Posts Tagged ‘George Mackay Brown’

Favourites in 2018: Books

December 28, 2018

I had, by hook and by crook, a pretty good year of reading. In this post I’ll highlight what were for me the most satisfying, interesting, and entertaining books I had the pleasure to read this year.

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My ongoing Roman reading project started this year with Appian’s history of a century of conflict (c.130-30 BC) and concluded with some of the early poetry of Virgil. In between I sallied at Lucretius and Catullus, but spent most of my time with Cicero and Julius Caesar, the latter of whose first-hand accounts of the Gallic Wars and Civil War were a highlight of my year. I read Caesar in the unsurpassed luxury of the Landmark edition, which I recommend unreservedly.

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This was also the year in which I polished off the final few volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I’ve written about the pleasures of these books in previous years, so I’ll simply say that even apart from the wonderful characters, musical language, and adventurous stories, I loved them for their portrayal of a friendship, between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, that has few literary rivals.

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Forlorn without Aubrey and Maturin, I turned to Jeeves and Wooster for comfort, and spent the rest of the year devouring comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I expected to like the Jeeves books, and of course I did, but I also dipped into the Psmith novels and the Blandings Castle books, and, to my unalloyed delight, found them just as good. If I have to pick just one to highlight for this list, I will choose Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings Castle books, through which I laughed with hearty cheer and admiration. P.G. Wodehouse and I will remain boon companions in 2019.

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Another highlight has been my slow perusal of The Complete Old English Poems, a massive volume packed with Anglo-Saxon verse rendered into modern English by the indefatigable (I assume he must be indefatigable) Craig Williamson. This year I read the Vercelli Book and the Exeter Book, two of the principal surviving anthologies of Old English poetry, and I relished both. Lives of saints, clashes with cannibals, dream prayers, gnomic riddles, moral meditations — Old English poetry has it all. The thought that I still have about 500 pages to go in this colossal codex, including another encounter with Beowulf, is cheering.

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Of the two Dickens novels I tackled this year, the best was A Tale of Two Cities, my edition of which is now stained with tears. By some unlikely series of mischances I had arrived in life on the threshold of this book having no idea what it was about, and I was thoroughly absorbed by the tale of a family caught in the cross-fire of the French Revolution. Dickens is always good, of course, but I found him particularly good here, especially in the final quarter. I now have, I believe, only one (and a half) Dickens novels left before I’ll have read the whole groaning shelf-full.

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Perhaps the greatest surprise of my year was T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which I began only in a dutiful effort to scout ahead of my children for good books to hand to them, but which quickly won my heart for its winsome combination of wit, supple language, and inventive storytelling. I’ve since been working my way through the other volumes in White’s Arthurian tetralogy, but, as I was warned, they have not been the equal of the first, which has earned a spot among the ten or fifteen greatest children’s books known to me.

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The last novel I will praise on this list is George Mackay Brown’s Magnus, a mercurial book that is, on the surface, a life of the twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, St Magnus Erlendsson, but which turns out to also be lyrical medieval hagiography, ruminative meditation, and, in one dazzling sequence, a kind of spiritual portal into the twentieth century. Formally inventive and beautifully written in a style that drifts, as circumstances demand, between knotty toughness and languid beauty, I found it an excellent and memorable read.

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Among the best nonfiction I read this year was Mont St Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams’ love letter to France in the high middle ages. His is a very personal encounter with the architecture and literary art of the period, with a premium on imaginative appreciation rather than objective analysis. It is a book that is willing to engage the great masterpieces of medieval art in a childlike spirit in an effort to collapse, so far as is possible, the centuries separating us from those who made and first inhabited them. I found in its pages a kindred spirit.

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A rewarding short read was Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On the Education of Children”. Montaigne wrote about the aims, methods, and motives of education from within the broad tradition, playing on a thread that has grown frayed and strained in the centuries between his time and ours, and therefore providing a healthy, robust contrast with our own habitual ways of thinking about education today. This was my first foray into the world of Montaigne’s essays, and I look forward to going back.

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I’ll round out this list with another book about education. Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, edited by Ryan Topping, is a treasure trove of reflections on the nature and purpose of education culled from eminent pens, starting with Plato and Aristotle, running up through Augustine, Basil, and Aquinas, through Erasmus and (yes!) Montaigne and into the 20th century. It’s a superb collection that has been put together in part to remind modern Catholics, the great majority of whom have attended schools much more influenced by Rousseau and Dewey than by Bonaventure and Newman, just what the Church through time has thought and taught about education. If my dozens of pages of notes are any indication, it’s a book with a lot of valuable things to say.

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Record keeping:

Oldest: Plato, Phaedrus.

