Beyond Macbeth — Books Set in Scotland

9780451526779HYesterday’s leading news story was Scotland’s vote against independence from Great Britain. As I watched the morning news, my thoughts turned away from politics and economics and went straight to literature. I thought of Macbeth, and wondered what the current-day residents of Cawdor Castle think of Scotland’s decision. (As I’ve mentioned, Macbeth  — always referred to as “the Scottish play” by superstitious theater people  —  is my favorite Shakespeare play. Perhaps because it’s the first one I ever read?)

Several years ago, I read a fascinating memoir by Liza Campbell called A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. Campbell, the daughter of the real-life Thane of Cawdor, was the last child born in the actual castle associated with Shakespeare’s play. The memoir itself is garden-variety family dysfunction: drugs, domestic abuse, extramarital affairs, money problems. What interested me was the history of the Cawdor estate. Today, Liza Campbell is a vocal member of the Hares, a group of aristocratic British women supporting the Equality (Titles) bill, also known as the “Downton Abbey” law, 9780312384968which would allow first-born daughters to inherit titles.

As I thought more about books set in Scotland, I realized I haven’t read many.  I’ve read countless books set in England and Ireland, but I’ve neglected Scotland.  I’ve never read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series . . . or Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. I haven’t read anything by Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin, or Irvine Welsh.  Also, I have never been to Scotland. A friend and her daughter went to the Edinburgh Book Festival last month and had a marvelous time. Jeff has always wanted to play golf in Scotland; maybe next summer we could combine a trip to Edinburgh with a visit to St. Andrews?

If we do visit Scotland, the first book on my reading list will be How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created the Modern World and Everything In It by Arthur Herman. Everything? Sounds like a bold claim, and certainly warrants further investigation.

I did a quick Google search on “Scottish literature” and found that most of the recommended books are bodice-rippers featuring handsome and lusty Scotsmen. Apparently the Scottish highlands are the place to go if you’re looking for romance. A few of the suggested titles are: To Tame a Highland Warrior, In Bed With a Highlander, Taming the Scotsman, How to Abduct a Highland Lord, Thirty Nights With a Highland Husband. Need I go on?

9780345542625I did recently read an absolutely charming novel that takes place in Scotland — specifically, on the remote Isle of Skye. Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is written entirely in letters, starting just before World War I and ending after World War II. Publishers Weekly says that it’s a “remarkable story” in which “the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn, leaving just enough blanks to be filled by the reader’s imagination.”

After I read Letters from Skye, I remembered that Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, To the Lighthouse, is set on the Isle of Skye. It’s one of my most beloved books; my old paperback copy is falling apart. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

Three Junes, the debut novel of Julia Glass (one of my favorite authors), won the National Book Award for fiction in 2002. The book is actually three linked novellas about a Scottish family, the McLeods. The story develops over the course of three Junes in the late 20th century, and in Scotland, the United States, and Greece. Many of the characters reappear in Glass’s later novels.

9780380727506Bill Bryson is always entertaining and informative. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson recounts his trip exploring  — using only public transportation — the nooks and crannies of England, Scotland, and Wales. Here’s his description of arriving in Edinburgh:

And so I went to Edinburgh. Can there anywhere be a more beautiful and beguiling city to arrive at by train early on a crisp, dark Novembery evening? To emerge from the bustling, subterranean bowels of Waverley Station and find yourself in the very heart of such a glorious city is a happy experience indeed. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh for years and had forgotten just how captivating it can be  . . .  Every bookshop window was full of books about Scotland or by Scottish authors. And of course the voices were different. I walked along, feeling as if I had left England far behind . . .

I’d like to see those bookshop windows myself. I just hope they’re not packed with piles of Ravished by a Highlander and Seduction of a Highland Lass.

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Monday Match-Up: And the Dark Sacred Night & Three Junes

www.randomhouseI see skies of blue,
And clouds of white.
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.
“What a Wonderful World”, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss; originally recorded by Louis Armstrong

Julia Glass has been a heroine of mine ever since she arrived on the literary scene in 2002, with the publication of her debut novel, Three Junes. I hate to use the term “late in life”, but recognition of her talent has come later in life than it does for most published writers. Glass was 46 years old when she won the National Book Award for Three Junes — seven years older than Flannery O’Connor (one of my favorite literary heroines) was when she died. An article in New York magazine (“Cinderella Story”, January 2003) explores Glass’s unexpected success:

So it was a stunning upset in the literary world in late November when Glass won the writer’s equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar — the National Book Award for fiction — which she jubilantly dedicated in her acceptance speech to “late bloomers.”  . . . As novelist and awards judge Bob Shacochis puts it, “Three Junes is an anti-hip book, an anti-cool book. It was like choosing a 25-year-old single-malt whiskey.”

“Julia is incredibly brave,” says Deb Garrison, the Pantheon editor who bought the book and shepherded it through publication. “To be a first novelist in your forties, writing without a book contract and no steady income, to just say, ‘This is what I have to be doing.’ ”

“Julia Glass is an update on those wonderful writers from the nineteenth century that we admire so much, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters,” says Shacochis, who pored through almost 300 submissions for the book awards. “I couldn’t put it down because it had such emotional power.”

