If there is ocht in Scotland that's worth haein
There is nae distance to which it's unattached
– Hugh MacDiarmid
Modern Scottish literature experienced a late coming of age; much of the reason for this was a delayed re-engagement with other literatures of Europe. Elsewhere on our continent, towards the end of the 19th century and a little beyond, there was a flurry of 'Young' movements – Young Belgium, Young Poland and so on – with the emergence of writers determined to express new sensibilities and in new forms.
To our west, the Irish literary revival got underway with the likes of Yeats, Synge, George Moore and Joyce looking to mainland Europe for the artistic stimuli of the Franco-Belgian Symbolists, of Ibsen and of Wagner. Irish writers went on to mesh these influences with long-dormant native sources, in the identification of the local with the universal which is the antithesis of a cringing provincialism.
During this period, dating roughly from the mid-1880s up to the outbreak of the First World War, Scotland knew relatively few of such 'movements': writers operated in isolation, with flashes of a more outward-going spirit in the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and R B Cunninghame Graham. In the other arts, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was poised to make his mark in the Vienna of 1900; he and his Glasgow-based entourage could indeed be said to form a movement, analogous to the work of Patrick Geddes and his team in the east.
While RLS was an internationalist in other respects, he did not reciprocate the enthusiasm of Marcel Schwob of the French Symbolists for his own work, possessing as he did a dustily old-fashioned view of French culture and a hearty Presbyterian suspicion of anything that suggested out-and-out decadence. His youthful enthusiasm for Baudelaire was superficial and he piously condemned the French poet for translating an especially lurid tale by Edgar Allan Poe. As it turned out, the Poe-Baudelaire axis would prove itself a major feature of the onset of modernism.
However, it was better that Scotland's cultural revival came late, and in a magnificent manner, than never. Hugh MacDiarmid brought out his long poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
in 1926, with its allusions to such as Herman Melville and Dostoevsky, both writers who were undergoing their own revival in the post-war world. MacDiarmid found literary and linguistic models in the work of James Joyce, whose Ulysses
, along with Proust's À la Recherche du temps perdu
and T S Eliot's The Waste Land
, marked the culmination of modernism just a few years before A Drunk Man
There would be catch-up, too, in Scottish novels – eventually. The 'big' novels of the 19th century, by Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Zola, which more often than not centred on a young provincial trying to make his mark in the metropolis, found no equivalent in Scotland until Alasdair Gray's 1981 triumph Lanark
. By that date, the realist and naturalistic modes of fiction had long been succeeded by the magical-realism of Latin America and indeed by surrealism, which found a receptive fictional base in Glasgow, long known for its native off-beat, daft sense of humour. (There's the story, once related by Ludovic Kennedy, of a drunk guy getting on a Glasgow bus and asking the woman sitting opposite: 'Did ye see me gettin oan the bus?' 'Ay' says the wifie. Fella looks sceptical and repeats the question. 'Ay, pal,' she insists. 'Ah definitely saw ye. Ye're sittin opposite me.' Drunk then enquires: 'How did ye know it wis me?')
In a 2016 address to the Saltire Society, Kirsty Gunn cautioned against a narrowly prescriptive view of our literary activity, and the bureaucracy-pleasing box-ticking to which it leads. There's a tendency for Scottish writing, and perceptions of Scottish writing, to focus on the worthy, the safely virtuous, to affect a solemnity that isn't the same as seriousness. Such artistic conservatism betrays a provincial insecurity, as if the modern movement had simply by-passed Scotland.
Invited to give a keynote lecture at a Scotland in Europe
conference at Warsaw University a few years back, I chose to discuss two Scottish novels that were markedly European in ambience and were all the more serious for being hilarious: J David Simons's The Liberation of Celia Kahn
(2014) concerning the diversity of Jewish attitudes in Glasgow early in the 20th century, and Fred Urquhart's Jezebel's Dust
(1951) on Polish soldiers stationed in Edinburgh during the Second World War and their sexual encounters with the local girls, not to mention the attendant cultural clashes with the young ladies' families and other insularly-minded Scots.
