Stepping Into the Inscape
There is a moment early on in “The Shadow” at which I stop, draw breath, look at and read again.
“All the time the burn was waiting for me...”
Neil Gunn’s strange and compelling novel that was published in 1948 and arranged in three parts, as though according to the pattern of delivery we might witness in some kind of ancient drama, is made up of such moments. These places of stop, in the story, of rest. They are points of break, of interruption in the ongoing rush of narrative, of caesura – when, in the midst of the swirl of ideas and emotions and sheer plot that give energy and a fierce elation to the story that is being told, nature is arrested. The world of water and hills and light and trees and growing things is being looked and is also looking back. Here we are, the book says to the reader. Here. It’s as though what the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “inscape”, that ornate and wondrous pattern seen in the natural order of things, has split open to reveal the very being’ness of what is within it – and in that beat of time, when what is being seen is also seeing, is the measure, the portion, of the book’s whole.
“All the time the burn was waiting for me” I read again.
Moments such as these don’t only appear throughout “The Shadow” as though stepping stones across a rushing river. They sit, timeless and unmoving within the novel’s core, at the very centre of a story about what it is that gives meaning to experience, about the consequential and the empty, and the energy and effect of light and dark forces. Reality is an “ancient ledge of grey rock” there in its dark and endlessly turning, moving water, counterpoint to the babble and fits and starts of a life of society and talk. One of the novel’s principal players, a young woman called Nan who has returned “home” to her Aunt in the rural Highlands and is writing to her boyfriend who is still living and working in London, knows about these timeless things - even though, as the novel goes on, she doesn’t seem to be able to harness the good of them for her own good.
The letters, though written, are unsent, left collected in a top drawer in her bedroom. They’re not really letters at all, they are a rush of words, a response to the natural world which has started to work upon her body and mind, antidote to the toxic life she has left but which still floods her system. The London boyfriend will never read, because he would never understand, these letters. They are full of nature, its creatures, its birds and growing things, its temperatures and waters, a kind of reportage from the edges of the self, where the good things and the bad things she has encountered in her life are at work as opposing forces, each side fighting to survive within their host. We don’t know that the boyfriend will not understand what Nan writes about when we read her letters in the first section of
the novel, but we do find out by the time we reach second, large, middle section of “The Shadow” how very different he is from her.
There, at that middle point of the story, is the wide awake, sentient world of nature brought vividly forward – though the young man from London is able to see it only as a force to be harvested, used, controlled. Nan, by contrast, has no such mechanisms in place by which to see and comprehend. She is of this place; she belongs here and always has. Her kind of looking is a way in, a means to access the vivid life that is within natural things as well as described by them, by their shape or colour or animal nature. Her letters and sensibility surge with a vital sense of response to what she witnesses around her; she can’t help but inhabit what she sees. By coming back to live her Aunt, another woman who is knit in to this natural order of things, as though part of it, she is able to heal herself. She is “home” again, alive to her own natural sensibility with its ebbs and flows, fully inhabiting a life that is far from the tics and spasms and disappointments of day-to-day existence in
“All the time the burn was waiting for me. It wasn’t talking but only looking up at me Nan writes, “”not with veiled, lidded eyes but quite openly. Full of immense age, of course, but no satire.”
How ancient are these ideas, these words. Pantheistic. Dionysian. “No satire” - for there is at this early part of the novel that stops me in my tracks no dance or celebration, no intoxication of company, of fellow human bodies at large, moving together in the outdoors, no community, society, no dance – for that is all to be enacted at the Harvest ritual at “The Shadow” ‘s end. Nan has needed to re-enter the ancient drama of life, of experience at its most elemental, in order to disconnect from a dark London past, a post war world gone mad with “empty talk” and criticism and endless night. She needs to find the light again, to come out of the dark and she will, the reader feels it – in the way she finds glimpses of it from the very start of the book, right there in the world outside her aunt’s farmhouse door.
There, all of nature is her society – she looks at it, and it looks back. All is vivid, and lit up for her by this hylozic environment in which every particle has its place - its reciprocities a source of energy and regeneration, its nourishment given and received in eternal exchange of one living thing to another.
The burn was waiting for her from the beginning, as it will wait at the end.
“An immensely ancient ledge of grey rock, moor-brown pebbles,, and floating foam flecks from the throat. A pale heather-honey brown in the water, a softness of warmth. The excitement “ we read, “began to mount.”
Kirsty Gunn has taught and written about Neil Gunn at the University of Dundee where she is Research Professor of Writing Practice and Study. Her own novels and short stories are published by Faber and Faber and internationally.
Together with Meaghan Delahunt, she has created a unique online writing programme that teaches creative
writing called Wordpath.