Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Sunset Song’ – a neglected classic.
by Marie Marshall
I was recently loaned a copy of Sunset Song to read. The novel is the first part of a trilogy, collectively known as A Scots Quair, written by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. That is a pen-name, by the way, used by James Leslie Mitchell, an author who grew up in what was then Kincardineshire or ‘The Mearns’ in rural North-east Scotland, purely for this trilogy – he used his given name for his other work, his pen-name being a version of his mother’s maiden name. I was loaned it because (said the loaner) I would enjoy its literary qualities, its blending of Scots and English, and the anarcho-communist politics of its author, although the book does not wear those politics prominently on its sleeve.*
After I had read the book I applied the words above – ‘a neglected classic’ – to it. Not because it is neglected generally but because I had neglected it. in Scotland it is revered, it has been voted Scotland’s favourite novel and is in print at a host of publishing houses, as you can see from the handful of covers pictured here. Inasmuch as it documents vividly, truthfully, yet not without sentiment, the passing of the peasant class in rural Scotland, it is almost a work of social history as well as a novel. As we come closer to the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18, the event which, more than any, destroyed that class, the novel deserves reappraisal.
It is not necessarily an easy novel to get into. The register in which it is written is peculiar. A modern reviewer recently castigated it as being ‘badly written’ because of its overuse of conjunctions ‘and’ and ‘but’, its long sentences, and its peculiar syntax, dismissing the novel out-of-hand as boring and dull. Suffice it to say it’s neither boring nor dull, but its prologue is surprising. Before a reader is more than two or three sentences into it, he or she may become aware that this apparent mish-mash of folk-tale and history has the register of the Scots equivalent of a griot, the West African storyteller and reciter of genealogies. Where the ramble through the history of the Mearns community comes up-to-date, the register becomes gossipy, as though the doings of the inhabitants are being discussed over the garden fence. This was a departure from the expectations of novel-writing and narrations, and such departures were typical of the modernist period of literature**.
The four main chapters are given titles corresponding to stages in the agricultural cycle – ploughing, harvesting, and so on. Although the story is narrated, the central consciousness is that of Chris Guthrie, whom we see grow from childhood to young-widowhood. There are departures from her thoughts into the thoughts of others, often by Gibbon’s use of the confidential ‘you’ which places the narrator in the Mearns community and draws the reader into it also, but always and at the beginning and end of the chapters, it is Chris’s eyes we see through. Chris is a strong character, an intelligent young woman who could have broken out of her environment on account of her aptitude at school, but who chooses not to do so. Her staying gives an opportunity for the book’s point of view to be one of clear vision. Her insistence on being known as ‘Chris’, never ‘Chrissie’, gives her a toehold of independence in a society in which women are sexually and domestically subservient.
This is no rose-tinted novel. Life in the Mearns is shown to be harsh and hard. Sex is seen as a sociological driver. People are shown with brutal honesty as being mean-spirited and unwilling to speak well of anyone if they have a breath left to speak ill. The reader can sense that this is not a part of their character that Gibbon admires, but he is prepared to address it head-on, to describe all the small-mindedness and spite of the village gossips, all the brutality of the men without holding back. The prominence of Chris’s viewpoint, however, gives the novel an empathic gynocentricity which had critics at the time wondering about the gender of the author. However, Gibbon admires the way that, when the occasion demands it, these folk form and function as a community without giving it a moment’s thought.
