George Mackay Brown: European poet?

Minds fructify across generations and oceans, of course otherwise, literature and art and music would be empty interlude and ornament.1

When Ritchie Robertson called Edwin Muir a ‘European Poet’ he certainly had good grounds for doing so. Edwin Muir, who travelled extensively in Europe, was familiar with the German language. From the 1920s onwards, he worked as a translator of German and Austrian literature, and his subsequent criticism of German writing not only indicated a substantial involvement with German culture, as Howard Gaskill has pointed out in an essay on ‘Edwin Muir – The German Aspect’, but also helped to establish him as an important mediator of German literature to the English-speaking world.2
To suggest that George Mackay Brown – who in fact never ventured to the Continent – could have been a ‘European Poet’, is deliberately provocative. Such a claim might seem surprising if not far-fetched to those critics who have successfully manoeuvred Brown into a neat ‘compartment’ of literary ‘provincialism’, not to say ‘parochialism’. However, I would like to justify my rather bold claim by specifying some of the European sources from which Brown drew his inspiration.
No doubt Orkney and the historical, sociological, linguistic and literary background of the Islands were the major source of inspiration for Brown. His accounts of the Orkney people and their legendary past have come to speak for the Islands as well as for the whole of Scotland. Brown’s ability to widen his vision and to invest the typically Orcadian consciousness and the often local setting with a universal relevance has been appreciated by some critics. Yet it tends to be underrated on the whole and has taken on the form of a commonplace, a formula which fails to do justice to the artfulness which Brown achieves.
That recent accounts of modern British writing have had difficulty in situating Brown, or that they write him out of the literary canon, seems unsurprising if one considers that the dominance of ‘English’ as a language, as a literature and as a political system has resulted in a marginalisation of a great deal of writing from much of the British Isles, particularly Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland. Berthold Schoene has rightly pointed out that for instance Cairns Craig‘s History of Scottish Literature (1987; vol 4) mentions Brown only marginally and merely as a poet and that Brown’s prose writings remain entirely undiscussed in Roderick Watson‘s contribution ‘Internationalising Scottish Literature’ (Ibid pp311-30)3. But to suggest that the ‘centre-periphery’ debate with regard to contemporary Scottish writing is merely a matter of ‘Scottish versus English’ would be an oversimplification. Rather, I wonder whether Glasgow and Edinburgh have not become to its northern peripheries what London is to Scotland, bearing in mind that the literature of Orkney and Shetland only features marginally in the context of Scottish literature? Whether this is a side-effect of Scottish attempts to keep up with the English neighbours and the ‘fashionable’ London avant-garde, or whether this reflects a phenomenon which Beveridge and Turnbull have described as Scotland’s “cultural inferiority complex”4 – the presumption amongst Scottish intellectuals that all things Scottish, Gaelic or Orcadian etc are bound to be inadequate or backward – is not for me to judge.
On various occasions Brown’s work has been labelled as being slightly “old-fashioned”, “far-away and otherworldly” (The Scotsman, 7/9/94); judgements which have certainly not helped his popularity either. In The Literature of Scotland Watson maintains that Brown’s “mythic and fatalistic habit of mind [cannot] always do justice to the tensions and complexities inherent in the contemporary world” (p435). Such assessments helped to reinforce the view that nowadays a writer has to revolutionise the literary scene in some ideological, stylistic or linguistic way in order to be deemed ‘modern’ enough for the tastes of a critical post-modern society that never tires of deconstructing itself. The question that springs to mind, however, is whether a writer’s ability or his attempt to do justice to the tensions and complexities of our age is what makes his work aesthetically worthwhile.
As suggested earlier, Brown never claimed that his work could attend to the sceptical and dissective 21st Century-‘Zeitgeist‘ in the same fashion as the mainstream of modern Scottish or British writing. As a result, his work cannot be fitted easily into the now popular literary camps. When his novel Beside the Ocean of Time was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, ‘gentle poet’ Brown, whose nomination had come as a surprise to many, seemed to be slightly ‘out-of-place’ amongst the likes of ‘gritty’ writers like Kelman or Alan Hollinghurst. At least so it seemed to the reading public in England, as Douglas Gifford tellingly puts it when he observes that Brown appeared to many in the south as an “unknown foreigner” (The Scotsman, 15/4/96). Possibly, the muted response to Brown and the relative lack of criticism of his work can be explained by Brown’s deliberate reluctance to follow literary fashion. He rather preferred to follow his own vision and his belief in the fundamentals of life. His holistic strivings have however received little sympathy from social or literary critics. The post-modern claim that ‘wholeness’ can in fact be deconstructed, has been rein-forced by other critics too. Of late, French post-Structuralism has strengthened this view by denouncing totality as a metaphysical mirage or a bourgeois illusion. Derrida for instance, has forcefully argued that in our effort to penetrate the endless play of detotalised realities, we encounter not ‘wholes’, but ‘holes’, which in turn require further explorations. Indeed, those followers of the post-modern and deconstructive views of literature will not be rewarded when dealing with the writings of George Mackay Brown. Nevertheless, the fact that Brown’s work is not overtly ‘modern’ or ‘fashionable’ in style and outlook, still cannot be held wholly responsible for the relative absence of critical interest; neither can his holistic or essentialist view of life when we consider that Edwin Muir‘s or Thomas Mann‘s work, for instance, thrived on holistic ideas and archetypal symbolism.
Ritchie Robertson points out that Muir’s distinct ‘otherness’ and the fact that he could not be situated easily in the canon of British writing can only be understood by examining his indebtedness to specifically European traditions of writing in general, and of German and Austrian writing in particular. As suggested earlier, this has in Muir’s case been a comparatively straightforward task. Nevertheless, although the European influences on Brown have received very little attention, if any at all5, we know that he was familiar with the work of such leading literary figures as Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. Mann’s work, for instance, had already been trans-lated into English from the 1920s onwards and Mann was by then well known in the English-speaking world. Edwin Muir himself, who played a significant part in Brown’s personal and literary development, had written a review on Mann’s The Tales of Jacob, the first part of his Joseph-tetralogy for The Listener on 13 June 1934. Muir also reviewed Mann’s Lotte in Weimar in 1940 as well as The Buddenbrooks and the The Last Years: A Memoir of My Father by Erika Mann in 19586. Muir was also familiar with other works by Mann, such as Tonio Kr�ger, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus and Death in Venice7. It was in the mid-1940s that Brown was introduced to Muir’s work and the work of other British and European contemporaries of Muir’s. He read Muir’s The Story and the Fable (1940) and, apart from the general strong influence the book had on his work and vision, it is unlikely that Muir’s marked bias towards German literature escaped Brown as he read widely in Muir and also studied his critical works. If we take Brown’s word for it, his first experience of Mann was a piece of pure serendipity, as he suggests in his recently published autobiography, For the Islands I Sing.