Glass’s new novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, is certainly a work of emotional power. The story centers on Kit Noonan, a middle-aged man my grandmother would have described as a “sad sack”. He’s an unemployed art historian with a specialty in Inuit art. Kit suffers from a lack of energy and purpose; he lost his academic job for failing to turn his manuscript in on time. His wife, Sandra, is convinced that his inertia is caused by an identity crisis. Kit was raised by a single mother, Daphne, who has steadfastly refused to give him any information about his birth father. Sandra sends Kit from his suburban New Jersey home to Vermont, where Kit’s ex-stepfather, Jasper, lives. Sandra believes that Jasper, who was married to Daphne during most of Kit’s childhood, knows the truth about Kit’s father.

coverIt doesn’t take the reader long to figure out who Kit’s father is, so I’m not giving anything away by revealing the fact that Kit’s father was Malachy Burns, who died of AIDS in Three Junes. Readers of Three Junes will recognize Malachy in the very first chapter, which takes place at the Vermont arts camp where Daphne and Malachy met as teenagers. Readers will also recall Malachy’s mother, Lucinda Burns. In an interview, Julia Glass says the character of Lucinda was the inspiration for And the Dark Sacred Night:

It grew initially out of my sudden yearning to revisit a character from Three Junes: Lucinda Burns, the mother of the music critic Malachy Burns. She’s a character I had a tough time getting right, but once I did (well, I hope I did!), I fell in love with her and was sad to leave her behind. Lucinda led me back to a teeny-tiny subplot of Three Junes involving a baby born to a 17-year-old single mother in the late 1960s. And the Dark Sacred Night is, in the smallest of nutshells, the story of that grown-up-baby’s search for his father. In a roundabout way, this new character gave me the way to delve deeper into Lucinda’s life. Inevitably, she led me back to Fenno McLeod, the character who seems to come back to me again and again, always just when I think I’ve sent him packing for good.

It’s easy to see why Glass is attached to her characters and revisits their lives. More than any other contemporary novelist I’ve read, she creates complex characters that seem real: imperfect, sometimes likable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and fully textured. Even the minor characters in the novel — Jasper’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and employee, Loraina, and Lucinda’s overscheduled daughter, Christina, for example — are well-developed and have important roles to play. Glass also excels at capturing poignant moments in ordinary life. The scene in which Lucinda brings her husband, Zeke, home from the hospital after he’s suffered a stroke, is heartbreakingly and vividly rendered:

Christina helps her father out of the car while Lucinda wrestles with the walker, unfolding and locking its cheap metal wings. Each of the women holds onto one side while Zeke fumbles for a grip.

Even though she knows he’s stooping to keep his balance, to meet the demands of this crablike contraption, Zeke seems disturbingly smaller to Lucinda. He dozed on the half-hour drive from the rehab center, and now, still, he says nothing.

Once inside the front door he glances around. He spots the hospital bed. “Christ, it’s come to this,” he says. Though it sounds like, “Frise, come to fuss.”

Music is a thread that runs through the novel. Kit says he “cannot imagine a childhood without music”. Daphne is a classically trained cellist who once dreamed of a  career as a performer, now supporting herself as a music teacher, and Malachy was a flutist who came to be a well-known music critic. Both the opening and closing chapters of the book take place at the music camp where they met.  Music is a bridge to the past; at the concert at the end of the book, Daphne recalls, “‘There was a concert like this one when I was here.'” The novel takes its title from the Louis Armstrong song, “What a Wonderful World”. Fenno McLeod, an old friend of Malachy’s, recalls a discussion about the meaning of the song:

Do you know that song, “What a Wonderful World”? We hear it so often that it’s become about as moving as a beer jingle. But it’s beautiful . . . What I mean is that the past is like the night: dark yet sacred. It’s the time when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are. But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past.

The characters in And the Dark Sacred Night are trying to make sense of the mysterious past and how it connects to the sometimes confusing present. Glass suggests that Kit’s lack of knowledge about his origins has almost paralyzed him. I wonder, though, if Kit’s inability to take charge of his life is really rooted in his fatherlessness, or if it’s simply his genetic makeup. The plot depends, to a certain extent, on the reader believing — as Sandra does — that Kit’s life will be transformed once he learns about his father. As much as I love the characters and the writing in the novel, I have trouble with this premise. I think Kit is a just a passive person by nature. Recalling his attempts to do first-hand research with Inuit artists, he says:

He did like driving though the wilderness, through the brief, bright flowering of the tundra . . . but when it came to striking up a conversation with the artists he met, asking them to talk about their work, he turned shy and formal. He learned little beyond what he needed to know. Kit had no clue how to ask the startling question that would yield the unexpected revelation.

And the Dark and Sacred Night isn’t really a sequel to Three Junes, but once you’ve read one, you will want to read the other, because the characters are so compelling. Fenno McLeod’s family — particularly his mother, a collie breeder in Scotland — will win your heart. (It’s interesting that Jasper Noonan is a dog breeder as well.)  I wonder if Julia Glass has sent her characters “packing for good”, or if we will see more of them in future novels?