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A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

A Scots Quair (edition 2006)

by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

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379628,030 (3.92)26
Title:A Scots Quair
Authors:Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Info:Polygon (2006), Paperback, 696 pages
Collections:Your library, 20th century
Tags:fiction, scotland, first world war

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A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon




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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Already read Sunset Song, probably going to give it a quick reread then tackle the rest.

Excellent. Just excellent. Review to follow.

EDIT: now I can't remember any of the great stuff I had to say about this book, goddamnit. Essentially, I think this is the best female character I have ever seen written in a book, and it was written by a man. What that should tell you I don't know. Too often I feel women are written in broad brush strokes, far more so than men - they're either decidedly within the traditional feminine stereotype, or an over-the-top caricature of what is seen as being opposite from feminine. It's late, my words are not of the good kind. Chris Guthrie is realistic - she is warm and kind and eminently sensible and rational, and sometimes cool, and sometimes stupid, and sometimes weak, but she is ALWAYS real.

I also love the language. I'm Scottish, and in some ways it feels completely alien to me. That's part of what I find beautiful about it.

The texture of the book, its root in the land, as it were, is sometimes a little hard to swallow, but for the most part it's a good anchor to keep the story feeling cohesive, given the dramatic changes that take place between Sunset Song and Cloud Howe, and Cloud Howe and Grey Granite.

Sunset song is by far the best of the three novels. It has the best characters and provided the only actual tearing up moment for me - the deaths of Chae Strachan and Long Rob of the Mill, plus OH GOD EUAN SR BREAK MY HEART YOU GIT. The secondary characters are so rich that you are really absorbed by the world of Blaewearie. Cloud Howe was equally easily my least favourite book - the secondary characters were pretty much universally unlikeable, and while I know that was the point, I missed having someone to "root" for as it were. Dalziel of the Meiklebogs was absolutely excellently slimey, but I missed having someone like Long Rob to temper things. Grey Granite is wonderful solely for Euan Jr's character development and the awesome *woman who owned the guest house with Chris and whose name I have completely forgotten, sigh*.

Anyway, nothing endures, as well we know, but thank god this book has, at least for a while. I beg every Scottish person I know to read it if they want an understanding of what has happened to their country over the last hundred years, and I beg every feminist I know to read it, because this is an important portrayal of a woman's life.

I want to say more about this, but I can't. It's a bit the opposite of my PopCo review: I actively stopped myself from rambling in it but I could have gone for absolute days about what is, ultimately, though a very good book, not anywhere near the level of this. ASQ is one of those rare "six star" books - where PopCo means something right now, ASQ will still mean something in fifty years, or a hundred years. I think if I break this down book-by-book then it might make things easier.

Sunset Song:

The most important, and beautiful, thing about Sunset Song is the character crafting. The setting is, inevitably, important, given the background of the struggle between agricultural survival against industrialisation, and, as I said earlier, the "rooting" of the book in the land - Chris's constant return to the standing stones, particularly at times of distress, is obviously not accidental, and is used to structure the whole book. The structure is maybe the only thing I could nitpick with, to be honest - eight shorter chapters in place of the four longer ones would maybe have worked better, but I am REALLY nitpicking. I tend to prefer shorter chapters anyway, so it's maybe just that - a preference. ANYWAY, the characterisation. Oh good lord, I was so on the side of these... I'm going to finish this in the morning or next week, I have to sleep now or I may faint. ( )
  heterocephalusglaber | Apr 26, 2013 |
A long, powerful, moving, and ultimately pitiless account of that generation in Scotland who lived (if they were lucky) through the First World War and saw the rural lives of the crofters swallowed up by a new urban society. The first book of the trilogy is the most astonishing – all the pleasures of a Bildungsroman combined with a very rich and involving portrait of life in a Scottish farming village where we get to know and care about almost every inhabitant. The coming-of-age element is the more remarkable because of how brilliantly Gibbon seems able to understand his female protagonist: Chris Guthrie is completely convincing. Even the many cool, introspective, observational scenes of her alone – which in less skilful hands could easily have seemed voyeuristic – have an air of genuine sympathy and truth to them.

