The Thirteenth Disciple by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)

Black and White, 1995, 262 p, plus ix p Introduction by Jack Webster.

 The Thirteenth Disciple cover

Malcom Maudslay (yes that is the spelling of Malcom used) is a child of that north-east of Scotland which Mitchell/Gibbon wrote about so well, distilling the experiences he gained while growing up there. In this novel the life of a young child in rural Scotland in the early part of the twentieth century is evoked admirably. Like J Leslie Mitchell was himself, Malcom is of a scholastic bent, encouraged to stay on at school by both the local minister and the dominie at Leekan, whose half-French neice, Domina Riddoch, is something of a free spirit, apt to scandalise the neighbourhood with her relaxed attitude to clothing in hot weather.

Malcom more or less self-educates by reading voraciously, though his father would have been keener to see him fee’d at a neighbouring farm. Through the minister he develops an interest in archaeology (which has significance much later) but Malcom soon outgrows his teachers and secures a job in journalism in Glasgow where he meets his first lover, Rita Johnson, and takes up with socialists. He progresses quickly at the newspaper but Rita’s accidental death (there is a hint that it may not actually have been an accident) and a misuse of the paper’s funds mean he has to leave Glasgow. Not quite his usual self, he joins the Army and endures the brutal rigours of training, but his relationship with the greatest influence on his life, Sergeant Major John Metaxa, a man as educated as himself, is in itself an education. A subsequent spell in the trenches in the Great War is described in harrowing terms. There is an occasional narrative conceit whereby we are given quotes from a journal of reflections Malcom supposedly kept in adulthood.

While The Thirteenth Disciple does not reach the heights of Sunset Song (but not even its two sequels quite did that) it signals the direction in which Mitchell/Gibbon would travel and in one delicious passage the Leekan village gossip is described as passing on from Leekan “and its scandalous days and nights – no doubt to that particular hell where all folk live discreetly and unscandalously, where no juicy stories ever circulate, where all girls marry their lovers before they bed with them.” Later, in his role as editor of Malcom’s journals, our narrator tells us, “To us of the early twentieth century the detailed sex-act is still impossible in all literature but the pseudo-scientific. We are, all of us, still, too young and nasty-minded.” It has been said that Andrew Greig was Scotland’s first post-Calvinist writer. On this evidence Gibbon has a good claim to that title.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “the age if” (of.) Otherwise; some now obsolete spellings such as Gomorrahn (Gomorran,) tabu (taboo,) juldi (jildi,) Knut Hammsen (Hamsen,) unescapable (inescapable,) Cainozoic (Cenozoic,) Thibet (Tibet,) bye-election (by-election,) unauthentic (inauthentic.) Also there were; Scottish Quarternary (Quaternary,) Jock Edwards’ (Edwards’s,) Kark Liebknecht (Karl,) Epsoms salts (Epsom’s salts,) archeology/archeologist (archaeology/archaeologist; annoyingly the spelling varies from place to place in the book,) “he could fell her breast-nipples against his chest” (breast-nipples? Is there any other kind of nipple on a human?) “Morituiri te salutant!” (Morituri,) a missing end quote mark, “whiskey advertisements” (whisky surely?) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a quoted paragraph, “Pio Perez’ grammar” (Perez’s,) an extraneous single quote mark, pifistac (???)

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