There is another object of admiration. Chris’s father, John Guthrie, is portrayed as Calvinistic, tyrranical, brutal, and a prisoner of his sexual needs. Yet when he dies and is being buried, and the reader is heaving a sigh of relief, this moving passage occurs:
Someone chaved at her hand then, it was the gravedigger, he was gentle and strangely kind, and she looked down and couldn’t see, for now she was crying, she hadn’t thought she would ever cry for her father, but she hadn’t known, she hadn’t known this thing that was happening to him! She found herself praying then, blind with tears in the rain, lowering the cord with the hand of the gravedigger over hers, the coffin dirling below the spears of the rain. Father, father, I didn’t know, Oh Father, I didn’t KNOW. She hadn’t known, she’d been dazed and daft with her planning, her days could never be aught without father; and she minded then, wildly, in a long, broken flash of remembrance, all of the fine things of him and his justice, and the fight unwearying he’d fought with the land and its masters to have them all clad and fed and respectable, he’d never rested working and chaving for them, only God had beaten him in the end. And she minded the long roads he’d tramped to the kirk with her when she was young, how he’d smiled at her and called her his lass in days before the world’s fight and the fight of his own flesh grew over-bitter, and poisoned his love to hate…
I should point out that direct speech is rare in the novel, and where it occurs it is shown by italics. Here indeed we have those long sentences, rushing on, broken by conjunctions, but in this case it adds to the incoherence of the sudden realization of grief as suppressed memories of her father’s honesty and tirelessness, and even of a forgotten moment of affection between them, burst upon her. The gravedigger, his hand over hers, serves as a reminder of the good in her father – he is a silent almost-surrogate for her father in this scene. Chris’s anguished cry is almost a liturgical response to Christ’s petition for forgiveness on the cross. It is indeed the crux of the novel, and Gibbon’s bringing us to realise that not a monster but merely a man is being buried. The passage borders on sentimentality, but it is not maudlin. It is not the man John Guthrie that Gibbon admires, it is the qualities which are picked out in him in this and other passages. Here he stands for all the men of the Mearns – he works tirelessly, is rigorously honest, is rigorously egalitarian.
The passage is also interesting for its use of Scots words and hints of Scots grammar. This is typical of the book as a whole, and is evidence of Gibbon’s deliberate linguistic enterprise. His intent was to write in a way accessible to readers whose first language was English, but to enrich that English not only with the cadences of Scots but with a certain amount of Scots lexicon too. He did this with deliberation, out of the love of both languages and in the knowledge that one was effectively dying while the other was developing and strengthening. It isn’t an easy marriage. Scots is exclusively a demotic language, and the Scots of the Mearns is a dialect of it; Scots never had an official status even within the borders of its own land, was never the second language even of the Gaelic-speaking Westerners. This makes it difficult (not impossible) to use outside its historical and geographical context. However, Gibbon does make successful use of a selection of Scots words, the meaning of which is, to varying degrees, decipherable from the context. Gibbon did not want to include a glossary with his novels, but some editions do have one, which is of assistance. Less comfortable and to my mind a flaw in Gibbon’s execution of his scheme is his adaptation of some words into a faux-English equivalent. These stick out like a sore thumb for their etymological ineptness. I cite the following. ‘Brave’ for the Scots ‘braw’, the former being of Latinate origin and the latter Nordic, both having divergent meanings***. ‘Childe’ for ‘chiel’ meaning a fellow. ‘Quean’ for ‘quine’ meaning a young woman. ‘Blither’ for ‘blether’ meaning to speak or to converse, the former being an English word with connotations of delirious raving. Heaven alone knows why he made those particular lexical choices.
Despite this, the novel remains the preeminent evocation of the passing of the crofting way of life in the rural North-East. The final scene – the dedication of a war memorial at an old stone circle – records the names of the young men who would not be coming back to farm their smallholdings, and laments that their place has been taken by business-oriented farmers with an eye on profit at the expense of community.
I am currently reading through the sequels, Cloud Howe set in a large village or small burgh, and Grey Granite set in an industrial, coastal town. They are good books in their own right, but perhaps not as satisfying as Sunset Song. There is a sense of unfinishedness about them. Gibbon died at the early age of thirty-three. He did not live to see the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the establishment of the post-war Labour government with its National Health Service and other socialist projects, the fall of Stalin, the Iron Curtain, and the Cold War. Sunset Song has a resolution and closure that the other novels of the trilogy seem to lack, because it marks the passing of an old world; the others do not mark the beginning of a new. Nevertheless the trilogy is a landmark of the twentieth-century ‘Scottish Renaissance’, and Sunset Song itself a minor masterpiece. I would recommend it for anyone interested in Scotland, or in the history and literature of this country.
* I am grateful to my agent – he is studying for a university degree in English Literature, and I get the backwash of his learning!
** It has to be said of modernism that it is not a unified nor easily defined movement, and that the writings of, say, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Gibbon, and Virginia Woolf, to give a mere handful of examples, differ from each other greatly. One could more easily speak of ‘modernisms’ rather than ‘modernism’.
*** Here in Dundee we pronounce it ‘brah’, which is pure Swedish!