Culture Shock: One hundred years of solitude and paragraphs that span centuries
Behind almost everything in MacLeod’s stories is the great wrenching of the Highland Clearances, the sense of a people violently uprooted from its land and flung down on the other side of the great ocean
Alistair MacLeod: his short stories are actually a very, very long story - the story of dispossession. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Two great masters of fiction have died in the past fortnight, but only one of them should be given to a bright 16-year-old who wants to write. Gabriel García Márquez and Alistair MacLeod had much more in common than might be obvious: both wrote out of what historians call the longue durée, time measured not in moments or decades but in the slow unfolding of centuries. But one of the great differences between them is that García Márquez was responsible for a lot of very bad books: those of writers who took his lush, fantastical plots as a licence for indulgence. It is hard to imagine that anyone would ever write badly under the influence of Alistair MacLeod.
Publishers would think very differently about this. García Márquez sold millions of books. Who would not want to emulate him? MacLeod was a publisher’s nightmare. In the 46 years between the appearance of his first story, The Boat, in the Massachusetts Review, in 1968, and his death, on April 20th, he published two books of stories, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986), and one novel, No Great Mischief (1999). With two more stories included in the collected volume Island, and a couple more that have not been published in book form, his entire output seems to consist of fewer than 20 stories and a single novel. As a literary “career” his is desultory. Even as an aesthetic career it entirely lacks drama: his voice seems more or less fully formed in The Boat, and it never really wavers or alters.
Yet MacLeod’s work is powered by an immense, epic drama. His short stories are actually a very, very long story: the story of dispossession. The title of No Great Mischief is taken from a letter written by the English general James Wolfe after the crushing of the Highland clans at Culloden, recommending the absorption of the remaining warriors into the British army fighting the French in America: “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall”. Behind almost everything in MacLeod’s stories is the great wrenching of the Highland Clearances, the sense of a people violently uprooted from its land and flung down on the other side of the great ocean.
And then they are wrenched away a second time: the new homeland of Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, cannot, in MacLeod’s generation of modernity and education, hold its children. Often the lives of his narrators read like palimpsests: beneath their contemporary lives in the mines of Saskatchewan or the universities of the Midwest is Cape Breton, and beneath Cape Breton are the Highlands and the islands of Scotland. It is this that gives to the surface ordinariness of the stories an epic depth. If García Márquez had not called his great book One Hundred Years of Solitude, MacLeod might have called his whole body of work Three Hundred Years of Solitude.
Cape Breton itself, as MacLeod evokes it, is a landscape of anomalous people and forgotten languages. “The houses and their people,” writes the narrator of The Boat of the harbour village where he grew up, “like those of the neighbouring towns and villages were the result of Ireland’s discontent and Scotland’s Highland Clearances and America’s War of Independence. Impulsive, emotional Catholic Celts who could not bear to live with England and shrewd, determined Protestant Puritans, who in the years after 1776, could not bear to live without.”
Language itself mirrors these displacements. In Clearances (1999) the narrator remembers his grandfather’s despair at the incomprehension that overtook his Gaelic tongue in an English-speaking world: “Across the river the French-speaking Acadians seemed the same, as did the M’kmaq to the east. All of them trapped in the beautiful prisons of the languages they loved.”
That comparison of white settlers to the dispossessed indigenous Indians is risky, but the cumulative effect of MacLeod’s work is to justify it. He writes classical tragedy: something fundamental has gone wrong deep in the past, and its consequences can never be avoided. What is wrong with his characters is the 18th century.
There is a heart-stopping moment in Clearances when the narrator, in a Canadian army uniform, meets a shepherd on a train in the Highlands and they speak in Gaelic. The shepherd asks him in English: “You are from Canada? You are from the Clearances?” He pronounces this last word “as if it were a place instead of a matter of historical eviction”. It is indeed the place in which MacLeod’s people live – but who can live in a place that is actually an eviction?
To make this sense of slowly unfolding time resonate from the page, MacLeod needed to forge an extraordinary language. It is often called ballad-like, but it strikes me more as biblical. Reading MacLeod’s best stories is like reading Robert Alter’s great translations of the Old Testament. There is that same sense of a language under the pressure of slow-moving time, of words that may refer to this or that incident but have to retain always the feeling of a hidden, tectonic narrative rumbling beneath its feet. Small wonder he wrote so slowly: his paragraphs have to span centuries. Like his miner father, he chiselled his words, letter by letter, from the hard face of an unyielding and uncaring history.