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I The Progress of Love Alice Munro (Flamingo £3.95) A fifth collection ofshort stories from Canada‘s
finest exponent ofthe form. Greater praise . . .
I Siddhartha Hermann Hesse (Picador £3.50) With Tolkien. Hesse was the quintesssential Sixties writer and there is no tnore typical example ofhis work than the Brahmin Siddhartha‘s journey through India to overcome suffering and fear. Diaphonous prose; timeless tale.
I Speedy Death Gladys Mitchell (Hogarth Press £3.95) (‘ompetent thriller in the Miss Marple mould which moves skilfully if not always swiftly to an artful denouement.
I Jonah’s Gourd Vine Zora Neale Hurston (Virago £4.50) Black preacher sings and sins. repents and mourns. in this first novel by the prolific and inﬂuential Harlem Renaissance writer.
I On the Waterfront and The Disenchanted Budd Schulberg (Allison & Busby £3.99 each) 'I‘wo novels by one of America‘s most underrated writers. The first is well enough known thanks to Marlon Brando‘s Oscar-winning performance as Terry Malloy. the sweaty stooge who makes trouble and strife for the corrupt dockside unions. Big claims are made for'l‘he Disenchanted by Anthony Burgess in the Introduction who says he has read it at least In times. Based on
F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s disastrous flirtation with film it‘s as convincing a portrait of the movies and the mogul-maniacs as The Last Tycoon with the added bonus of an ending. I lThe Supreme Augusto Roa Bastos (Faber £4.95) Deathbed confessions ofa Latin American dictator dictated to a less-than-loyal servant with the official version of his life and times supplied by an anonymous ‘compiler‘. Reminiscent of Earthly Powers. as much for its linguistic vigour as for its narrative potency.
I Concertina M.J. Fitzgerald (Picador £2.99) Paperback publication of beautiful and haunting first novel. which takes as its theme nothing less than the experiences that mould a woman‘s personality. from birth to death. A grand theme to be sure. but Fitzgerald never over-reaches her abilities. Without fixed chronology the narrative flows like music. thoughtful and deeply personal. An exquisitely-carved miniature.
I James Brown: The Godfather of Soul James Brown (Fontana £3.95) His Bad Selfsounds off on his upbringing and career. in the way only he can. from backwoods cabin and colourful bordello to fame and riches.
I Peter Gabriel: An Authorised Biography Spencer Bright (Sidgwick and Jackson £12.95) As usual. fairly uncritical ofits subject. but the full cooperation of Gabriel and his wife brings surprising candour to the page regarding their marriage and Gabriel‘s seemingly agonising development to humanitarian- thinking-man‘s-Iiberal-pop-star.
Alan Taylor meets Norman McCaig
‘I.et me squeeze the dry udders of your brain.‘ This is not a term of endearment but the poet asking for information. It was time to reciprocate the squeeze. ‘Where shall we meet‘. I asked on the phone. ‘at the house or in a pub.‘ ‘I like pubs‘. he said. When it was confirmed that the visit was not one hundred per cent social he said. ‘If you want facts then you‘d better come to the house.‘ “The house‘ is where it‘s always been. in Parnassian Polwarth. the first ﬂoor ofa tenement at the end ofa straight street of family homes. student ﬂats and neon lit B & B s. The name on the door says ‘McCaig‘. a small ‘a‘ missing from the real MacCaig who is watching the Olympic figure skating. ‘Don‘t put it off for me.‘ I say. ‘Oh. I was just killing time waiting for you to come.‘ The room is cosy. a gas fire roaring. two walls heavy with slim volumes ofvcrse. extended runs of literary magazines and wordier tomes. all precisely arranged.
‘I‘m a fearful man for order‘. he says. ‘You should have been a Iibrarian‘. I say. ‘I might as well have been'. he says. ‘for all I‘ve ever done otherwise.‘
()n the fireside wall there is a riot of drawings. etchings and caricatures of Hugh MacDiarmid (‘Chris‘). Sorley Maclean. George Mackay Brown. himselfand others. hung haphazardly wherever space permitted. A family album in one of
A new portrait of Norman MacCaig by Michael Knowles. a Bolton-born painterwho is painting twenty five of hisfavourite Scottish writers including Alasdair Gray. Stewart Conn. Valerie Gilles. Jim Kelman, Muriel Spark. lain Crichton Smith and Sorley Mac‘ an. Several of the writers have liked their portraits so much that they have bought the painting.
the most hospitable houses in town.