But she saw herself then in her long green skirt, long under the knee, and her hair wound in its great fair plaits about her head, and her high cheek-bones that caught the light and her mouth that was well enough, her figure was better still; and she knew for one wild passing moment herself both frightened and sorry she should be a woman, she'd never dream things again, she'd live them, the days of dreaming were by; and maybe they had been the best….

The language the novel is told in seemed so surprising to me at first that for a long time it simply didn't remind me of anyone. The narrative voice is a synthetic kind of Scottish English, in which the cadences and vocabulary of Scots are constantly bubbling under the surface. Often the English words only make sense if you take them to be codewords standing in for their Scots cognates, such as the way ‘brave’ is used to represent the Scots word ‘braw’. At other times, especially in the dazzling opening sections of the book, there is a generous larding of terms that may have some readers south of the border, or overseas, grinning in bewilderment (if, like me, you enjoy that sort of thing):

Ellison had begun to think himself a gey man in Kinraddie, and maybe one of the gentry. But the bothy billies, the ploughmen and the orra men of the Mains, they'd never a care for gentry except to mock them and on the eve of Ellison's wedding they took him as he was going into his house and took off his breeks and tarred his dowp and the soles of his feet […] and at the term-time he had them sacked, the whole jing-bang of them, so sore affronted had he been.

The result is a language that – despite its being a kind of construction of Gibbon's – struck me as utterly authentic: I believe everything he says. It also allows for some subtle effects in the later books as the narrative voice becomes more fragmented and less idiosyncratically Scottish. What's more, that inherent textual tension between Englishness and Scottishness reflects a key point of the book – that Chris herself is constantly torn between what she thinks of as her ‘Scottish’ self, who loves the land and its people, and her ‘English’ self, who wants to get away from there and learn to speak ‘properly’. (This is a false dichotomy many in Scotland may recognise even today.)

two Chrises there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you'd waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you'd cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.

You can see here the interesting narrative technique of switching to the second-person, which happens frequently throughout all the books – a ‘you’ that is sometimes Chris, sometimes a vague townsperson, always drawing the reader deep inside the emotions of the novel. Here's another example, from Cloud Howe, during a virtuoso depiction of a town fête.

The teas were all finished and Melvin had opened up one of the tents for the selling of drams, folk took a bit dander up to the counter, had a dram, and spoke of the Show and looked out – at the board, the gloaming was green on the hills, purple on the acre-wide blow of heather. There was a little wind coming down, blowing in the hot, red faces of the dancers, you finished up your dram and felt fair kittled up; and went out and made for the board like a hare, damn't! you might be old, but you still could dance, you hoped the mistress had already gone home.

You might already detect the dominant tone creeping in under these passages: bittersweet, nostalgic, somewhat disillusioned. This mood darkens across the trilogy into something you could eventually fairly call bleak. But in the first book, when Chris is still young, the bleakness is just a part of Scotland's beauty; and it's perfectly-evoked with many accomplished descriptive passages.

it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland's singing, made for the sadness of the land and the sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-buchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs – And Chae cried Let's have another dance, then, it's nearly a quarter to twelve, we must all be off soon as midnight chaps.

There are parts of Sunset Song that had me almost open-mouthed with admiration, long passages which can't be quoted because their power comes from a cumulative brilliance, pages and pages which left me scribbling uncharacteristically superlative notes in my paperback: WOW! – how did he do this? – Is there ANYTHING to match this? and so on. The wedding scene was one such; another was the eventual story of what happened to Ewan in France. It's also often very funny – much funnier than I've made it sound in this review.

It's a little unfair in some ways that the second and third books in the trilogy have been overshadowed by the first. They are sadder, and the scope is less focused, but in their own way I thought they were equally fascinating and well done. More to the point, Sunset Song depends for its power on the fact that we are reading about the last throes of a particular way of life, and it's essential to Gibbon's project that he sees that through and describes exactly what comes after. To my mind, the first book is strong precisely because it is followed by books which detail Chris's move to a town and then a city, so that we feel the nostalgia for her country upbringing just as she does. Similarly, the urban interplay and Socialist parables of the last book only work because they come after such a naturalistic evocation of traditional Scottish country life.

