Read The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn Free Online
Book Title: The Silver Darlings|
The author of the book: Neil M. Gunn
ISBN 13: 9780571200788
Edition: Faber and Faber
Date of issue: April 5th 1999
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 7.52 MB
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Reader ratings: 5.6
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This 1941 novel is what you may choose as a holiday book or, as I did, to read its near 600 pages over the Christmas period. First and foremost it’s one of those lovely warm stories to become immersed in, unworried about its cleverness or literary wit. Easy to hold up as an example of the ‘classic realist text’, yet therein lies one of its greatest mysteries: Gunn, cinematic in his descriptive powers, acutely penetrating in his observations of psychological relationships, and with a belly full of fire to locate human injustice in a broad context of the tradition of tragedy, pulls off the trick of making these ’realisms’ subordinate to an unstated but hauntingly real elsewhere. It’s writing of the highest order, and somewhat shows up the meagreness of some of the modern antirealist texts, brilliant though they are within their own small limits.
It is a powerfully skippered narrative, or, series of narratives. Journeys, clear-cut in their cartography. To skipper a narrative, incidentally, is an essential part of the novel’s themes; to feel confident under the direction of an author is whence authority should be submitted to by a crew, by a reader. Of course, the power of story-telling has been, and still is, grotesquely sentimentalised on the one hand, and, in more recent times, ‘narrative’ has become one of those nasally droned badges some folk wear to recognise each other as part of the community of postmodern cognoscenti. Gunn is much bigger than this, so’s the novel.
Perhaps an older type of literary criticism may be tempted to evoke phrases such as ‘landscape of memory’. I do, for now, briefly. The shape of the novel is as starkly simple as the outward lives of its characters. There are ad-ventures, ventures into and away from, journeys, circles, visits, orientation marks, sacred places, taboo places. Superstition or instinct shimmers in sea light or shadow, dread hangs over the wayfarers, the heroes and the clerks. Light, storm, glistening, fog, darkness, skies bluer than cornflowers, human forms as beautifully evoked as anything Byron ever did, plagues, purposeless suffering, hardship, all mixed in, always. And growth, cycles, the linear path to maturity and wisdom and acceptance, and understated mode of emotional expression, an aversion to labile neurosis.... Incidentally, there are no villains in Gunn’s writing. Why should there be? For to have them emphasise the good and heroic would be a vulgar trick. More to the point, the overall tone of Gunn’s vision is one not of individual virtue or vice, for one thing these appear as mixed as everything else in any fully expressed individual, but the realisation of the wrongness of separating single from whole, individual from community, community from landscape. As the cholera epidemic chooses no favourites, we see that the money fever attending the boom in the fishing trade is not a vice of the wicked capitalists only but touches the lovely and brave and strong too.
There’s a notion of ‘human nature’ (made explicit at one point) that will have Marxists rushing to the barricades – that there is such a primal thing and it doesn’t change very much. For those interested, Gunn fits well with the ‘Inhumanist’ tradition most sublimely associated with Robinson Jeffers. Of course, this inhumanism is a potent affirmation of the human, and history’s long cry against those which would suppress and distort it. There is a somewhat hilarious bar room brawl in Stornoway when the strong hero Roddie breaks out of his constraints, but Gunn allows the smile as he always does but never loses the gentle gravitas (elsewhere described as ‘like God thinking’) “Men craved for anything, for fights, for drink, for death, anything to break the horror that discipline kept rigid. There were only two ways out: brutality and foul language, and they went together. They were a great relief. They were like a vomit that cleared you.” Days of tedium, a horror in the mind, and the soul yearning for soaring release. Prow cutting waves bravely, leaving behind the shore, cutting through danger, embracing death....
Remarkably, the warrior motif is balanced (most keenly in the maturing of Finn) as are the other energies (such as sex) with a finalised vision of something like peace. Something like. That’s the thing with symbols, in a way they are useless and misleading but ephemerally may be felt the experience of the symbol in its profundity, “and as certainty stirs delight, delight obscures the symbols, leaving behind the sweetness of delight, as a flower leaves its fragrance.”
