Eric’s Hurt

David Craig

  • Eric Linklater: A Critical Biography by Michael Parnell
    Murray, 376 pp, £16.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 7195 4109 3

It seems a shame that Eric Linklater was, as his biographer records, perpetually dissatisfied with how his work was received. His third novel (Juan in America, 1931) was the Book Society Choice (as was Private Angelo fifteen years later). He was at once in demand with Tauchnitz on the Continent. His articles were bought by the London dailies, the Listener, and Collier’s, his stories by Harper’s. Three of his novels were filmed (one by a remarkable artist, Peter Ustinov). His plays were produced in the West End, by Tyrone Guthrie, Ustinov, Gielgud. He won medals for two of his children’s books, and the War Office commissioned books from him, as did Drambuie and Rio Tinto Zinc. His works were finally issued by Cape in a collected edition named after his beloved Orkney, his stories in a collected volume; and (great admirer of royalty that he was) he was awarded the CBE. He earned enough to live in a big house in Orkney with a cook and two maids, and later to move to a beautifully distinctive small mansion (including a 15-acre croft and woods) on the smiling green slopes of Easter Ross.

Throughout all this he pleased himself. He did not write to other people’s formulae (or not exactly). When Cape wanted him to repeat the Juan model in his fourth novel, he declined, and wrote on Scottish themes. Then when he felt like a trip out East, to recover from getting married and setting up house, he went to Shanghai via India (where he toured in the company of his old servant from his days on the Times of India) to gather material for Juan in China. A month after publication it was outselling Gone with the Wind. When his conscience forbade him to go on with the squalid financial history of RTZ, he dropped it. He was equally, and admirably, his own master when he wrote off any future German editions of his novels because his Berlin publisher barred a Jewish translator for Magnus Merriman in 1935. He travelled far and wide throughout his long life, he drank plenty of whisky and good wine, he spent thousands of hours fishing for trout and salmon in peaceful Northern waters, and he was lavishly praised by Priestley, Harold Nicolson, Hugh Walpole, Storm Jameson and Sean O’Faolain.

So what else did the poor man want? He wanted to be deeply admired. He wanted to be rated a most excellent and serious writer by the most exacting and serious critics.

I never thought of him in that way, although he was the best-known writer in my home town of Aberdeen, where he went to my school and my university and died in a nursing-home a few doors down from my old home. His books were on our shelves, I bought him in Penguin when I was a student, his glinting quizzical image was familiar in the local papers. Without prompting from any sort of authority, I came to think of him as a spinner of yarns with a noticeably literary style, a fondness for showy verbal flights. None of his books made me want to reread it, or entered into me as a permanently illuminating myth, or defined for me anything that mattered to me. They passed the time, they executed a sprightly doodle or two in the margins of history (my own and my country’s), and there it ended.

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