Last May I, exceptionally, raved about the prose of a novellist, one William McIlvanney who, I have just learned, has died at the age of 79. As a tribute, I want to reproduce the post –
These last few days I have been doing something I rarely do – I have been “savouring” a book – word by word as distinct from my usual habit of skimming. …..laughing out loud in delight at the language; marking sections every few pages with a pencil. And this is a novel – not my usual fare! A detective novel to boot – "Strange Loyalties" (1991). The book - the last of a trilogy - is written by one of the most underrated writers not only of the British Isles but perhaps in the English-speaking world - William McIlvanney
Here are a few samples of his style -
The thought was my funeral for him. Who needs possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do…. are the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing….(p80).
It was one of her partners who answered (the phone). When she knew it was me, her voice – always distant – more or less emigrated…..(p112)
Attractiveness facilitates acquaintance, like a courier predisposing strangers to goodwill, and my mother had acquired early an innocent vanity that let her enjoy being who she was. But the kindness of other people towards her made her as idealistic as my father in her own way. She tended to think the way people treated her was how they treated everybody. She thought the best of them was all there was (p 128).
Why do the best of us go to waste while the worst flourish? Maybe I had found a clue….Those who love life take risks, those who don’t take insurance. But that was all right, I decided. Life repays its lovers by letting them spend themselves on it. Those who fail to love it, it cunningly allows very carefully to accrue their own hoarded emptiness. In living, you won by losing big; you lost by winning small (p 134).
Where I had come into what I took for manhood….meant much to me, not just as a geography but as a landscape of the heart, a quintessential Scotland where good people were my landmarks and the common currency was a mutual caring. Why did it feel so different to me today, a little seedy and withdrawn? p 183
(Some might have thought her mad). But she wasn’t mad, just too sane to play along with the rest of us. She had awakened from her sleep-walk long enough to recognize the minefield we call normality. She had found a way to admit to herself the prolonged terror of living. Some people never do. p 206
The invention of truth, no matter how desperately you wish it to be or how sincerely you believe in the benefits it will bring, is the denial of our nature, the first rule of which is the inevitability of doubt. We must doubt not only others but ourselves. (p 210)
You offer him a vague perception and he takes it from you, cleans off the gunge and gives it back, having shown you how it works. He clarifies you to yourself. (p258)
Little wonder that in the tributes now being paid to him, this was said
His true peers were not alumni of the American hard-boiled school, such as Chandler and Hammett, but the likes of Gogol and Dostoevsky, Zola and Céline. He wrote about hard times and tough people – so-called “big men” and trauchled women – dealing with the fallout of unemployment, poverty and ignorance.“Why Willie is not better known outside his own heath has always been a mystery. In any other country that prizes the art of literature he would have been lionised.
Generous tribute was paid to him in 2013 Allan Massie – a writer mainly of historical novels
McIlvanney, born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, established himself some time ago as the best Scottish novelist of his generation. Docherty (1975), a social-political family novel set in a declining mining community, won the Whitbread award for fiction. Long before any but a handful of people had heard of Alasdair Gray, and before James Kelman had published anything, McIlvanney was recognised as the man who spoke authentically for the Scottish working class, out of which he had, like so many, been educated, being a graduate of Glasgow University and then a schoolteacher. So perhaps he wasn’t surprised when another teacher, encountered in a Glasgow bar, told him he had disgraced himself by stooping to write a crime novel – namely “Laidlaw”.
The charge was ridiculous; crime is a serious matter. Of course, most crime fiction is ordinary fare, read for amusement only. It may trivialise what is not, and should not be, trivial. But crime is at the heart of many great novels. Bleak House, which is a crime novel, is not trivial; Simenon’s novels are not trivial or mere entertainment; nor are McIlvanney’s three Laidlaw books. Their subject is the ruin of the body, the distortion of the soul, and the corruption of society.McIlvanney never allows us to forget that the damage crime does is not merely physical. Murder is always a form of betrayal, a denial of the respect with which we should treat each other. It infects everything around it.
Laidlaw, an intellectual policeman, is damaged by what he experiences. He believes in communities; interviewing an elderly, loyal, but saddened mother in "Strange Loyalties", he reflects that there is nothing he wouldn’t do for the working-class women of that generation who held families together. But he himself is driven into isolation.
McIlvanney is an existentialist writer, like Camus, whom he admires, has learnt from, and matches.He has never been prolific. If he had taken the advice he was given – to write an annual Laidlaw novel – he might be a rich man in his old age; but he has always gone his own way. The republication of these novels now will revive interest, and perhaps lead him to write another, as he has sometimes talked of doing. But his reputation, not only as the father of tartan noir, is assured. “Docherty”, almost 40 years on, is established as a modern Scottish classic, and I have no doubt that “The Kiln” (1996), which is, in one sense, a two-generations-later sequel, is a masterpiece. It confirmed him, to my mind, as the finest Scottish novelist of our time.
It is one of those rare books that does what Ford Madox Fordthought imaginative literature could do better than any other art, making you think and feel at the same time.The “Kiln” is a novel of a hard-won maturity. Its hero, a novelist lost in the dark wood of middle age, sits, looking out at a cemetery, in a rented flat – in Edinburgh, not Glasgow (a sign of his displacement) – and gazes back on the summer when he was 17, in limbo between school and university, a magic summer which saw his passage to adult life.
The evocation of that time is beautiful, but now, behind him, is a broken marriage, memories of erratic social behaviour, and he is perplexed, as we all must sometimes be, by the question of what he has made of his life. He broods on the problem which is perhaps central to all experience: how to reconcile his sense of what he owes to himself with his knowledge of what he owes to others. There is then a vein of melancholy in the novel, but this is relieved by the often joyous vitality with which that summer is recalled, and enlivened by the acute social observation and darting shafts of wit. It’s a novel that tells you how it is, and therefore enriches your imaginative experience.
As a novelist myself (Allan Massie), I admire its craft. As a reader I can only be grateful. Almost 2,000 years ago, the younger Pliny wrote that “a man’s life contains hidden depths and large secret areas”. The thought is common. In Faust Goethe says: “Die Menschen sind im ganzen Leben blind” – men are blind throughout their life. True enough, but the best novelists offer us a means of opening our eyes, peering into these depths, and exploring these secret places, and they do so whatever their subject.
William McIlvanney is one of the rare novelists who help us to know both the social world and our innermost selves. He is both moralist and artist, and a writer to be cherished.
There was a great interview with him in a 2010 issue of the Scottish Review of Books