One afternoon in the Stromness bookshop, I took from the shelf the Everyman edition of Selected Stories by Thomas Mann. I think I must have bought it because there was nothing else to read on that particular day. (John Murray, 1997, p65)

Thus, to suppose any direct influence of Muir in relation to Brown and his acquaintance with Mann might be going too far. Yet it seems a very striking coincidence indeed that Brown should have discovered the works of Muir and Mann at the same time.
Irrespective of how specific Muir’s influence on Brown was with regard to German literature, there is no denying the fact that German literature, particularly Thomas Mann, made a deep impression on him. After having read Mann’s Selected Stories and being highly impressed by them, he sent for The Magic Mountain which gave him “days of intense delight” (For the Islands I Sing, p65). In an interview with Bob Tait and Isobel Murray in 1984 where Brown revealed comparatively more about his literary influences and preferences, he confirmed that his first encounter with Thomas Mann’s work occurred in the mid to late 1940s, and that he had read widely in Mann. He also liked Doctor Faustus immensely, and apparently read it several times. On various other occasions Brown mentioned Thomas Mann as a major influence; in one of his weekly contributions to The Orcadian he commented in 1979 that Mann’s works belonged to those that he would never like to do without:

All the thousand books in my house could go, without any lasting regret on my part. I would, however, insist on keeping the works of Thomas Mann, E M Forster . . . and Bertolt Brecht. (15/3/79)

