Author’s works represent all that is good and admirable in Scotland and deserve to stand the test of time, writes Allan Massie
There is something of George Orwell in William McIlvanney. They even look a bit alike, but that’s not really the point. There’s a word that attaches itself to each of them, and it is “decency”. When you find yourself disagreeing with them, you wonder if you are wrong and feel a touch ashamed. There aren’t that many people who have this effect.
In what I think is the finest of his novels, The Kiln, McIlvanney’s hero, Tam Docherty – seeking to find his way through the dark, dense wood of middle life – reflects that he “had seen the wilful control of anybody else’s life as immoral, because it was an existential lie against your knowledge of your own weakness, your certain death.”
This is a deep truth. Then he immediately turns it round: “Like the other side of the Moon, there loomed up before him the converse of that principle. What of the point at which concern for others becomes erosion of the truth of self, denial of self-need?”
This also is a deep truth. McIlvanney realises that what you owe others and what you owe yourself are two necessary things, good in themselves, which may nevertheless come into conflict – and how that conflict is resolved is the test of your quality and your humanity.
“Nevertheless”: Muriel Spark said that she recognised that word as characteristic of the essence of Scotland and wrote her novels on that principle. So, I think, does McIlvanney. Sometimes “nevertheless” is humorous.
Young minister at a church social: “Miss Jeannie Macpherson will now sing The Flowers of the Forest. Voice from the back: ‘Jeannie Macpherson’s a whure.” Pause.” Nevertheless, Miss Jeannie Macpherson will now sing The Flowers of the Forest. Very Spark, very McIlvanney.
His has been a long journey, sometimes, I’m sure, a painful one, but he has never lost his faith in humanity or his reverence for what is good and beautiful and true.
This is rare, all the more so because he has known disappointments, periods of neglect when he was overshadowed by lesser writers. McIlvanney has survived this without yielding to the corrosive temptations of despair or cynicism.
Now, in the second half of his seventies, has come renewed recognition. He has received a Spirit of Scotland Award. Books that were out of print have been republished by Canongate, and there are apparently plans for his three Laidlaw crime novels to be adapted for television. It is all thoroughly deserved and must please him. But it won’t, I’m sure, change him. McIlvanney is one of those who can recognise that triumph and disaster are what Rudyard Kipling called them – “two impostors” – to be treated “just the same”.
You have only to attend an event at a book festival or some similar public occasion – better still to share a platform with McIlvanney – to realise how remarkable he is. His manner is always modest, self-deprecating even. He is witty but also serious, and you sense that there is in the audience a surge of affection, even love, for him.
This is rare. Authors may be admired. They may interest or amuse. But I can think of no other who elicits such a warm, even protective, feeling from those who have come to listen to him. I think it’s because we recognise that he represents, even incarnates, the best of Scotland and Scottish culture. He is that unusual person: a highbrow with the common touch. He has a tenderness for the weak and defeated, and a deep admiration for those who will not admit defeat.
In all this he resembles Sir Walter Scott; he is perhaps the only Scottish writer of our time who could create a character such as Jeannie Deans. He is suspicious of success, because – to repeat that line from The Kiln – he sees it as “an existential lie against your knowledge of your own weakness”.
McIlvanney is an existentialist, like Albert Camus, one of the authors his policeman Jack Laidlaw keeps always to hand. He has the same tragic sense of life, the same refusal to submit, the same sense of moral, social and political responsibility.
Ernest Hemingway, another existentialist, has a line: “A man can be defeated but not destroyed.” This echoes through McIlvanney’s life and work. In reading his best novels, you have the sense of finding something new that also strikes you as if you had known it all your life, but never quite caught hold of it before. His Jack Laidlaw may be an improbable policeman; all the worse for the police force if he is, for he is what you can believe a policeman should be. This illustrates another truth about McIlvanney: he is a romantic too, inasmuch as he refuses to accept that life must be what it so often, miserably and harshly, is. Life, they say, is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. But of course it is both; all good novels that make you think and feel simultaneously reveal existence to be tragic comedy or comic tragedy.
Authors tend to be a jealous lot. “It’s not enough to succeed,” as Gore Vidal put it, “others must fail.” Fair enough, all too true often. But I have never been jealous of McIlvanney. I feel about him rather as Anton Chekhov did about Leo Tolstoy. He said, more or less, that as long as Tolstoy was alive and writing, it didn’t matter if his own work wasn’t what he had hoped it might be. And of course it never is.
I’ve no doubt that Willie McIlvanney feels like that about his own books: the finished work is never as good as the one you envisioned. Nevertheless – again – they are good, very good. They deserve to survive if any Scottish literature of our time does survive.
And if they don’t, so much the worse for the future, for the man and his work, in their intelligence, decency, humanity, tenderness and understanding of the tragic-comedy of life, really do represent, or incarnate, whatever is good and admirable in Scotland.