'Slavonic Dances' by Tom Hubbard (Grace Note Publications)
Reviewing what I described as Tom Hubbard's 'intriguingly quirky second novel,' I drew attention to his 'readiness to surprise and even overturn an audience's expectations.' With this slim, barely 100-page book, he plays a similar game. The book's subtitle is 'Three novellas: Mrs Makarowski – The Kilt – The Carrying Stream.' Only 17 pages long, that would make 'The Carrying Stream' the shortest short novel ever written. Nevertheless, we have to assume that the author wanted us to find in his three short stories something of the qualities we associate with the novella or even the novel.
'Mrs Makarowski' ranges over the life of a woman from Fife called McCloskey who had married a Polish soldier around 1945. As it happens the school in which she works, running its kitchen, is the same Crockarkie College that appeared as the setting for that second novel 'The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop.' Equally in 'The Kilt' and 'The Carrying Stream' two old men look back over the entire span of their lives. But in each case we learn only of what they remember as their crucial, life-defining experiences. What went on in the many intervening years remains blank. Perhaps what we are reading then is the novella, not the novel, of their lives.
Again these stories are linked together in a range of ways. Their titles suggest as much. Given the Scottish/Polish marriage, the 'Mak' of Makarowski could well have been 'Mac'. 'The Kilt' inevitably continues the Scottish connection, focusing as it does on the relationship between a young Scottish student and a Czechoslovakian girl who meet at Charles University in Prague during the political turmoil of 1968. 'The Carrying Stream' is about a working-class Glaswegian whose life appears to have much in common with that of Tom Hubbard himself. Martin Meikle tells us 'he would not become a professional singer, neither would he become a tenured academic. He odd-jobbed, received the odd royalty cheque, undertook whatever literary journalism, book-editing and proof-reading was available.' In fact we learn he has had at least a degree of success as a Scottish poet and translator, while the title of his story turns out to be a quotation from a work by Hamish Henderson.
All three stories then focus on Scotland, on Scottishness, on Scottish attitudes and values – but all in a European context. It is almost as though, in the post-Brexit world overtaking us, Hubbard has determined to write a book demonstrating just how typically Scottish and European lives are intertwined. Given his career, he himself of all contemporary Scottish writers is best placed to make this case. An 'honorary member' of Budapest's Academy of Letters and Arts, the translator of European poets, holder of visiting professorships at various European universities, and a connoisseur of European music, Tom Hubbard is a literary exemplar of the connection between Scotland and Europe. No surprise then to find in the text of these stories a wealth of allusions – some familiar, some much less so – to the literary and musical culture of Europe.
The Fife of 'The Lucky Charm of Major Bessop' I described as essentially an imaginative, poetic one. The Scottish and European settings of these stories – Warsaw, Glasgow, St Andrews, Leven, Prague – remain more straightforwardly realistic. And the tone of the stories is more consistently downbeat. A strain of melancholy, even sadness, pervades them. The lives that their ageing protagonists look back on emerge as less than wholly fulfilled. Mrs Makowski's Polish husband suffers from dementia as he is dying. The lovers in 'The Kilt' lose each other in the course of Czechoslovakia's political turmoil. When they meet again many years later the Czech and Slovak republics have become separate countries – and the split between the two characters remains unbridged. The Scotland that the 70-year-old poet is living in is a problematic country in which he does not always feel at home. In the story's closing sentence he is described as 'both a stranger and a dweller, wherever he found himself.'
Such ambivalent endings do carry emotional conviction. And the narratives of the stories' protagonists appeal because of the complexities in both their characters and their lives. But to my mind too many of the more minor characters lack any parallel density. Rather they emerge as little more than stereotypes – and that is particularly true of the Scottish characters. Equally the critique of Scottish values and attitudes that Hubbard is prepared to allow seems to cover all too familiar ground.
Hubbard has chosen to write here in two languages – English and a kind of demotic, vernacular Scots which is mainly a question of spelling standard English words in a way meant to represent working-class Scottish pronunciation – as here on page one: 'He'll no gie in easy, hen,' remarked the old lady. He never did.'
'Ah'll leave ye be then, Ina. Juist let me ken if ye need me, Ah'm no far awa.'
(The odd nine-page glossary at the back of the book explains that 'juist' means 'just' and 'ken' means 'know'). Now I have no doubt that some readers and some critics will applaud this decision: there should be nothing unusual about forms of contemporary Scottish speech appearing in serious literature. My own reaction is a more doubtful one.
The author's own English is often quite high-flown. In the first story, there is a reference to 'the bewhiskered rubicundity' of a posh Scottish character's face, and a woman is described as wearing 'a wide-brimmed hat with a floral display whose polychromatism set off the blackness of the hat.' Then in the third story, there is a reference to 'the prospect of cultures more polychromatic than any that were discernible in 1950s Partick,' while a few pages later a character is described as wearing an 'incredibly polychromatic bow-tie.'
The juxtaposition of two such contrasting linguistic modes can disconcert, and the effect can sometimes come uncomfortably close to a patronising of the Scottish speakers. The music of 'Slavonic Dances' is real enough, but it does not always succeed in muting notes of discord.