This is a book of sweetness and light. Its very powerful realism serves to dissolve itself and make itself the ghostly, the somehow illusionary. The passions, tragedies, sounds, furies, sufferings and loves, death and birth somehow illude. I’ll end with a short quotation, from near the end of the novel. There are symbols here, but you need to delude yourself to delight as they fade before you:
"The nights they spent in that remote place were never to be forgotten by Finn. They had the influence on his life of a rare memory that would come and go by the opening of a small window at the back of his mind. Through such an opening a man may see a sunny, green place with the glisten on it of a bright jewel, or a brown interior place and the movement of faces, or a strand in the darkening and the crying of a voice, but whatever the sight or the sound of the moment, it is at once far back in time and far back in the mind, so that it is difficult to tell one from the other. Indeed, an odd commingling seems to take place, and a curious revealing light is not even thought of, yet had always been there. "
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Read information about the authorNeil Gunn, one of Scotland's most prolific and distinguished novelists, wrote over a period that spanned the Recession, the political crises of the 1920's and 1930's, and the Second World War and its aftermath. Although nearly all his 20 novels are set in the Highlands of Scotland, he is not a regional author in the narrow sense of that description; his novels reflect a search for meaning in troubled times, both past and present, a search that leads him into the realms of philosophy, archaeology, folk tradition and metaphysical speculation.
Born in the coastal village of Dunbeath, Caithness, the son of a successful fishing boat skipper, Gunn was educated at the local village primary school and privately in Galloway. In 1911 he entered the Civil Service and spent some time in both London and Edinburgh before returning to the North as a customs and excise officer based (after a short spell in Caithness) in Inverness. Before voluntary retirement from Government service in 1937 to become a full-time writer, he had embarked on a literary career with considerable success.
His first novel, The Grey Coast (1926), a novel in the realist tradition and set in Caithness in the 1920's, occupied an important position in the literary movement known as the Scottish Renaissance. His second novel, Morning Tide (1931), an idyll of a Highland childhood, won a Book Society award and the praise of the well known literary and public figure, John Buchan. The turning point in Gunn's career, however, came in 1937, when he won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial prize for his deeply thought-provoking Highland River, a quasi autobiographical novel written in the third person, in which the main protagonist's life is made analogous to a Highland river and the search for its source.
In 1941 Gunn's epic novel about the fishing boom of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, The Silver Darlings, was widely acclaimed as a modern classic and considered the finest balance between concrete action and metaphysical speculation achieved by any British writer in the 20th century. It was also the final novel of a trilogy of the history of the Northlands, the other novels being Sun Circle (1933) on the Viking invasions of the 9th century and Butcher's Broom (1934) on the Clearances. In 1944 Gunn wrote his anti-Utopian novel, The Green Isle of the Great Deep, a book that preceded George Orwell's novel on the same theme, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by five years. The novel, using an old man and a young boy from a rural background as characters in a struggle against the pressures of totalitarian state, evoked an enthusiastic response from the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.
Some of Gunn's later books, whilst not ignoring the uglier aspects of the modern world, touch more on metaphysical speculation in a vein that is not without humour. The Well at the Worlds End (1951), in particular, lays emphasis on the more positive aspects of living and the value of that approach in finding meaning and purpose in life. Gunn's spiritual autobiography, The Atom of Delight (1956), which, although similar in many ways to Highland River, incorporates a vein of thought derived from Gunn's interest in Zen Buddhism. The autobiography was Gunn's last major work.
In 1948 Gunn's contribution to literature was recognised by Edinburgh University with an honorary doctorate to the author; in 1972 the Scottish Arts Council created the Neil Gunn Fellowship in his honour, a fellowship that was to include such famous writers as Henrich Boll, Saul Bellow, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa.
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