Newest: Ross Douthat, To Change the Church.

Longest: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

Most by one author: Shakespeare (11), Wodehouse (11), Thornton Burgess (5).

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That’s the kind of year in books it’s been for me.

Brown: Magnus

May 28, 2018

Magnus
George Mackay Brown
(Berlinn, 2018) [1973]
208 p.

Just why it is that the Orkney Islands exercise such an outsized influence on my imagination is hard to say. Maybe it has something to do with their remoteness, dropped in a swath of cold, wild seas, in combination with their proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the familiar terrain of Scotland, which together give them the character of a borderland, not wholly alien, but still distant and mysterious.

George Mackay Brown was a poet and novelist who himself hailed from those islands, and here he novelizes the life of St Magnus Erlendsson, a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney. Magnus is not a conventional saint; he is a powerful man embroiled in a succession dispute in a violent age. There are few scenes of gentleness or cheerful piety; this world is hard and stern. Yet even so, Magnus stands out. In one memorable scene he goes to war in a longship; surrounded by brutal violence on all sides he stands, courageously, reading aloud to the men from the Psalter. But, as Earl, he bears not only his own interests, but also the interests of those who depend upon him for their livelihood, safety, and welfare. This responsibility he cannot escape, and it drives him forward, tragically.

The story is told unconventionally. We never, unless I am mistaken, get very close to Magnus himself. Rather the tale is told by those around him, or those under him: monks, tinkers, farmers. Sometimes the story wanders, following the trials and travels of these other figures in apparent forgetfulness of its main subject. But Magnus is always there, in the background, in fragments of conversation that refer to him, or simply inasmuch as he is responsible for the conditions under which these, his people, live, work, and suffer.

As one might expect from a poet novelist, the writing is superb. Brown is exquisitely sensitive to tone, and he varies it effectively as he switches from scene to scene. For the most part the prose is unadorned, as befits the rough condition of his setting and characters. Here is a passage chosen at random:

Mans the peasant from Revay Hill in Birsay laboured at the rowing bench. His clenched fists made circles. His oar rose and fell. He sweated. His face went from bilgewater to the gulls above the mast, then back again to the swilter and glug of foul water among the bottomboards.

That gives a sense of the style in which much of the book is written, but there are numerous exceptions. The opening chapter is a beautiful description of a bridal party preparing the bride — Magnus’ mother — for her wedding night, a sequence that concludes with a scop composing bridal songs:

Blow out the lamp now. There is a hand at the latch. Now I pray to Christ and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin and to all saints and martyrs that this shape I imagine in my body, this boy, may wear the white coat of innocence always. War to redden it, intrigue to fray it, lust to filthy it, treachery to tear it: these things must be. But I pray that his soul may never be wrapped in the seamless flame of eternal loss. I pray that he may bring his white weave continually, this Magnus, to the waters of grace, and in the hour of his death to the last brightest rinsings of absolution.

A miracle of imaginative fiction is that by it we see the world through the eyes, and with the sensibility, of another, and this whole bridal sequence is an outstanding example of an author allowing us to see and feel how our ancestors saw an intrinsic connection between marriage, sexuality, love, and fertility.

There is another marvellous section in which Magnus prays through the night in a church, meditating at length on the Mass and the nature of sacrifice in religion. It is a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but I recommend it particularly to Catholics, whom I think would appreciate it both aesthetically and spiritually, as I did.

Returning to the tonal variations: at one point the authentic ring of Anglo-Saxon verse can be heard:

I must tell now concerning the jarl Hakon Paul’s son, how he summoned about him an host, and set them in eight war-hungry ships. Then those tryst-men heard a great boast, how that from the meeting in Egil’s Isle but one jarl would fare him home at sunset, and that not Magnus. A death-lust on listening faces about the mast, a weaving of warped words. Sigurd and Sighvat were the blackest mouths in all that hell-parle. Fierce sea stallions trampled the waves.

And, finally, there is one virtuoso example of tonal shift, dramatically placed at the climax of the story, that put me in a state of wondering admiration, not only at how Brown subtly transitioned from medieval to modern times, his setting and characters gradually transforming into something else, creating a literary effect very much like a cinematic dissolve, but also for how his doing so greatly expanded the book’s range and ambition. I’m strongly tempted to write about this in detail, it being, in some real sense, the centrepiece of the novel, but out of consideration for those who might like to read the book and be surprised, I will not.

When I closed the last page of Magnus I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. As it happens, I did not actually do this, but over the intervening weeks it has lingered in my imagination, and I may return to it again before too long.

From the book’s Wikipedia page I have learned that Peter Maxwell Davies adapted this novel into a 1977 opera. I’d like to hear it.