It took me a while to settle into my first read of 2007. I enjoyed engaging in the various reflective exercises connected with entering a new year: analyzing last year’s reading stats, determining last year’s favourites, and formulating reading resolutions for the forthcoming year. But that sort of thing tends to attach undue significance to the next book picked up. I kept starting books and abandoning them, some for all time, but most with a view to attempting them again later when I’m more in the mood for them.
The book that finally hooked me was Maggie Fergusson’s George Mackay Brown: The Life. I picked this one up during my trip to Scotland last spring, but it was its appearance on someone else’s “best of 2006” list that reminded me of its existence and prompted me to pull it off the shelf and crack it open.
I was hooked right from the first chapter which is unusual in a biography despite my fondness for the genre. Even when the subject of the biography is someone who fascinates me, I almost always get bogged down in the obligatory genealogical chapter that tracks back through several generations of his or her family tree. Refreshingly, Fergusson bypasses most of that here, noting only those details of family history that were important to Brown personally and to his literary development. Indeed, Fergusson devotes more space in the opening chapters to Orkney history and mythology than to family history which is just as it should be given how deeply rooted Brown’s life and his writing were in the Orkney landscape.
This was the first indication of Fergusson’s genius for biography and it carried right through to the end. At each point in Brown’s life story, she provides the necessary context deftly but unobtrusively. She must have done an enormous amount of research on a wide array of subjects for this biography but there is no point at which the background information overwhelms the subject. For example, a chapter focused on Brown’s diagnosis with and treatment for tuberculosis as a teenager is grounded in information about the social perception and the medical understanding of the disease at the time, but Brown’s experience of the disease and its impact on his life and his writing remain central.
Brown was born in Orkney and lived there his entire life with the exception of brief stints attending college at Newbattle then university in Edinburgh. Here he is at the beginning of his time in Edinburgh:
At every turn, George felt brought up short by buildings. It was like being snared in a stone web. Compared with Orkney, where all the buildings were scoured clean by salt wind and rain, Edinburgh seemed filthy. ‘Auld Reekie’ was still a coal-powered city, and the facades of institutions like the Royal Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland, now pewter-coloured, were then black. The novelist Candia McWilliam, who grew up in Edinburgh during George’s undergraduate years, remembers moving about the city in autumn and winter under a continual pall of smoke, breathing air the colour of old vellum. Everywhere, inescapable, was the smell of coal. It collided in the air with the thick scent of fermenting hops from the breweries; and when there was no wind, and the air was damp, smog descended suddenly, so dense sometimes that you could hardly see your finger if you held it before your nose. Leaving his lodgings one smoggy October evening, the man who lived in the room below George stepped unwittingly into the path of a bus, and was killed.
All this induced in George a kind of despair. He knew he could not go back to Orkney; for all his homesickness, he had begun to wither there for lack of direction. Nor did he see that he could ever be happy in Edinburgh. He would stick it out as long as he could, he wrote home, but the chances of his completing the four-year course were slim.
This sets the scene perfectly for me. I know the city well, but in that first paragraph Fergussen knocks my Edinburgh out of my head and plunks me down in Brown’s Edinburgh. Despite that inauspicious beginning, Brown did grow to love Edinburgh. He never fit in with his fellow university students, most of them many years his junior. But he found his place among the poets who frequented the Rose Street pubs. His time in Edinburgh spanned only a few years but it was of pivotal importance in his writing life, and it makes for one of the most interesting sections of the book.
I won’t attempt to sum up the rest of Brown’s story here, but rather encourage you to read the book for yourself. George MacKay Brown was an odd, complicated man and a brilliant writer and Fergusson has, in her first book, produced a biography fully worthy of him.
I always feel a bit bereft when ejected at the end of a good biography. But the beauty of a literary biography is that there’s a ready way back into to the writer’s world through their work. I had read Brown’s poetry and non-fiction before embarking on the biography, but for some reason I’d never delved into his fiction. I’ve now checked three of his novels and two of his short story collections out of the library, and a second-hand copy of his autobiography is winging its way toward me from a bookshop in Aberdeen. I’ve got plenty of quality time in the company of George Mackay Brown still ahead of me...