His admiration for Thomas Mann lasted to the end. He admitted:

As one gets older, fewer and fewer writers have power to cast a spell. Not for years have I experienced the thrill of first opening a book by E M Forster, or Thomas Mann . . . Those are moments of a person’s life which alter his whole outlook on human affairs. (The Orcadian, 21/10/76)

Mann’s The Buddenbrooks also belonged to those works that Brown was re-reading not long before his death in April 1996.
As to the precise nature of Thomas Mann’s influence, Brown was hardly ever explicit. However, we can confidently surmise that one thing Brown admired in Mann was what Harry Levine, in his critical work on James Joyce (1944), called the “shift from the personal to the epic”. The modern discovery that the ordinary can serve as the extraordinary – or to use Brown’s own words, that a writer should try to “make elaborate kennings out of ordinary matters” – was certainly an idea that Brown admired in the works of such writers as Muir, Joyce and Mann. In Die Kunst des Romans (The Art of the Novel) Mann stated:

The art (of writing) lies in making the smallest possible use of external life in order to bring about the greatest impact on the inner life . . . It is not the task of the novelist to write about great events, but to make small ones interesting. . . Making apparently intrinsically boring things interesting, that is the secret of storytelling.8

Brown confirmed this by saying that every man and woman, however seemingly ordinary and unimportant . . . has changed (however minutely) the history of the race. It is those ‘boring’ people who are the heroes of modern literature.9
Although Brown’s work cannot be seen as an imitation of modernism, he shared many ‘modernist’ concerns, as manifested in the treatment of time, the use of myth and the presentation of identity and character, to mention but a few. The phenomenon of ‘time’ was of general concern to many moderns and it features most dominantly in Mann. The Magic Mountain, commonly regarded as the modern ‘time-novel’ (Zeitroman) per se, depicts how the tubercular protagonist Hans Castorp tries to come to terms with the phenomenon of time and of being ‘lost in time’ throughout the novel. The Magic Mountain appealed to Brown at a time when he was suffering from another bout of tuberculosis himself. It may safely be assumed that Brown, who also experienced “those sombre moods that gather about a long-term patient”10 did identify with Hans Castorp’s pondering about the phenomenon of time and his feeling that time becomes the ‘eternal Now’ (“das ewige Jetzt”).
However, there are other points that elucidate how Brown responded to Thomas Mann. It is for instance quite remarkable that the title of Brown’s novel Beside the Ocean of Time directly echoes the The Magic Mountain chapter “By the Ocean of Time”. This is significant and suggests that Mann’s chapter, and the novel in general struck a powerful chord in Brown. Beside the Ocean of Time demonstrates in many ways that Brown assimilated Mann’s writing and that he was inspired by The Magic Mountain. In Mann’s work Brown found confirmed that a writer’s task is to find ways of transcending time and transposing the myth (or Muir’s Fable) ‘sub specie temporis nostri’. Beside the Ocean of Time shows how Brown elaborates on the idea of the timeless fable that is evoked by following Thorfinn on his journeys through space and time. At the end, we return to the great ocean of life, whence we set out at the beginning. We come full circle and return to the “ocean of the end and the beginning”. This accords with the cyclic conception of time shared by Mann and Muir. The way Thorfinn resembles Hans Castorp in his being lost in time and the past is striking. Castorp’s dream-journey back to his roots in the chapter ‘Snow’ and Thorfinn’s visionary questings when being “two thousand years lost in time” (BOT, 1995, p77) spring, so it is suggested, from the same universal source, ‘the great ocean of time’. This ‘ocean of eternity’ stores many mysteries and brings many memories from man’s antiquity to its shores: “There are great mysteries to be found on the shore of the great ocean of time” (p101). Hans Castorp’s primordial experience in the chapter ‘Snow’ finds similar expression in Brown by the eight movements of Thorfinn’s journey. Particularly ‘The Road to Byzantium’, the ancient centre of European civilisation and the source of spiritual philosophy takes on allegorical significance. Each stage of Thorfinn’s travels is not just a description of Orkney history, but finds a deeper link between the inner Thorfinn and Orkney’s past in general. Thus, his visions and dreams become the essence. Indeed, so does Hans Castorp’s dream of Ancient Greece and Sicily, which is referred to as a universal ‘dream of humanity’ (‘Menschheittraum’). In both works the dreamlike evocation of a mystical communion with mankind undermines the conventional notion of a single identity. Both characters find themselves as being part of a ‘great soul’ and they eventually realise that

it is not of our single souls we dream. We dream anonymously and communally, if each after his fashion. The great soul of which we are part may dream through us, in our manner of dreaming, its own secret dreams, of its youth, its hope, its joy and peace – and its blood sacrifice.11

