John Burnside recently won the T.S. Eliot prize and the Forward prize for his amazing poetry collection ‘Black Cat Bone’. In 1988 his debut book of poetry ‘The Hoop’ won The Scottish Arts Council Book Award. In between he has published eight novels and 13 collections of poetry nearly all of which won awards of some shape or size. Add to that his astonishingly candid memoir from 2006 ‘A Lie About My Father’ and you have what stacks up as a hugely impressive body of work. So why is Burnside not better known? I have to admit that I’m stumped.
Many of Burnside’s novels are among my favourite of recent times. I could have chosen ‘The Mercy Boys’, ‘Burning Elvis’ or ‘Glister’ but this month looks at his 2007 novel ‘The Devil’s Footprints’ and that is the choice because it is the book of Burnside’s which most directly pays tribute to a Scottish literary tradition in terms of themes and writers, most obviously the gothic/supernatural/psychological writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and James Hogg.
There is also a nod to the Kailyard style of writing that was popular in the late 19th century in Scotland. The novel is set in Coldhaven, a small village on the coast where everyone knows everyone else’s buisness. Such places are common in Scottish culture, think of Kinraddie in ‘Sunset Song’, or Summerisle in ‘The Wicker Man’. Like those two places Coldhaven has its share of secrets and scandals. A classic trait of Kailyard is the twitching curtains, the interest in gossip that could scandalise a local resident, and Burnside understands this feature of small town life only too well. The only other contemporary Scottish writer to match him is Andrew O’Hagan, but Burnside’s writing has a darker, more disturbing, edge.
Burnside knows that individual’s are capable of terrible deeds on a daily basis, the evil of the everyday. His prose in particular takes a largely misanthropic look at life, and in ‘The Devil’s Footprints’ the central character of Michael Gardiner begins to beleive he has a double who is committing terrible deeds and who, in an obvious nod to Hogg’s ‘The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, may or may not be the devil. The local mythology about the devil once walking through the town and leaving his footprints in the snow is given as the spark of this idea, and is itself a direct reference to Stevenson’s short story ‘Thrawn Janet’.
This sets the tone for the novel where the reader is never sure what to think or who to believe. Michael becomes obsessed with Hazel, the daughter of a woman who he used to date, and who just could be his daughter. So begins one of the dark relationships which come to define Michael’s life, and the book. Michael is similar to Joe in Alexander Trocchi’s ‘Young Adam’, or Rob Catto in Duncan MacLean’s ‘Bunker Man’ in the sense that he seems to lack a moral centre, or is at least confused as to how he should react to certain people and situations. At one point he describes himself as;
“A man: dirty, old, clean, young, what difference did it make? Just a man; which was to say: a set of wants, a collection of impulses, a huddle of needs, only half of them visible to his own sorry gaze.”
The novel ends with Michael explaining that there are two possible stories as to why the devil left his footprints all those years ago, and this division of the tale is typical of the book as a whole. Some may read it as Gothic thriller, some as psychological examination, but really it is a skilful blending of both. How you come to view it will be somewhere between those two extremes, but you can’t understand one without some understanding of the other.
Appropriate musical interlude time, and this is a real belter. This is the legendary John Martyn at his very best with ‘I Would Rather Be The Devil’:
There are few writers who write as beautifully about often terrible things as John Burnside does. Unlike some writers who deal with violence, addiction, death or abuse he is never sensational and always honest, often painfully so. He has claimed in recent interviews that he intends to reflect his own more positive world view in his work, something which can be seen in ‘Black Cat Bone’. I hope this will not change his writing too much as few manage to show the darker side of life in such a beautiful manner. If I was to compare him to a musician it would be Nick Cave and I can’t give higher praise.
To try and answer the question posed at the top of the page, perhaps the problem is twofold. His mastery of poetry and prose means that some readers are perhaps not sure of his literary identity, something which shouldn’t matter, but often does. It could be said that Burnside is a writer’s writer, one whose use of language and sentence structure appeals to fellow craftsmen, but that would be to patronise and over simplify both reader and writer.
What Burnside does is to write prosaic poetry and poetic prose that is moving, insightful and while it is always artistic it is never at the expense of honesty and feeling. I said in conversation elsewhere this week that people would be improved by letting Mike Scott (as in The Waterboys’ Mike Scott) into their lives, and I would say the same thing about John Burnside. Pick up any of his books and you’ll find your understanding of humanity, and yourself, improved, and when a writer can do that you know that they are special.
Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: If the name Stuart David rings a bell it’ll likely be through his involvement with a little known Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, where he once played bass, before going to form the underrated Looper.
In 1999 his novel ‘Nalda Said’ was published and it is a revelation. It marries fantasy and reality in a way which has become increasingly popular over the last few years. If you think that I’ve included it in this column just to be able to play some great musical clips you’d be wrong (although I will). ‘Nalda Said’ is an enigmatic tale of growing up which should be more widely known and read. Give it a go and see for yourself.
- Stuart David Nalda Said (Apr)
- Zoe Strachan Spin Cycle (May)
- Ewan Morrison Swung (Jun)
- Martin Millar Lux the Poet (Jul)
- Andrew Raymond Drennan The Immaculate Heart (Aug)