Read Magnus Merriman Online

Authors: Eric Linklater

Magnus Merriman

Eric Linklater


Introduced by Douglas Gifford

This is one of the funniest of all twentieth-century Scottish novels, a satire on the movement known as ‘the Scottish Renaissance'. It is also an unusual example of the relatively rare
of the political novel, although unlike Disraeli or C.P. Snow, Linklater sets up his political world only in order to knock it down. In the same way, the novel relates to a
developed by D.H. Lawrence, Neil Gunn and Grassic Gibbon, in which it is asserted that an organic relationship exists between man and his natural environment, a relationship which is more important than the superficialities of urban and social life. And then, this relationship in turn is held up to mockery, in a way which locates this novel as the Scottish equivalent of Stella Gibbon's wonderful parody,
Cold Comfort Farm

, like so much of Linklater's work, defies categorization. Indeed, Linklater was to be disappointed all his life about not being taken seriously by critics. In his various autobiographies he typically both deplored the lack of serious consideration given to his books and mocked his ‘inability' to impose his own character on his novels. Perhaps, he suggested, ‘I have no character positive enough to impress itself on topics of every sort'—hardly a reflection which will ring true to the reader of this novel! A more valid reason for his critical neglect might be his refusal to follow literary trends and fashions in general. His mockery of modernism after the Great War reveals his scorn for what he saw as ‘the disruption of language' by writers like Joyce and Eliot, and in
he found ‘indomitable infantility' amongst most creative writers of the day. But for a full understanding of his apparently contradictory love of and scorn for literature (and even his own work) we must know something of his unusual
and restless search for an identity, which perhaps he never really found.

Born in 1899 in Penarth, South Wales, Linklater, son of a sailor from Orkney, and of a Swedish-English mother, was all through his life to encourage the idea that he was the essential Orkneyman. In fact, as his biographer Michael Parnell has revealed, until he was fourteen Linklater had only been to Scotland and Orkney on holiday. When the family moved north it was to Aberdeen, not to Orkney, and Linklater only rooted himself in Orkney on his marriage in 1934. What this reveals is not so much an evasion of truth as the more important pursuit of a dream, comparable to the way Magnus pursues
visions. Like Magnus, Linklater had many such dreams, as a soldier, in two world wars, with a career of great distinction (becoming Commander of the Orkney Fortress in 1940), as a politician (like Magnus, he stood for parliament for the snp in 1933), as a Highland gentleman; and (probably his final dream) as ‘an old peasant with a pen'. It is not surprising that there were contradictions and tensions between these dreams, so varied are they in their values, perspectives and
. Linklater's clipped, anglicized army utterance did not speak for the whole man; and perhaps in the end the problem for his writing was that other voices, reductive and mocking, ironic and Rabelaisian, kept undercutting his formally serious and intellectually ambitious self.

The novels reflect this variety, from the light comedy and Anglocentric whimsies of
Poet's Pub
, and
Ripeness is
, with its Wodehousian frolics in English rectories, to the American and Chinese adventures of his post-Byronic anti-hero, young Juan, to the
-22-style mockeries of war and ‘manliness' in
Private Angelo
(1946), whose peasant anti-hero freely admits that he ‘lacks the gift of courage'. This novel alone, set beside Linklater's sympathetic and serious wartime histories (like his moving
for the surrender of the Highland Division in 1940), shows the contradiction (or as his fellow Scottish Renaissance writer, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, would have described it) the antisyzygy at the heart of the man's view of life. Linklater's fundamental unwillingness to let himself preach a message,
with his preference for lively extremes, may have unsettled critics who wanted consistent development; but it gives his novels a delightful and human unpredictability, which should transcend the vagaries of literary fashion.

Amidst the zigzagging between polar opposites of Scottish-English, flippant and sombre, conservative and sceptical, Linklater's willed Orkney identity acted as a sheet- anchor. Indeed his forebears had been Orkney men for hundreds of years. Something like Jung's ‘collective unconscious', the ‘great race memory' in the bone, may have been working through him, much as Magnus's memories of Orkney call more insistently to him than soldiering or journalism, or even Scotland itself. This author's relations with his fatherland were ambivalent, to say the least.