In that fashion, Thorfinn re-lives in his dreams the history of his people. Later, he attempts to recapture those stories as a writer but has to realise that it is only through the ‘mythic’ imagination of the child that the gates of vision can be opened and grant us a perspective of the wholeness of life.
Both Mann and Brown suggest that the journeys of their protagonists become an archetypal and spiritual journey. Thorfinn’s and Castorp’s activities seem to conform in many ways to the archetypal pattern of the hero’s mythic search or quest. The mythic journey back to old familiar features of life which culminates in Castorp’s mystical immersion in the universal is a theme which was close to the heart of Mann and obviously inspired Brown. In an essay on Freud, Mann gives the reason for the human need to rediscover the old universal constants of life:

Recognising things is important to men; they want to find again the old in the new and the typical in the individual. That is the basis of feeling at home in life; for life as something wholly new, unique and individual with no chance of finding old familiar features in it could only harm and confuse.12

Brown related to this well. Not only did it remind him of Edwin Muir’s experience of ‘The Fall’ on leaving Orkney, but it also brought back to him the memories of his own time in Edinburgh. Brown must have commented about his feelings of unease and estrangement when he first went there, as Muir mentions in a letter to him that he felt almost the same thing about Glasgow as Brown did about Edinburgh.
However, Mann’s use of the ‘typical’ which he thought is actually the ‘mythical’ also appealed to Brown for another reason. In his introduction to Witch and other stories (1977) he admits that he was also inclined to think that really great stories have a mingling of myth and legend in them. He thought that those tales which do not contain these elements remain, however superb the craftsmanship, unsatisfying as if some basic hunger in our nature is not being attended to.
Apart from the use of myth and the treatment of time and the past, there are further hints as to the ways Thomas Mann could have inspired George Mackay Brown’s artistic outlook. Although they cannot be developed here, I would like to point out that on the whole, George Mackay Brown shared with Mann a deeply humanistic outlook and a spiritual impulse towards wholeness. At times there is even a surprising correspondence of imagery. Furthermore, Brown also voiced his full approval of Mann’s claim regarding narrative and its yearning towards the condition of music – a variant of Walter Pater’s famous dictum that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”. Although Brown admitted that he did not know much about music and that he was probably unfamiliar “with the more abtruse elements of musical theory beyond sonata form” (Archie Bevan), he was a great lover of classical music. Music most certainly fea-tured in his thought and inmost spirit, as well as in his work and it would be rewarding to assess the extent to which Mann’s claim is put to use and in what ways music is employed as an idea, or is a formative and structural force in Brown’s work.
Finally I would like to emphasise that I do not insist on Mann’s direct influence on Brown. It is not the purpose of this essay to somehow upgrade Brown’s writing by suggesting that he has learned from one of the most prolific 20th century writers. Admittedly, Thomas Mann was a highly philosophical writer whereas for Brown modern philosophy was not central to his life, vision or art. Although he had at least “dipped into Nietzsche” (Bevan), the presence on his shelves of Plato, Pascal, Newman and sundry Jesuit writers perhaps give a truer indication of his ‘philosophical’ interests. In his autobiography, Brown recalls that a fascination with modern philosophy, as displayed by Mann, never was to get a grip on him. Primarily, he regarded himself as a poet and craftsman, whose mind worked in a different way from the mind of philosopher or scientist:

