Why not spend a week with a little-known novel? At the end of the week, it might be better known. It should be.
The grim and pessimistic The House with the Green Shutters (1901) by George Douglas Brown has been the biggest Scottish Reading Challenge surprise since the grim and pessimistic The City of Dreadful Night by Bysshe Vanolis. Unlike Vanolis, Brown is not any sort of visionary writer, which, to me, makes him more challenging. The cosmic pessimism of Vanolis exists somewhere down in the depths of the soul, to the extent that it exists at all. Brown’s grimness is altogether smaller but closer to my daily life.
The House with the Green Shutters is a tyrannical father versus weak son story, subdivision: small town. The townspeople sometimes function as a petty, mean-spirited chorus. “Ours is a nippy locality” (Ch. 10) says Brown in a grotesque deadpan worthy of Thackeray. Sly business tricks, cancer, overweening pride, Robert Burns, and an absolutely astounding quantity of Scotch whisky all play a part in the story. The Scotch is the good stuff:
"I generally prefer 'Kinblythmont's Cure,'" said Gourlay, with the air of a connoisseur. "But 'Anderson's Sting o' Delight' 's very good, and so's 'Balsillie's Brig o' the Mains.'" (Ch. 20)
Brown warns the reader, repeatedly, that tragedy will ensue, and boy does it. Chapter 25, near the end, an unflinching portrait of angry abuse, is almost unbearable in its awful tension, hard on the reader, but even harder on the characters. Perhaps the results are tragic. I did not find much in the way of catharsis in the end, but who knows.
The novel – all novels, really – should come with a warning label. This one is not for readers who fear: dialect writing; dry humor; a discomforting view of the world. The dialect and humor, at least, are essential to the art of the novel. Brown’s style is related to that of John Galt, and the novel is the only clear descendant of The Entail and The Provost (both 1822) I’ve ever read. Galt’s Scotland is all sunshine and wooly lambs compared to the brutal Brown. No, strike that – one of Brown’s ironies is that his town is almost always sunny. Not much of the pathetic fallacy here. The most shady doings take place in bright daylight.
Brown also has some similarities to Thomas Hardy. The overbearing father is in part brought down by a younger, more entrepreneurial rival, a subplot that reminded me strongly of The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). Hardy often seems to me to be groping at the limits of his language, attempting to express the inexpressible, like Vanolis in this sense. Brown is not just more plain-spoken but his ideas almost exclude the transcendent. Everything gets pulled back into the mud.
Poor George Douglas Brown. He wrote this novel, its quality I suspect a surprise even to the author, and received some genuine acclaim, and sales. A year later, he died of pneumonia, age 33. Brutal.
Let’s see what I can do with a week of The House with the Green Shutters.