Some of Scotland’s greatest writers have been bilingual in English and Gaelic. In the last 100 years there have been glorious examples, from Sorley MacLean, through Iain Crichton Smith and Derick Thomson, to Aonghas MacNeacail, Meg Bateman, Peter MacKay, and many more. Although all are distinctly individual, it does appear there is something in the nature of their bi-culturalism which lends the work otherworldliness, at the same time belonging yet standing apart. This comes not only from language and culture, but from place, history and a deeply felt sense of home, wherever that may be. If you want to understand Scotland in as wide a sense as possible, (past, present and future), you have to include such writers in your ‘must read’ pile.
One who you should definitely seek out is Angus Peter Campbell. His novel ‘The Girl On The Ferryboat’ is one of the best of this millennium in any language. It has been published both in English and Gaelic, and it would be interesting to hear from anyone who has read it in both. But while that is a bold move, it is perhaps the least interesting thing about this wonderful and surprising novel. Any book, which opens with a quote from David Hume’s ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, (a strong nomination for the greatest Scottish book ever written), has me at hello, and there are also early mentions of Sartre, Marx and Hegel to whet the appetite of those who read philosophy as well as literature. But while there are philosophical questions asked it is a novel that is mostly concerned with fate, luck, love and the passing of time, and as with all Campbell’s writing it is a lyrical delight.
It is in many ways a remembrance of things past as lives are examined with key moments and seemingly insignificant occurrences given equal importance as they make up ordinary lives rendered extraordinary by Campbell’s unforgettable imagery and poetic turn of phrase. Boy almost meets the girl on the ferryboat on a hot summer’s day. Over the years he has cause to think about her, allowing fantasy to comfort him when life is less easy. 40 years later, and the same two people meet again in the same place, and the book concentrates (although by no means wholly) on their lives in the intervening years between these two moments. By that point you’ll be open to the possibility of such a coincidence as Campbell will have convinced you that anything is possible. Fate, serendipity, destiny or chance; whatever you want to call it you’ll want to believe in it.
Musical interlude time, and the brief mention of Chet Baker is all the excuse I need to play his version of ‘My Funny Valentine’:
‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’ is a novel to be adored as it is about adoration of life, especially when that is reflected in others, and the stories that result and which nourish us when we need them to. It is not only about memory; it acts like memory taking you to places you don’t expect, and provoking feelings that are powerful and often disorientating. Campbell treats his readers with a curious mix of respect and playfulness, trusting them to go where he takes them, but taking great delight in wrong-footing them while he does so. The past and present intertwine, as stories told and songs sung do with reality, and you often have to work hard to try and separate these strands. Eventually you’ll realise it doesn’t really matter as writing such as this is as sensual as it is intellectual. Actually, it’s much more so.
It is magical, mythical and philosophical in the best possible way. It’s a novel about love and regrets, of which there are more then a few to mention, but which are balanced against the victories that also occur in a lifetime. If, while reading the final chapters, there are not tears on the page you are a stronger person than I as there is a stark reminder that fate can be cruel as well as kind. Campbell has written a book that is a celebration of life and all its possibilities. Another great philosopher, Bill Hicks, said that in life you had a choice between fear and love. There is no doubt which choice Angus Peter Campbell has made.
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Next Month’s Novel: Tartan Noir and crime fiction continue to be hugely popular, commanding its own space in our bookstores, and spawning crime fiction festivals such as Bloody Scotland.
It could be argued that, the novel that has been most influential in this renaissance is Denise Mina’s ‘Garnethill’, and I’ll be doing just that next month, so have your counter arguments ready.