Norman MacCaig is not just a poet. ofcourse. and it would be heresy to stick that label on him. Why? ‘It‘s a great big word for me‘. he says taking a draught ofa dram. ‘I tremble to call myselfa poet. I can‘t stand somebody who says Speaking as a poet. I think . . .‘ I say ifyou speak like that laddie you can‘t think at all. No. it‘s a big word and anyway I don‘t like being carved up into slices. MacCaig: the man who fishes. MacCaig: the man who climbs hills. MacCaig: the man who drinks and talks with his friends. MacCaig: the man who writes poetry. MacCaig: etcetera. Picking out one slice and saying. “Ha. ha. he‘s a poet.“ Why? I‘m a fisherman as well. I‘m a reader. I love listening to music. Mozart especially. I love the hills. Idon‘t like being sliced into categories.‘
In any case recognition for Norman as a poet came relatively late in his career which has now. at the age of 77. spanned half a century. ‘It took very many years to get any kind of notice at all. I mean any kind of notice. even in Scotland. I‘ve become fairly widely known — come to think of it — not through reviews. but through poetry readings. in England and Scotland. But in those early days there was no such thing. I was asked in an interview what I thought was my greatest virtue and I said obstinacy. You have to have it in a philistine country like Scotland. And it‘s quite true. I sat here writing
and writing and writing — for pleasure — for years and years. without any notice whatsoever. You‘ve got to keep fucking at it.‘
His first collection of poems was published during the Second World War which he saw out as a ‘conscie‘. a conscientious objector. His second collection followed three years later. after which there was almost a decade‘s hiatus. Both the early collections have been disowned and MacCaig advises aspirant poets not to be in too much of a hurry to rush into publication.
‘When students brought me poems at the university first at Edinburgh (where he was writer-in-residence). then Stirling (where he was Reader in Poetry) I thought. God! They‘re so keen to get published. And I told them you‘re in far too much ofa hurry. If you want to learn to play the fiddle you‘ve got to spend years at it. and the art of poetry is an art. I told them I burned every poem I wrote before the age of3-l just to let them see. Which is true. And I said don‘t be in a hurry. And ifyou manage to get a wee book published at your age -— 21 or whatever - in five years you‘ll regret it. You‘ll wish you'd never done it. I did — as you know -- two terrible books which I offer people large sums ofmoney like ninepence to steal from libraries and such places and give to me and I‘ll make a bonfire in front ofthe Mound at Festival time and dance round it. I‘d rather write one. I tell them. than publish twenty. and that‘s true.‘
For one so discerning so much still manages to survive. But how does he know which are the duds'.’ ‘Because I‘m a genius and an expert. I have a litmus paper in my head that tells me ifit‘s any good or not. And if it changes to the wrong colour. out it goes.‘ He is writing as much as ever which he puts down to the fact that he was ‘a late developer. I‘m now just approaching my prime. That‘s a lie. ofcourse. I‘m very lucky still to be writing.‘
Voice-Over. the latest collection. shows him in fine fettle. in up and down moods. in darkness and light. writing about anonymous neighbours (‘What does he do at home? Sit at attention?/Or does he stand in the lobby/like a hatstand'.”) and dear friends. in Edinburgh and in the hills - between which he would ideally halve his year; observant. witty. classically allusive and pellucid. He writes as he‘s almost always done in free verse — ‘Free verse. what a stupid name. It‘s far from free.‘— which demands that the poet imposes his own instinctive order. ‘Ifyou‘rc writing in metre and ryhme and stanzas you're given a
form, but you‘re not given a form with free verse so you‘ve got to make it. Not consciously. That makes it seem too conscious. When I get up and walk to the door I‘m not sending millions of messages from my brain to my millions of muscles. I just get up and do it. But I don't fall down.‘ ’3Voice-Over by Norman MacCaig is published by Chatto & Windus priced £5.95.
The List 4— I7 March 1988 51