce the illusion created by his own brand of realism. The narrator of ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’, trying to imagine the violin playing of a distant Scottish ancestor, at first compares this music to the tinkling of a bell, before deciding that it is ‘strange . . . that anyone should even consider a violin as sounding like a bell’. Its quality, he decides, ‘is not to be confused with anything else. It is not a bird or a radio or a shunting train or a passing car. It is not coming from anyone’s party. It is only itself, strangely familiar in its unfamiliar way.’
If the overblown Ivanhoe despised by Jenny Lynn is fiction, in other words, then this starkness must be truth. Insofar as MacLeod’s prose admits to any shaping power it is the power of the craftsman rather than the artist. ‘I must be as careful and calculating with my thoughts as I am with my tools when working so far beneath the earth’s surface,’ thinks the miner in ‘The Closing down of Summer’, ‘I must always be careful of sloppiness and self-indulgence lest they cost me dearly in the end.’ This could serve as MacLeod’s own manifesto: a declaration in favour of absolute simplicity, one opposed to the whole idea of ‘literariness’.
The paradox is that the spareness of MacLeod’s style is itself a writerly effect. He has all the while been covertly stitching and unstitching to achieve the desired result. And how transparent are his descriptions really? The smooth surfaces of his seascapes, farmyards and snowscapes are studded with some surprisingly baroque material. The wintry Atlantic ocean casts up ‘shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation – the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair’. Gulls gliding off the Newfoundland coast are seen ‘flapping their wings pompously against their breasts like overconditioned he-men who have successfully passed their body-building courses’, while glossy Light Sussex chickens are punningly given two-tone markings:
It is as if a white fluid had been poured over their heads and cascaded down their necks to where it suddenly and magically changed to black after exposure to the air. The opposite in colour but the same in lustre. Like piano keys.
These details are as literary in their realism as anything by Dickens or Emily Brontë. Playfully, MacLeod has even given us the key to his method. The art of fiction, which is the art of the illusionist, is memorably annotated in ‘Winter Dog’. A young boy has gone with his dog on a long sleigh ramble across the pack of drift ice abutting the Cape Breton coastline:
Gradually the ice changed to an uneven terrain of pressure ridges and hummocks, making it impossible to ride farther; and then suddenly, upon rounding a hummock, I saw the perfect seal. At first I thought it was alive . . . But the seal was dead, yet facing us in a frozen perfection that was difficult to believe. There was a light powder of snow over its darker coat and a delicate rime of frost still formed the outline of its whiskers. Its eyes were wide open and it stared straight ahead towards the land. Even now in memory it seems more real than reality – as if it were transformed by frozen art into something more arresting than life itself. The way the sudden seal in the museum exhibit freezes your eyes with the touch of truth. Immediately I wanted to take it home.
It’s art that brings realism to reality. Like that covetable, perfect seal, MacLeod’s near-flawless, hyperreal prose makes us look, and then turn to look again.