A History

Allan Massie

James Kennaway’s last book, the novella Silence, begins like this:

    The doctor thought: I wish I could believe her. I wish I could take her story at face value. I wish I could accept what the Sister had to say. I wish I could say I were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more ...

The doctor is in a movie-house which he soon leaves to go to his son-in-law’s club:

    On Sunday afternoons, in the wintertime, the club organised concerts. They had good people, even great people, who came and played or sang ... And now the concert was over the huge premises were filled with well-dressed men and women taking cocktails and telling less or more than all. Some of the past presidents – senators, bankers or railroad millionaires, portrayed within massive gilt frames themselves – looked pained by the chatter. The rooms were very high and lit only with wall lights and standard lamps with red shades. It was as if the dark area above were filled with humming birds and rooks and the occasional wild parakeet.

The doctor goes through to the bar, which ‘today seemed darker because the glass was covered with two or three inches of newly fallen snow’ (snow is to Kennaway as fog to Dickens). There he finds his son-in-law, son and various rich young men, drinking Bloody Marys, which they call Club’s Blood. ‘It’s the best Bloody Mary in the world,’ he is told. ‘The doctor thought, the Bloody Marys only seem stronger because it is so cold, so very cold outside, with that wind blowing across the icy lake.’ For this is Chicago 1968, and the boys in the club are getting tanked up for a sally to the Negro quarter to roust up a Negro who has assaulted the Doctor’s daughter, and it is in connection with this that the Doctor wishes that he ‘could say he were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more.’

There are, as these passages may have made apparent, two voices muttering in the shadows behind Kennaway’s prose, and they are the Old Firm of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You can hear Hemingway grumbling in the rhythm of the faux-naif opening; it could be Colonel Cantwell muttering to himself as he walks through the fish-market of Venice. You can hear the echo of Fitzgerald, awe-struck and yet defiantly ironic, as he views the rich boys, who have everything and understand so little.

A good starting-point, then, for any consideration of Kennaway is this realisation that he was the same type of novelist (and had something of the same order of talent) as the Old Firm, writers whose self-conscious dandy persona pervades their work, who cannot detach their own personality from the world they have created, who, indeed, are always in danger in real life of being swallowed by their creations. With Kennaway, though the rhythms tend to be Hemingway, and the machismo is his too, where it isn’t simply Scottish, the attitude to experience is closer to Fitzgerald. Such a realisation should go some way towards clarifying the events recorded in The Kennaway Papers.

These consist partly of notebooks kept by Kennaway, and letters written by him, but often not posted, with an introduction and linking passages by his wife, who writes with a beautiful lucidity and balance, and a rare candour too. The events may be quickly summarised.

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[*] Mainstream Publishing (Edinburgh), 192 pp., £5.95, 22 January, 0 906391 13 X.