Trying to find an adequate novel for a student’s BA dissertation (or Treball de Fi de Grau), I finally read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Sunset Song (1932). I say finally because I am indeed very much interested in Scottish fiction but have huge gaps in my reading list, like this one.
Reviews and academic criticism present Sunset Song as a wonderful novel about an engaging female character; besides, Scottish readers had voted this novel their favourite back in 2005 (above Trainspotting!!). My student is on an Erasmus stay in Edinburgh, so I decided that she should work on a Scottish author, and this seemed ideal. In the end, though, both Marta and myself have agreed that Chris Guthrie’s life is not that interesting –after all, she chooses marriage and motherhood over an education. We have focused instead on a quite eccentric romantic reading of Janice Galloway’s marvellous The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989).
I did enjoy reading Sunset Song and will eventually complete my reading of the other two novels in the A Scots Quair trilogy: Cloud Howe (1933), and Grey Granite (1934). Once you get over the hurdle of the Scots dialect, which is not that terrible, Sunset Song reads beautifully (maybe in this the audiobook is the perfect choice). I found, though, both plot and characters quite sketchy.
Gibbon’s portrait of the transition onto the WWI years of his rural community lacks much detail, and so does his rendering of Chris’s psychology (despite the positive feminist criticism). I never really understood why she makes most of the choices in her life, particularly concerning her love for the mulish, mentally unattractive Ewan. Even so, I actually believe that Sunset Song would have been much more interesting if Gibbons had focused on this young man’s decision to enlist at all costs, or on his neighbour Long Robert’s contrary decision to object to the war. That must be my fascination for WWI, for sure.
Anyway, I checked Amazon UK for readers’ opinions and I stumbled onto a kind of mini-debate among young Scottish students who had been forced to read the book in, I think, secondary education (I’m not sure about the meaning of the Scottish ‘Higher English’ level). There are complaints about the difficulty of the Scots/English language but the most negative reader focuses on ‘relevance’.
An anonymous city teenager writes in exasperation: “What teenager nowadays is interested in farming?!” S/he concludes that “for me to enjoy a book, there has to be a greater deal of significance and relevance to today’s world.” Another teenager, a girl, horrified by the negative comments, calls Sunset Song “a beautiful book which shows us the similarities between young people of the past and ourselves, among many other things.”
This is tricky. As we all know, novels are excellent vehicles to transmit personal experience that we could not otherwise access. They require empathetic readers with an endless ability to put oneself in the characters’ shoes. Now, if the reader is limited by the generational narcissitic view of relevance that the first teenager flaunts, then his/her own capacity to read novels will be drastically limited. See how, nonetheless, the second teenager defends Sunset Song on the grounds of its comparative relevance to her generation and not quite because it tells you what life was like in rural Scotland 80 years ago. As I reader, I do choose my books on narcissistic grounds, too, but I want to believe that I am open up to very alien experiences, different from mine in time and place.
As a teacher of students eighteen and upwards, I realise, though, that we hesitate all the time when it comes to relevance. The two times I have taught Scottish literature I have focused on the 1990s mainly: a selection of short stories by women writers, Ian Rankin, Alasdair Gray, Trainspotting (the film). In future editions, I’ll update the subject and move closer to the 2000s: some theatre, possibly Ali Smith, Alan Warner, etc. The other teacher, the professor who originally set up the subject and sent me to Scotland as a PhD student, teaches a far less student-oriented selection, including Sunset Song. He consistently defends the position in all his subjects that students should adapt to the history of Literature and not the other way round. I myself do that only half the time: you must enjoy Oliver Twist, but I’ll be teaching the Harry Potter saga.
I am wondering, also thinking of my student Marta, whether this has to do with my gendered position as a reader. What separates me from Sunset Song but makes me love Galloway’s novel is, after all, relevance: Chris Guthrie’s life has nothing to do with mine, not because she lives in rural 1930s Scotland and I live in urban 2010s Catalonia, but because she abandons her education. In contrast, Galloway’s Joy Stone is a working woman (a teacher) whose life collapses when her man dies. Funnily, this also happens to Chris but the way Gibbon and Galloway narrate the heroine’s search for the trick to stay alive (keep on breathing…) is vastly different. Shallow in Gibbon, so deep that it hurts in Galloway.
As you can see, choice is the key here –Marta must choose ONE novel to work on, the Scottish teachers of Higher English must choose a limited reading list to teach, I must also choose for my students. As readers, though, we needn’t limit our choice and happily for me, I have read both Sunset Song and The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Now you enjoy them!
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