In the Scottish Review
(March 2018), Christopher Harvie described Neal Ascherson's The Death of the Fronsac
(2017) as a 'Condition-of-Scotland' novel. This story of a Polish soldier in wartime Scotland is also a 'Condition-of-Europe' novel, and that could also describe the Simons and Urquhart books as well as Harvie's own richly-allusive novel Dalriada
(2015), set variously in Scotland and mainland Europe during the first half of the 20th century.
Literary history teaches us that there are no new stories, but often splendid variations on the old. Such a dialectic animates modernism, but certainly not postmodernism which smugly refuses to acknowledge how the best of the past can help us 'make it new' with depth and resonance. Ian Spring's collection of quirky short stories, The Stone Mirror
(Rymour Books, 2021), is a late example of the modernist project. In an introductory piece, he cites authors who have influenced him: these include, significantly, Jorge Luis Borges, Alasdair Gray, James Joyce and Edgar Allan Poe. I could have mentioned others from his list, but I will concentrate on Borges and Poe.
First though, there is his take on Faust. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard maintained that three of the greatest archetypal figures in Western culture were Faust, Don Juan/Giovanni, and the Wandering Jew. (We might add a fourth: the Wandering Greek, Ulysses
.) Spring's 'Faustian Fictions' feature the 'Mephisto Credit Services' and a Dr Faust who has metamorphosed into a salesman of postmodern gimmicks. This piece is a skit on the alternative realities of our times, those updates of what Bernard Shaw would call 'panacea quackeries'.
The Argentinian Borges was a great Scotophile. His story Doctor Brodie's Report
concerns an Aberdonian missionary, 'our good Presbyterian', a wandering Scot who provides an anthropological account of the 'Mlch' [sic] people whom he has closely observed. In the teasing sketch Borges and I
, there is the confession that 'I like hourglasses, maps, 18th-century typography, etymology, the taste of coffee, and Robert Louis Stevenson's prose'.
The Scottish poet Alastair Reid returned the favour by becoming one of Borges' main translators into English. Ian Spring makes his own act of reciprocation by the very pervasiveness, in The Stone Mirror
, of the ambiguous, labyrinthine modes which he inherits from Borges. It is not coincidental that Borges' imagery of labyrinths and mirrors is also ubiquitous in the work of the author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
. The very title of Ian Spring's book draws you into an imagined world of tantalising leitmotifs.
Reaching further back into the corpus of rediscoverable stories, Ian Spring's Usher
is a meditation-with-variations on Poe's celebrated tale, with subtly-placed allusions to other works by the American master. To my mind, this reinforces Spring's modernist credentials, given that Baudelaire's versions of Poe exercised a vast presence in the work of the Franco-Belgian Symbolists, which in turn offered vital ingredients to the modern movement, not least as regards surrealism.
Baudelaire excised the name of Poe's Scottish-born stepfather, John Allan, to rebrand him as Edgar Poe; this was a gesture of solidarity as Baudelaire, too, suffered from an oppressive stepfather. The culmination of the French 'Aidgarpo' movement came with Debussy's late, unfinished opera La Chute de la maison Usher
Ian Spring ends his collection with a suitably French-themed piece of the macabre, Story Cut Short
, on the guillotine as the blade falls. His more recent book, The Glasgow Effect
(Rymour, 2022), picks up on surrealism of the Weegie type, with more than a whiff of Alasdair Gray. He includes a close-up photo of the statue of that cartoon folk hero, Lobey Dosser of Calton Creek.
All in all, we have here a hang-up-free, unselfconscious Scottishness that sets no boundaries, whether of space or time. The architect Berthold Lubetkin described postmodernism as 'the mumbo-jumbo of a hit-or-miss society'. Artists are, of course, entitled to pursue postmodernism if that's what they want, but it helps if they can go through modernism first.
Dr Tom Hubbard is a Scottish poet, novelist and retired professor who has worked in France, the USA, Hungary and Ireland. His most recent book is
'The Devil and Michael Scot: a Gallimaufry of Fife and Beyond' (Grace Note Publications, 2020). His collected essays (1982-2021) and also work on Irish poets are forthcoming