Spare chronicler of his own Cape Breton

Alistair MacLeod: July 20th, 1936 – April 20th, 2014

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 00:42

Alistair Mac Leod, a Canadian writer whose only novel – composed over 13 years and extracted from him only after a campaign by his publisher involving surveillance, subterfuge and outright bribery – brought him literary fame, a lucrative prize and a bottle of very fine Scotch, died Sunday in Windsor, Ontario. He was 77. The cause was complications of a stroke.

The appearance of Mac Leod’s novel No Great Mischief , published in 1999 to rapturous reviews, augmented the quiet, impeccably burnished reputation he had long had among other writers. In 2002 the Glasgow Herald Scotland described him as “one of the greatest living writers in English”; his work has been translated into many languages. In 2001, No Great Mischief won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. The prize of €100,000 is widely described as the world’s largest for a single work of fiction.

The sweep of Mac Leod’s reputation today is all the more noteworthy when considered alongside his slender output, the one novel and fewer than two dozen short stories. If, as he liked to say, he seemed constitutionally equipped to turn out a novel once every 60 years or so, he had his reasons. To begin with, he had a day job: at his death, he was an emeritus professor of English at the University of Windsor.

Mac Leod avoided computers, setting his work down in longhand with a watchmaker’s deliberation. “When I put my stubby ballpoint pen on the paper,” he told the Santa Fe New Mexican , “I take a lot of time thinking about what I’m writing. And so I say to myself, ‘Well, now this has to happen,’ and I make little notes to myself, like ‘Don’t forget to make the parents older than the children.’”

Like nearly all Mac Leod’s fiction “ No Great Mischief ” is set on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, where he spent his boyhood and maintained a home . A multigenerational story that intertwines the fates of the island’s fishermen and miners with those of their Scottish forebears, the novel explores what for its author was an abiding concern: the tensions that pervade a community caught between the pull of tradition and the pressure of assimilation.

Narrated by Alexander Mac Donald, who has forsaken his island roots for a life of bourgeois discontent as an orthodontist, the novel is set against a background of Gaelic speech, old Scottish songs and the ever-present swing of the sea. But as Mac Leod’s spare, elegiac prose makes plain, life on Cape Breton is no pastoral idyll.

A coal miner’s son, John Alexander Joseph Mac Leod was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in July 1936, a descendant of ancestors who came to Cape Breton from the Hebrides in the late 18th century. His parents, Gaelic-speaking Cape Breton natives, had moved to Saskatchewan to seek work during the Depression, but when Alistair was 10, they returned with him to the island.