Thursday, October 21, 2010

Man, you're a noticing boy - George Douglas Brown and imagination

I keep thinking I ought to do something more like a review of The House with the Green Shutters.  It’s an excellent novel easily worth reading, for the non-squeamish.  It is important in that it is the founder of the modern Scottish novel.  I will leave it to others to decide what that means – it doesn’t mean much to me.  The introduction to the Canongate Classics edition points to Brown’s influence on Alisdair Gray, whose books I have leafed through not read (Lanark looks good), and Grassic Gibbon, who has a spectacular name, a pseudonym, I am sad to say.

If The House with the Green Shutters were merely the a blast at the narrowness of small town Scotland, I doubt it would be much.  A well-made jape, useful satire of the sentimental romanticization of Scotland, good for a laugh.

Brown is after something else, though.  He has an argument to make – that the narrowness has a specific cause: lack of imagination.  Strangely, he makes his case through a character who has too much imagination. 

I’m right in the middle of the book.  Young John Gourlay, in high school, is in a train station.  A storm approaches:

The fronting heavens were a black purple.  The thunder, which had been growling in the distance, swept forward and roared above the town.  The crash no longer rolled afar, but cracked close to the ear, hard, crepitant.  Quick lightning stabbed the world in vicious and repeated hate. (Ch. 14)

Brown’s a good descriptive writer, I assume that’s clear enough.  Something else is going on here, though.  Although there’s no way to know it at this moment, the language is hovering somewhere between the narrator and John – “in vicious and repeated hate,” where does that come from?  Or, possibly, the narrator shares John’s overripe sensitivity.  A raindrop strikes John:

It was lukewarm.  He started violently - that warmth on his cheek brought the terror so near.

The heavens were rent with a crash, and the earth seemed on fire.  Gourlay screamed in terror.

John has been infected by his father’s stupeed spitefulness, but he has his own character (his mother’s, it turns out).  His imagination is extraordinarily vivid to the point that it is dangerous.  He notices everything, and imagines more.  Why explain it, since John knows it himself:

Suddenly a blaze of lightning flamed wide, and a fork shot down its centre.

"That," said Gourlay, "was like a red crack in a white-hot furnace door."

"Man, you're a noticing boy," said the baker.

"Ay," said John, smiling in curious self-interest, "I notice things too much. They give me pictures in my mind. I'm feared of them, but I like to think them over when they're by."

I presume that George Douglas Brown is in some sense describing himself, his understanding of his own artistic temperament.  John in fact turns his hand to writing a bit later, with results that are dramatic and ultimately destructive, just annihilating.  His father, his townsmen, all lack imagination.  John has too much.  If The House with the Green Shutters is more than satire, something more unusual and disquieting, it’s right here.

Postscript: Madame Bovary readers may notice a certain kinship between that novel and this one.

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