A Concussed History of Scotland by Frank Kuppner

Polygon, 1990, 195 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 A Concussed History of Scotland cover

Any novel which starts, “Go away – I wish to have nothing to do with you. I insist on it. Go away!” signals immediately it is not going to be a straightforward read. To follow that in the second paragraph with, “the Universe is merely something which I created as an illustration of my own non-existence,” only compounds that impression.

Then too, the cover bears the sub-title a novel of another sort. Flick to the back cover and there appear the author’s name, a title “A Concise History of Scotland” and a sub-title another novel of sorts – all in mirror writing – framing a black and white montage of the moon in various phases, an ear and a clothed female torso. Clearly literary games are being played.

The text contains 500 chapters none of which stretch to two pages; the shortest contains only two words. It is a fractured mosaic of the narrator’s personal recollections and observations, possibly describable as a stream-of-consciousness, except a stream flows. It is more like a successively dammed river, or cataracts of consciousness, if you will. Is this how a concussed person thinks?

The book is certainly no history. Various places in Scotland receive a mention. (For example, “Ah, will I ever forget Vienna? It reminds me so powerfully of Paisley.”) But there is no apparent connection between them other than their Scottishness.

None of the usual consolations of the novel apply. There is really only one character (the narrator,) and all but no dialogue to go along with a complete absence of plot.

There are some phrases which arouse admiration. There really ought to be a wine called Chateau Calvinblanc. (It would have to be grown in Scotland and taste sweet and bitter at one and the same time.)

The lines, “all families bar one were assembled by pure chance… all families are the same in different ways … That is to say all happy families are unhappy in one of two ways,” put a spin on Tolstoy, and while “males and females probably exist so that each sex has another one to blame,” may be there to provoke, “what does prayer most commonly consist of, but in begging the non-existent to do that which he could not do even if he were to exist?” certainly is; as is, “Man invents fears, and then invents gods to allay those fears.” And what can one do but concur with this attribution, “a private joke – or life as it is sometimes called,” while, “You would not deny that certainty is almost certainly the opposite of wisdom, I hope,” is a sentiment that applies to our divided times with more force than when it was written.

A Concussed History of Scotland would be no easy starting point to that 100 Best books list. Its entry there underlines that. There are far more accessible books with which to test the Scottish literary waters but, take the plunge, and you may find yourself rewarded. Expect to stray to the limit of your depth though.

Pedant’s corner:- “a flock of lame birds hobble past” (a flock hobbles,) “I sometimes think think this would explain” (only one “think” needed,) “all those artists mothers” (artists’ mothers,) an unindented chapter heading (all the rest are centred on the page,) negociate (negotiate,) “than than than than” (possibly to indicate the narrator’s state of mind,) back vertebrae (there was only one, so vertebra,) ungainlyly (yes, it’s an ungainly word but surely its spelling is ‘ungainlily?) arachnoepterate? (I can find no instance of this word. elsewhere.)

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