Cloud Howe and Grey Granite are increasingly political, and some reviewers have even criticised Gibbon for being somehow ‘taken in’ by Socialism, but I don't recognise that at all. Sure, the writing shows a deep sympathy with the workers – as it damn well should – but there is no sentimentality here. Socialism, like religion, is dismissed as just another ideology, and if this trilogy is anything, it's unideological. The overriding message is rather that nothing at all is certain except change – that nothing, including love, but also including pain, can last forever, and that this is life's greatest sadness as well as its greatest comfort.

But it's certainly true that while you can deeply admire books two and three, it's only the first one that you fall in love with. As you near the end of the three novels, you are desperately hoping that Gibbon will throw you something to hang on to at the finish, some hint of the ‘cool kindness’ he talks about elsewhere. But you know he's too good to be kind at the expense of authenticity. The very end of Chris's story is like Scotland itself – bleak but not cruel, sad and beautiful. I'm pretty sure this trilogy is a masterpiece. ( )
  Widsith | Jan 18, 2013 |
The author's intent in writing this trilogy, Sunset Song (1932), Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934), was to produce a work which stood up as both a socialist treatise and a work of literature. I think in the first novel he achieved his ambition well. The characterisation and language are both rich and evocative of both the time and place. In the second and third novels however, the political message becomes a bit heavy handed and many of the characters seem fairly one dimensional. Having said that the beautiful writing and skilful merging of the Scots and English language kept me happily reading to the end. ( )
  tattie-bogle | Jun 3, 2009 |
An utterly involving and captivating portrait of the cataclysmic effect of WW1 on rural Scottish land-use, language and community. Chris Guthrie was perhaps Grassic Gibbon's greatest achievement, but the language is remarkable, as is the lack of sentimentality with which he portrays the occasional pettiness and bitterness of life in Kinraddie.
I was taught by a rather well-to-do English lady at university who commented that she had never 'got' Sunset Song. I always thought that that may be because it hinges so much on the understanding of what it means to be part of two cultures, one a minority one. Chris Guthrie's relationship with Scots as her home tongue rings true as much for Gaelic, and the two languages have gone the same way since Grassic Gibbon wrote his trilogy.
Another lecturer made the very interesting point that very few readers feel the same attachment to Cloud Howe and Grey Granite as they do to Sunset Song. His assertion was that this was Grassic Gibbon's intent. The 'speak' of Kinraddie dies with the War and Chris moves onward into increasingly fractured an anonymous communities. I think there might be some truth to this reading. ( )
  mairi_k | Jun 30, 2007 |
A Scottish friend, who grew up in the Aberdeenshire countryside described in the novels, gave me the book as the best portrait she knew of a life which was rapidly fading when she was a child and is largely gone now.

The first novel, Sunset Song, is probably the best. Gibbon succumbed to heavy-handed allegory as the trilogy progressed and Grey Granite especially suffers from being as much a political treatise as a story.
  noramunro | Sep 8, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 190459882X, Paperback)

A Scots Quair is revolutionary—innovative in its form, deft and humorous in its use of the Scots language, courageous in its characterization and politics. Central to the trilogy is Chris Guthrie, one of the most remarkable female characters in modern literature. In Sunset Song, Gibbon's finest achievement, the reader follows Chris through her girlhood in a tight-knit Scottish farming community: the seasons, the weddings, the funerals, the grind of work, the gossip. As the Great War takes its toll, machines replace the old way of life. Cloud Howe and Grey Granite take Chris from her rural homeland to life in an industrial Scotland and the desperate years of the Depression. The trilogy as a whole is a major achievement, a picture of a society undergoing traumatic and far-reaching transformation. Always readable, never sentimental, A Scots Quair is one of the most important works of modern Scottish literature.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:54:13 -0400)

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