Novels of Neil Gunn – Pt. 1

A brief introduction to the series

I have written few pieces about the novels of Neil Gunn even though they have nothing to do with whisky (theoretically the topic of this blog, even if the connection is often a bit loose). They are not critical essays, and I do not make many value judgements, though occasionally a personal preference might slip out. Their purpose is more personal. I wanted to pay close attention to what I was reading and put it into some sort of structure. I have no interest in saying this novel works but that doesn’t and am happy to leave that to people whose job it is to precisely measures worth. Of course I have preferences but they are personal opinions and probably worth no more than any other personal opinion. (For the record I think The Silver Darlings is his finest novel in scale and depth, however Young Art & Old Hector, The Serpent, and Bloodhunt were my favourite to read).

There is, though, there is a split in the critical appreciation of Gunn. Some value earlier novels, especially the historical novels or the description of his childhood, whilst others the later works that are more intellectually discursive. I am so wishy washy I cannot plant my flag on any side. All I can say is that I am not so fond of the passages where he drifts off into intellectual debates and the espousal of insights, which now seem a bit dated. He was aware of the problem. In a letter from 1966 where he described his method as him discovering the story as he wrote, he explained: “Sometimes I was bothered a bit about these insights, because I had a liking for them (like having a drink, a tot, on the way), but the internal thing that did the “telling” would stand no nonsense. It kept a continuous rein as it were on my waywardness, in the interest of what I could see it believed in as balance.¹ I think this is fair. The story is always there and the structure is always well crafted and within that structure there is always balance.

My interest in these pieces is in seeing how Neil Gunn evolved as a writer. His material contained many repeated themes but he was always trying to form them in different ways, so that he didn’t go on producing the same book, even if any new book would contain things that were familiar. This approach caused him problems as he never seemed to follow up successes with something similar which could build coherently on the prior achievement. For example he insisted that his much rejected second novel, The Lost Glen, be published after the breakthrough novel Morning Tide, or when he had a big hit with The Silver Darlings, and his publishers thought he was back on track, he veered off into something far more whimsical with Young Art & Old Hector. His publisher could do little as he was very stubborn and could not really be told what to do. Also he had a parsimonious attitude to his writing and never wanted to waste anything. A good example was Second Sight, which started out as a play. He sent it to a friend, the playwright James Bridie, for comments and received a frank and fair assessment that praised the virtues of his writing but clearly laid bare the broken backed nature of its construction (which relied on a practical joke) and suggested it would be improved by killing off a few characters (always a big red flag in any critique) . Gunn accepted criticism up to a point, in that he withdrew it as a play but didn’t give up and turned it into a novel – still with the same broken backed structure. Once his mind was made up, it was made up.

That he was a successful novelist cannot be denied. He had a career that lasted 30 years with some notable hits. It is an impressive trick to be a serious novelist, with high intentions, but still be popular and not too many can do it. When he finished writing, in the mid fifties, his time had passed and he was simply out of fashion. His sales had dried up and he saw no point in continuing – so he stopped. This again is quite impressive trick; it is an unusual artist who knows when it’s time to quit – know that their moment in the sun has gone. Since then his reputation as one of the foremost Scottish novelists of the twentieth century has been consolidated and all of his novels have been reprinted. His status is assured, especially in Scotland, but I do not know how widely he is read. I do not know how ‘alive’ his novels currently are. They may be a bit niche. Faber, the publisher for most of his career, let all of his titles go except for The Silver Darlings. So in their judgement that is a bit of a classic and the others are the backlist. However all the other books have been republished by Scottish houses who think it important to keep all the works of a major Scottish novelist available.

In this series I have written the following posts:

The Highland Meta-Novel – This is an idea from Christopher Stokoe’s doctoral thesis about Gunn’s novels, which is based on a note Gunn wrote classifying his novels and showing his different approaches to the Highlands. It is an interesting way of approaching his novels.
Boyhood – the novels about his childhood in Dunbeath made Gunn’s reputation.
The boyhood of Young Art – although Young Art & Old Hector was classified as a boyhood novel it differs significantly from Highland River and Morning Tide.
The Early Novels – His first two novels were bleaker in tone about the state of the Highlands
History – These novels are a significant achievement, rich in understanding of the Highland culture and an attempt to claim its virtues for the present.
Individual transcendence – Citing the thesis by John Burns this looks at the role of zen like insights in the novels
Writing during the war – was his writing affected by the war?
In Other Writings – This is not a survey. It just shows how in one essay he expressed the feelings about the Highlands that underpinned his fiction

¹ Gunn, Neil M., and J. B. Pick. Selected Letters. Polygon, 1987. The letter to Francis Russell is a response to questions about The Serpent but makes more general points about his method of writing.