At Aberdeen University after the war, Linklater changed from medicine to English. As with Magnus, a profound love of Elizabethan and English literature, its rhythms and linguistic resources, captured him more than the Scottish tradition did (Scottish literature was little taught at that time). Becoming Assistant Editor of the
of India in 1925–7, he travelled back to Britain via Asia and America.
White Maa's Saga
being the northern term for a gull),
Poet's Pub
Juan in America
all followed.
Men of Ness
(1931), is perhaps Linklater's most profound exploration of his Orkney ancestry, for the novel's style and story recreate the traditional Orkney saga. He thought he had revived a fashion of writing characteristic of the great medieval Scottish
like Dunbar and Henryson. The Sagas speak through him, and his empathy with modes of thought over a thousand years old, suggests why Linklater would never quite fit convenient categories of modern literature. The novel's scepticism about the values of humanity, its mordant and understated humour, its genuine sharing of Viking attitudes in an exuberant but essentially pessimistic awareness of the transience and pointlessness of life—all argue that Orkney was a fixed and elemental place in Linklater's heart, whatever temporary illusions or ambitions he might allow himself to enjoy along the way.

All this gives
Magnus Merriman
its themes and its structure. It begins with Linklater's ‘Admonition', in which he
detaches himself from Magnus, warning that just because his hero contested a by-election he isn't to be taken
him. Yet he knows he protests too much. The protagonists of
White Maa's Saga
Juan in America do
represent sides of Linklater, and Magnus does, too. The novel is perhaps the closest of all his work to the experiences and feelings of its author in the 1920s and 1930s. Those were the years of the ‘Scottish Renaissance' in which the lyrics of Hugh MacDiarmid and his long polemical and philosophical poem
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
(1926), had restored the issues of language, identity and political autonomy to the social and cultural agenda of Scotland. Linklater was to become one of the outstanding writers of this Renaissance, yet his attitude towards it is typically ambivalent. Essentially, he mocks himself
the Renaissance: himself as a self-deceiving dreamer, whose bubbles of delusion are burst with monotonous regularity; and the Renaissance as human dreaming writ large, a Scottish collective wishfulness. What disguises the basic simplicity of this design is the way the author identifies with Magnus's thoughts, and the moving and lyrical episodes in which the reader is virtually compelled to share the dream too. Thus Linklater speaks with two voices, for
against self-and social deception, with something of Walter Scott's division between the values of the heart and the conclusions of the head.

The character of Magnus is clearly meant to have archetypal significance, but he is something of a parody of those other renaissance heroes—like Gunn's boys, representing their race, or McColla's Murdo Anderson in
The Albannach
, who stands for the spirit of Highland revival, or Chris Guthrie of
A Scots Quair
, who is also ‘Chris Caledonia'. But what values, nation or society does Magnus represent? Part of Linklater's cleverness lies in leaving this open to the reader to decide. At one level he can be a kind of ‘Great Laughter', Rabelaisian and reductive, that kind of Merry Humanity which trips and stumbles its never-too-serious pilgrimage through life. But the name has deliberate Orkney echoes, reminding us of Earl Magnus, the saint of the twelfth century, whose cathedral in Kirkwall ‘rides time', in the words of Orkney poet George Mackay Brown. Less
saintly, Magnus can be seen as the essential spirit of Orkney, elementally Viking, making occasional raids out from his island fastness to cock a snook at the ridiculous world at large. Indeed, the progress of the book takes Magnus away from his pretensions as an international Everyman towards another identity, reduced but still essential, as an Orkneyman.

Broadly, the novel moves between these two poles. It's important to see that Magnus's war travels in Mesopotamia and Persia, his London adventures,
his Scottish politicking, all belong to the international Everyman phase of his life. Not for nothing do the Orcadians regard Scotland as ‘over there'. In the last referendum on Scottish Home Rule in 1979 Orkney and Shetland voted to be neither part of Scotland nor the United Kingdom. This would appear to be Linklater's message too—until the reader recalls those moving passages when Edinburgh's romantic, brooding castle swirls through dark mist, or when Magnus reads of the war's dead in the castle's chapel, or when he has a vision of the varieties of green in Scotland's landscapes. So what
the novel's movement northwards telling us?

