GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
'Interrogation of Silence'
The Herald, 2 August 2004
Of Silence – The Writings Of George Mackay Brown
and Orkney were, perhaps remain, inseparable. The young writer began by
damning his native islands as cultural deserts. By the time of his death
in 1996 he had made them the mythic extensions of his own personality.
In a narrow physical space, with repetitive themes and sometimes arid
formalism, amid recurrent health problems, Brown’s writing became an
intense, almost monkish, meditation.
any good? The necessary question is necessarily impudent. For my own
taste the fiction shows repeated, almost wilful, failures of
characterisation. Brown’s people are themes and types, much like the
figures in the Norse sagas which inspired him, not authentic
individuals. Like so many poets who turn to prose, the novelist was
over-fond of symbolism. In Brown’s fiction every voice is his own and
the tale, invariably, is subordinate to the idea.
poems, originating in precisely the same way, are a different matter.
You can trace each of Brown’s inspirations, as the Murrays, father and
daughter, do with diligence, but he remains sui generis. If he can be
characterised at all it is as an unwitting part of a very old, very
loose fraternity in which the price of membership is not style or
nationality – should we even call him a Scottish writer? – but a
conception of poetry’s meaning and purpose.
many ways the professional Orcadian is reminiscent of Robert Frost, an
avidly ambitious sophisticate who re-invented himself as a humble man of
of Celan’s editors said, meanwhile, that his verse “moved ever
closer to silence”. The
a difficult concept to convey and I am not sure that the
given the paucity of published work on Brown, there is no point in
carping. If a book such as this nudges anyone back to the poems, well
and good. Where it does succeed, in any case, is in providing a reminder
of the most intangible thing in literature, a quality Brown had in
abundance. Tone, the genetic marker of a literary personality, is the
difference between technical accomplishment and art. The voice in
Brown’s poems is ancient, soaked in legends and folk memory. Whether
as King Barleycorn or “Harald, the Agnostic Ale-Drinking Shepherd”
the poet is overlaying reality with myth. He is inventing a world.
for the most part, quite a performance. Brown made Orkney his own by
dedicating himself, in journalism and literature, to preserving its past
and culture. He also turned “George Mackay Brown”, the sickly postal
worker’s son, into a persona. While he was transforming his native
Stromness into “Hamnavoe”, or viewing landscapes with a falcon’s
eye (“To drift like a still question over/The fecund quarterings of
the field”), Orkney itself was being transformed by oil. While he was
declaring that “Orkney is a microcosm” the island community had the
mundane problems of isolation and modernity combined to contend with.
succeeded, nevertheless. As he put it: “Looking at the great wheel of
human life in a small segment is an ancient literary device. Chaucer
chose a random company of pilgrims. James Joyce wandered about Europe
but wrote entirely about the city he had exiled himself from,
times Brown gloried in his isolation and his devotion to the local and
the traditional. You wonder, nevertheless, about the sort of writer he
might have become with a larger canvas. He believed that every theme
could be found almost within walking distance.
would there have been an obsession with Saint Magnus if he had moved
from Orkney? And would the silence, eternal and pervasive, have pierced
to the roots of his being if a city had claimed him?
from The Sunday Herald, 1 August 2004