I was fortunate that I quite enjoyed studying, even such an alien subject as Moral Philosophy. One of the set books was Kant‘s Groundwork of the Meta-physics of Morals. I took one affrighted look at the first few paragraphs, and my head reeled. There was not a possibility that I would ever understand such stuff. Somehow I got hold of a commentary by a Jesuit priest, Fr Coplestone, on Kant’s book. The commentary dispelled the Germanic fogs. I enjoyed Coplestone, and so managed to answer the exam question on Kant when the time came. But now even the commentary has faded. The Scottish fascination with philosophy – Kant himself had Scottish ancestors – never rubbed off on me . . . The fault is in myself, I have know fine minds who have been enthralled life-long by Hume, and by other philosophers, even the difficult modern ones. The minds of writers work in a different way, in pulsing controlled image sequences, which are no less strict than the workings of music or philosophy. (For the Islands I Sing, p131)

The process of acquiring a symbology which gave coherence to Brown’s writing came, apart from his Orkney background, through his approach to writers whose work seemed to relate to his own view of the nature of art and of the nature of human existence in general. Even if European writing, and in particular Mann’s work, might not have been the major source of inspiration for Brown, it is nevertheless significant to elucidate the ways in which he responded to and assimilated German literature.
Brown’s distinct Orcadian identity and the reputation he had for being ‘the Orkney bard’ has often led to the belief that his writing is characterised by a certain narrowness of field. In his contribution to Norman Wilson‘s Scottish Writing and Writers (1977) Douglas Gifford, for instance, has tentatively suggested that “Brown’s case is a sad one of a truly great writer who has chosen to live in a room with only one view from its single window”. By indicating therefore that Brown looked for inspiration from beyond his native Orkney, it might open up a new dimension to his work. In any case, it could demonstrate that with regard to Brown, this room with its single window was in fact ‘a room with a view’ – a view and a vision oriented towards other British and European trends as well as a departure point for his own peculiar way of absorbing these stimuli into his art.

There is no doubt that writers whom one enjoys so much are taken into the creative imagination and influence one’s writing. (For the Islands I Sing, p66)

George Mackay Brown in introduction to Edwin Muir: Selected Prose (London 1987) p5.

See Ritchie Roberston 'Edwin Muir as European Poet' in C J M MacLachlan and D S Robb (eds), Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments, ASLS (1990) pp102-118. Also, Howard Gaskill's essay 'Edwin Muir - The German Aspect', in Lines Review, no 69 (Junes 1979 pp13-20).

See B Schoene's doctoral thesis, The Making of Orcadia: Narrative Identity in the Prose Work of George Mackay Brown (Frankfurt am Main 1995) p10.

See Beveridge and Turnbull's discussion of Scottish inferiorism in The eclipse of Scottish culture (Edinburgh 1989) p4-15, quoted in B Schoene, p9.

Alan Bold does no more than mention the name of Thomas Mann in his monograph George Mackay Brown (Edinburgh 1978) amongst other writers who have influenced Brown. (p12) However, nothing is said about the possible nature of such an influence or the reasons why Brown was drawn to Mann's work.

Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers (1934), Young Joseph (1935), Joseph in Egypt (1938) and Joseph the Provider (1944), transl. by H T Lowe-Porter; see also The Listener, (28/11/1940).

Muir mentions these works in his article on The Buddenbrooks in: P H Butter (ed.), The Truth of Imagi-nation. Some uncollected reviews and essays by Edwin Muir (London 1987) pp199-202; see also P H Butter (ed.), The Selected Letters of Edwin Muir (London 1974) p38.

(free translation); "Die Kunst besteht darin, da� man mit dem m�glichst geringsten Aufwand von �u�erem Leben das Innere in die st�rkste Bewegung bringe . . . Die Aufgabe des Romanschreibers ist nicht, gro�e Vorf�lle zu erz�hlen, sondern kleine interessant zu machen . . . Das Geheimnis der Erz�hlung ist es, das was eigentlich langweilig sein m��te, interessant zu machen." in Die Kunst des Romans, Gesammelte Werke X (Berlin 1960), pp356-7.

See An Autobiographical Essay, in M Lindsay (ed.) As I remember (London 1979) p9.

See George MacKay Brown, An Orkney Tapestry (London 1969), p167.

See Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (London 1960), p495.

See Thomas Mann 'Freud and the Future', in Essays of Three Decades (London 1947) p421.

Published 21 April 1999
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Contributed by Chapman / Eurozine