Living Nowhere by John Burnside

Vintage, 2003, 377 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Living Nowhere cover

Some books announce themselves from the outset, one way or the other. Within two sentences (and long before their seven lines ended) I knew this was going to be good; for all that I also knew it wouldn’t be straightforward. This is unapologetically a work that makes demands on its reader; but only in so far as it doesn’t lay its cards on the table openly. Burnside approaches his tale obliquely but in a way that reflects his characters, moreover the book’s structure is unusual in that it starts with sections dedicated to four viewpoints, not always following in the same order but doesn’t stick to those four throughout. They are Alina Ruckert, daughter of immigrants, refugees in World War 2; her mother Alma; Tommy Cameron, come down from Fife to Corby to make a better life for his family; and his son Derek. Alina is a somewhat detached young woman who has made a (non-romantic) friendship with her brother Jan’s bosom companion Francis (another of Tommy Cameron’s sons) who bonded most over photography. Alma feels alienated by her non-Britishness and her husband’s determination to give nothing of himself away. Tommy has brought up his sons to be aware of how tough the world is and always to be on their guard. Derek feels to be not altogether a man as he doesn’t experience the rage all the males around him seem to. That first part of the book is set in Corby, a town which, as Burnside tells it, in the late 1960s/early 1970s was in part a vision of Hell, dominated day and night by main employer The Works, spewing copious amounts of smoke, ash and iron ore into the town’s atmosphere so that clothing always reeked of sulphur and with the threat of violence never far away from its nightlife.

There are strong echoes of previous Scottish literature in the book. Tommy has been influenced by his Uncle Arthur whom he used to visit in rural Scotland and remembers his tales of the old days, “Tommy had never understood how the people tolerated the inhuman behaviour of the rich landlords.” Arthur had once admonished him, “‘Take a look around when you’re back in Cowdenbeath, walking down the High Street. Look carefully and see how many ghosts you can see.’” The tales of supernatural apparitions were about more than superstition, or the casual fatalism of people whose lives were governed by the random, they weren’t about something invented. “They were about something that had been lost. Something important.” Tommy knows to be hard only if the occasion demands it and skewers hard men as, “The boys who sat lonely in their own reputations, cold as stone, afraid to smile or say too much. Tommy knew you had to be afraid of something to spend that much time and energy on an image.”

Alina realises men treated everything they touched with contempt because it was life itself they hated and feared (feared more than hated) and is astonished by her workmate’s determination to get married, recognising, “that real, self-deluding affection that every bride-to-be harbours, against all the odds, till the week, or month, or year after the wedding, when she finds out what the man she married is really like.”

Derek contemplates the oddness of the life of the ex-pat. “He didn’t know what Scotland was. The mythology said it was The Sunday Post. The White Heather Club. The Highlands. But they never had shortbread at home, not in Scotland, and not here, except at Hogmanay when everybody turned into cartoon Highlanders, wandering the glassy streets with coal and bread in their coat pockets, leaving their doors open so anybody could walk in as tradition demanded,” he reflects on the New Year rituals. “Scotland was a myth. Burns suppers, tartan, Bonnie Prince Charlie, knowing what clan you were supposed to be in, it was all a bad myth.” But though none of the people around him at New Year came from that misreflected Scotland of the mind, “they were all going back there to die,” and he knows, “they didn’t want home. They wanted the same Scotland the tourists got.”

He has doubts about religion, “He didn’t want anybody’s love, he just wanted to be treated with basic decency. All these people talking about love, they were lying and cheating and robbing one another all the time, and nobody seemed to care. Maybe that was why they’d made up that impossible religion of love: because it was impossible, and everybody knew it, there was no real pressure to live up to it, no real need to do anything but go through the motions.” In another system based on the “ordinary possible decency of which people were capable, everything would be different.” If instead of having to love them, you just treated your neighbours as human beings.

The first half of the book weaves its overall narrative between the four viewpoints, sometimes seeing the same incident from more than one perspective, and the inevitable incident, brewing for 200 or so pages, which precipitates Francis’s flight from Corby occurs, like so much in this book, off the page, or at least we only come upon it in its aftermath.