As far as Magnus is concerned, the movement stems from a common pattern of deflation. Aspiring to military glory, he shoves his bayonet up his Captain's behind. Loving like the world's great lovers Troilus and Romeo, he comes to perceive in his mistress's words—not antelopes in a pale gold morning, but butcher's sheep, and suddenly she seems to him like a fat-bottomed squaw. Dreaming of mastering the mighty torrent of English and of being a poet, Magnus wakes up next day with a crapula. (Linklater mocks the reader by using archaic and specialist words like this at junctures which deflate the reader's sense of sureness— an echo of his central theme.) And the Scottish national dream is simply the biggest self-delusion of all. Note how skilfully and quickly Linklater turns Magnus around from a position of Imperial Conservatism to one where he actually
he's been moving towards Nationalism for some time. Magnus speaks Meiklejohn's words as though they have always been his, when a short while ago he would have had one of his exuberant drunken fistfights on behalf
of the other side! Magnus is embarrassingly fickle, a dreamer like Scott's Waverley, a born actor like Barrie's Sentimental Tommy.

Does Linklater therefore think little of the Scottish real- life characters he mocks? Hugh Skene
Hugh MacDiarmid, and Beatty Bracken
Wendy Wood, and Linklater was taken to court for his description of how she flushed the Union Jack down the toilet. Meiklejohn is Moray McLaren, and Melvin McMaster is Ramsay MacDonald, for this is a
roman à clef
, and unlocking its actuality would seem to suggest denigration pure and simple. But does it? After all, Skene
allowed the glow of real genius, and it's only his excesses which are mocked. Consider too that, for all the marvellous satire of Skene's impenetrable Scots poetry in ‘The Flauchter-spaad', equal if not greater scorn is reserved for the transatlantic intellectual snobbery and deceit in English literature. Furthermore, the arguments Magnus encounters and uses in his election campaign are genuinely valid, and were seen so by Linklater. It's just that at the end of the day Linklater doesn't think much of
human comedy, as the descriptions of the empty-coat figure of Ramsay MacDonald and British politics clearly show; or consider the later exposure of the world of journalism and Lady Mercy—a prophetic picture of
folie de grandeur
in a press baron. Set in this context, the nationalist dreams are an uneasy mixture of validity and vanity, and Linklater's novel is a healthy corrective, or perhaps a stringent laxative, to the national epics and romances of peasant revival which were to abound in Scotland from 1926 until the Second World War.

Under all Magnus's activities in love and politics, the reader should hear the ever-strengthening call of Orkney. The north called Magnus away from London and his farcical love-affair there; Fife and its fair shores reminded him again of the glories of the Highlands; and when Frieda's love and his election hopes are so typically and ferociously dashed, the second great movement of the novel begins. Yet even here Linklater cannot speak with a single voice. After the initially convincing lyricism of the return to Orkney, we realize that Magnus is about to fall yet again into visionary
delusion: this time, in his Lawrentian exaltation of ordinary, robust farmers and farming into types of eternal truth, representatives of the earth's underlying rhythms. Here the novel is at its most subtle, in that Linklater knows full well he is being ironic at the expense of his own dearest thoughts on Orkney. Linklater will not allow himself to rest in what he sees as the false anthropological comfort of Edwin Muir, Neil Gunn or Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Instead, his fundamental scepticism must see Magnus stripped of even these consolations. Jupiter, the god-like bull, the great would-be sire of Magnus's envisioned and heroic pedigree beasts, is the ultimate symbol of life's quirky and grotesque refusal to live up to our dreams. Magnus's hopes of being the archetypal crofter, in tune with season and beast, die with his pathetic bull. And the loss of his Orkney idyll is accompanied by the loss of his dreams of a womanly ideal. In this respect the progress of the novel has brought him from a false romance about Margaret Innes, through his earthy but selfish passion for Frieda Forsyth (the raunchy American whose reality is too much for Magnus's spurious notions of female ‘purity'), to marriage with his Orkney Rose, whom he sees as a shy country maiden, the essence of her island race, but who turns out to be a selfish, ruthless tyrant in the home.

Other books

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr
The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle, Terry Castle
The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt
What Matters Most by Melody Carlson
Vibrizzio by Nicki Elson
The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax Copyright 2016 - 2023