Polygon, 2008, 333 p. First published 1951.
The book starts off at a well, which appears to be dry but whose water is so transparent it is invisible. This strange encounter reminds Peter Munro and his wife Fand of an old Gaelic legend of the well in the land beyond ours, the Land of Youth. Munro sets off on a quest to see if anything remains of this well at the world’s end, to go through the human boundary (which may be an illusion.)
The novel treats of two of the triumvirate of literature’s perennial concerns – love and death, but not the third, sex – and in part reads like a series of short stories bound together as a travelogue. On his journey Munro sees The Wild Man, meets a shepherd, hears of a practical joke played out in a supposedly haunted house, is knocked out by illicit whisky distillers, witnesses a woman reinvigorating her marriage in a traditional way, facilitates young love and encounters rivalries (and a reconciliation) in neighbouring seaside towns.
While the book skirts round fantasy territory, things appearing out of mists etc, the overall treatment is realistic. The denouement brings the whole round in a circle and reintroduces fantasy overtones, inviting the reader to identify Munro with the Wild Man he glimpsed earlier but in one sense wriggles out of the conclusion which that entails.
Memorable phrases included, “A man should get away from everything occasionally, even from his wife,” “There are two things the Gael likes naked and one of them is whisky,” “We don’t drink alcohol for its reality. We drink it for the effect it creates, the illusion it engenders,” “A nod’s as good as a blink when there’s a blind salmon on the back doorstep,” and the reflection, “Every village in the Highlands, every crofting area to the farthest Western Isle, had kin in the ends of the earth, and long before world wars were the fashion.”
The text employs those impeccably Scottish words kist (spelled as cist,) widdershins and deisil (sunwards) and has Munro muse on the fact that alcohol is known as water of life in several languages, uisgebeatha, eau de vie, aqua vitae, but the Sasunnach (not having a water of life of his own) struggled to pronounce uisge and so deemed it whisky. At one point Gunn touches on the phenomenon of dual personality which has echoed through Scottish literature down the years since the Act of Union when he has Munro reflect, “as though in oneself were two quite different men, who were yet the same man.” Even without these indicators the book could not be mistaken for anything other than emblematically Scottish, though.
I confess I had to look up the phrase “agenbite of inwit,” which I had never seen before.
Pedant’s corner:- Sasunnach is an unusual spelling. “Shore up” was used in the sense of “rise up.” There was a barely brew (barley,) an unpredictible, doppleganger, genuiness and a failure of subject to verb agreement in “his knees, his whole body, was trembling finely.”