Burnside seems to comment on his storytelling when Francis thinks, “the world is divided into two camps: (a) people who believe in stories and (b) people who trust the isolated, fleeting moments that stories seek to string together.” Here it looks as if Burnside has made a novel out of such isolated moments. It’s a bit of a pity that he then then over-eggs this underlining by adding, “like the little black points in one of those old join-the-dots puzzles you used to get in comic books,” but almost saves it with, “It never works. The picture turns out awkward and ugly, the story is, at best, a half-truth.” But Burnside’s story is neither awkward nor ugly.

The second half of the novel is couched as a series of letters from Francis to his absent friend Jan, telling of his life as a wanderer and some of the people he meets, before a coda section provides a resolution of sorts.

Francis meets all sorts, including privileged undergraduates in Cambridge, “they were the inheritors, boys who would be middle-aged in ten years’ time, working in the city or Whitehall, or running the family business, property owners, members of the club, men to be reckoned with….. moral within the narrow bounds of a system that refused to consider the intrinsic immorality of their position.” The pull these types can exert he sees as, “Women are always lamenting the fact that men are attracted to looks and nothing else, but they should see themselves when it comes to men with money.” Not big spenders, not flash but, “that quiet confidence that comes of having a trust fund behind you ….of wearing the right clothes, driving the right car, going to the right ski resorts for Christmas……” In a word, “Glamour.” In this context he tells us, “I love that expression ‘chip on the shoulder’: I bet nobody ever said it who was ever hungry and it was somebody else’s world.”

Of his experience of the US where he works for a while, he suggests, “If these people could only give a damn about something other than their own beautiful lives, they would be extraordinary.”

He excuses his lack of commitment by rationalising, “It’s the best luck a man can have liking women. Not just the pretty ones, or the ones who want to go to bed with you, but all women. It’s the worst luck when he chooses one woman and sets her apart, then lets his imagination go to work on her.”

He winds up in a Fife fishing village, making a living mainly through painting, and characterises the locals, “On the coast the people weren’t so much hard as indifferent,: their regard was fixed wholly upon themselves; if you weren’t from there, born and bred, you didn’t really exist, you were an incomer, a non-person.”

The one woman he settles down with for a while, Sally, eventually says to him, “‘You don’t want to stop moving, you don’t want to belong anywhere, because you think that’s how you are. But it isn’t. It’s because you’re grieving, it’s because you’re angry. Maybe you’re guilty too.’” She adds, “‘Your trouble is that you don’t want to live anywhere.’” And his inevitable reply, the one the book has necessarily been building to, comes. “‘No,’ I said, “my trouble is that I want to live nowhere,” but, crucially, Francis adds, “‘There’s a difference.’” For, “Home, wherever and for however long we find it, is, by its very nature, provisional and tainted.” His knowledge of himself is hard-won. “We think it’s the big dramatic happenings that make a difference, but it isn’t. It’s the long-drawn-out, drip-by-drip processes of loss and betrayal or grief that break us down; it’s the weeks and months of growth after some revelation, and not the revelation itself, that make us wise.”

Perhaps Burnside’s style in Living Nowhere is analogous to Francis’s musings on his painting. “To get it right, I realised, I had to abandon the literal: the meaningful juxtaposition, the telling contrast, no matter how well camouflaged didn’t quite work.” And then there is Francis’s idea of the pentimento. “What if the pentimento was the very point of the painting? What if you did just enough almost to conceal the thing you wanted the viewer to see, almost to hide the image that, because it wasn’t too obvious, would be all the more haunting?”

Substitute reader for viewer and that could describe Burnside’s achievement in Living Nowhere, a novel well worth its place in that list of best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- homeopathic (homoeopathic, please; or even homœopathic,) staunch (stanch,) math (even if he was in the US at the time concerned the narrator here is British; so maths.) “A range of theories were proposed” (a range was proposed.)

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