Red

Stephen Bann

  • Time in a Red Coat by George Mackay Brown
    Chatto, 249 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2804 6
  • Harland’s Half-Acre by David Malouf
    Chatto, 230 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2737 6
  • The Border by Elaine Feinstein
    Hutchinson, 113 pp, £6.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 09 156320 8

When poets decide to write in prose, and a fortiori to undertake so substantial a piece of prose writing as a novel, they are apt to leave unmistakable traces of their poetic craft. Indeed a certain class of novelists, not far below the very best, makes it an axiom to inform us from time to time, in case it has slipped our mind, that they rest their case in the end on a much more precise theory and practice of language than the on-going bustle of narrative will allow for. George Meredith, to take a good example, plays havoc with the expected sequence of events, expanding and contracting particular elements of the plot so that we can feel the sinews of narrative creaking and cracking under the strain. Then he turns round and reminds us that metaphor is the writer’s real business. Metaphor is the sign of our fallen state, of the irretrievable fact that we are estranged from the blissful, natural communication which took place in the Garden of Eden. But metaphor is also our only way of momentarily overcoming and forgetting that estrangement. The poet, whether in the person of the novelist or through those numerous surrogate figures who belong ambiguously to the world of the novel, is continually breaking through to remind us of his creative priority. Images, he suggests, are superior to actions.

In Time in a Red Coat, George Mackay Brown has given us his first novel for 11 years. It is, however, a novel in which the poet assumes an undoubted authority. He can question, and criticise at its very base, the prodigal use of images which the storyteller displays in his concern to get the narrative moving. The storyteller writes down ‘River’ as the heading for Chapter Four. The poet blocks the action with a meditative passage on the suitability of that word ‘River’:

It is a worn metaphor, surely, that sees life as a river issuing from high mountain snows, with cataracts and torrents, down to a fertile plain and then, with many windings and turnings, finding its way to the vastness of the sea. And yet, when it was new-minted, the metaphor must have seemed beautiful and true. Doesn’t life begin with the high snow-bright innocence of childhood; and have great mountain tumults and sonorities in adolescence and young manhood; and afterwards there are the slow fertile turnings of maturity, when the river becomes ever deeper and wider; until at last it empties itself into the bitter immensity of death, the ocean of the end? And by an extension of the metaphor, the river is not a figure for the life of a single individual, but for the life of the whole tribe, the whole nation, the totality of the human race, and indeed of all creation. More, poets have seen the river as time itself, all legend and history, and tales as yet untold by children’s children.

A passage like this, surely, is a sufficient rebuttal to those critics who have tended to see George Mackay Brown as a kind of miraculously preserved primitive storyteller, who has managed to discover a rich seam of mythic material and offers it to us in raw ingots, untouched by the refiner’s hand. It is not simply that he questions and undercuts his rhetorical effects, drawing attention to the mythic state of ‘new-minted’ metaphor which is by definition lost in the far distant past. He is also willing to show us the contrasting process, whereby the poet builds up ever more ambitious structures through a relentless accumulation of synecdoches: river as the life of the individual, of the tribe, of all creation, and finally river as the image of time and the tale.

George Mackay Brown is as firmly in control of his linguistic means as any Formalist could desire. When he draws our attention to the perilous condition of metaphor, he might almost be echoing Viktor Shklovsky’s convictions, explosively communicated in ‘The Resurrection of the Word’ (1914). Shklovsky laments: ‘The most ancient poetic creation of man was the creation of words. Now words are dead, and language is like a graveyard, but an image was once alive in the newly-born word.’ All is not lost, however, for the ‘image’ can eventually be retrieved: ‘when you get through to the image which is now lost and effaced, but was once embedded at the basis of the word, then you are struck by its beauty – by a beauty which existed once and is gone.’ Obviously it is the poet who will take the lead in this process of linguistic retrieval. In quoting a prescriptive verse from a contemporary Russian source, Shklovsky illustrates with Mackay Brown’s metaphor of the new-minted coin the distinctive responsibility of the poet:

Verse, like coins, mint
strictly, precisely, honestly.
Follow the rule stubbornly:
So that words may be compact,
Thoughts – expansive...

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