Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Dark of Summer - Erik Linklater

When I found this book - about a decade ago in a second hand shop where it later emerged it was somewhat over priced - I bought it because it was that rare thing, a novel set in Shetland. Since then Linklater has had a bit of a revival, with various reprints of some of his better books around. 'The Dark of Summer' (which is available as both an e book and a paper book in the Bloomsbury Reader series) is from the latter end of his writing career and probably isn't one of his better books (I have a few more titles and really should get round to reading them) but it's still worth seeking out.

The action takes place over a bit more than a decade, starting in the Second World War and ending in the 1950's. Tony Chisolm is a career soldier who finds himself en route to the Faroe Islands looking for a spy on a Shetland Bus sort of set up. The spy is found, already dead, and is transported to Shetland where the corpse might be used to trap another spy (there are shades of The Man Who Never Was about this ,or so I think). There's a storm (evocatively described) and then an encounter with an eccentric local laird which sends the book off into a tangent when it adopts and adapts the story of The Giffords of Busta all mixed up with a drunken Jacobite and memories of the '45. Later on a preserved body in a bog echoes the finding of the Gunnister Man (he was dug up 5 years before this was published).

After that interlude it's back off to the war in Europe, then later Korea, with some recuperating in Singapore, with plenty of time to muse about nationalism, patriotism, the nature of compassion, what war does to a soldier, the importance of loyalty and tradition, why men become soldiers, the neccesity of a good library of female authors when on a longish stint at sea in the Royal Navy, and the difference between cowardice and bravery. Then finally it's back to Shetland to fish and fall in love.

Linklater served in both world wars, and Korea, he lived in Orkney for many years, and obviously knew Shetland and the Faroe Islands. It's an old fashioned book that sprawls all over the place with a bit of a boys own adventure feel to it, but it's also a rattling good read with some very funny lines, and interesting insights. This is the second time I've read it, I hope it's not the last.

Finally I can't resist sharing this - Chisolm, en route for the Faroe's has the captains cabin on the converted trawler the Navy are using. There is a book shelf full of Virgina Woolf, Colette, Rosamund Lehmann, and Elizabeth Bowen amongst others (including Chisholm's mother). Later he questions the captain (who doesn't know about his mother) about this...

'Do you read no authors but women?
'Not at Sea,' he said. 'The sea has two disadvantages: it's salt, as I mentioned before, and there are no women on it. Not in war-time. So female authors are a necessity, as well as a luxury. All those books - and some are a lot better than others - contain a woman who's undressing herself. Oh yes, they do! Some of them only unwrap their sensibility and their intelligence, but even they give you the feeling that there's a bed behind the door. But most of them take you on a beautifully observant, roundabout walk, that might be a little bit boring if you didn't know where it was leading; but it's leading you all the time, with unfaltering purpose. The whole thing - the whole female art of novel writing - is an exquisitely prolonged strip-tease.
I don't know precisely how tongue in cheek Linklater is being here, definatley a bit, but I love the way that in the middle of all the spy and storm at sea shenanigans he stops to throw this in.


  1. I thought I'd read this but had to check my blog to be sure. I had read it & you left a comment about having read it a few years before (this was 2013). Still haven't read any more Linklater although I enjoyed this. What would you recommend?

  2. Shamefully it's the only one I've read. I'm not quite sure where to go next with him, part of the appeal of this one is that some of the places are familiar, and I like the way he went off on odd tangents (the ballet and feminine middlebrow loving Captain Silver was a total bonus). I have Poets Pub which I think I ought to read next

  3. Chisolm's remark is offensive and lewd. But Linklater is letting his character reveal his loneliness through reported speech. Remember, this is war. War conditions twist and deform the thoughts and actions of certain men.
    Chisolm is at sea, aboard a converted trawler. He is thinking about the possibility of death at sea, and he is thinking about women in the most obvious way. A sensible man would tell Chisolm to shut up and stop making a fool of himself.
    Eric Linklater's son, Andro, said his father was pagan in the best sense of the term. 'There was his choice of gravestone, for instance, a massive stone which, surely not by coincidence, was the same shape, and almost the same size, as the standing stones raised by Orkney's Pictish inhabitants.'
    The Picts, who raised those standing stones to their unknown gods, have left us nothing else about who they were. A haunting thought.
    Eric Linklater was born in Wales but considered himself Orcadian.
    Andro Linklater writes about his father in the foreword to The Goose Girl and Other Stories by Eric Linklater, published by Canongate in 199l
    Jack Haggerty

  4. I didn't read it as offensive, though it may be my fault if it comes across as particularly lewd, I could have quoted a bit more context. I think it's a very tongue in cheek passage, and that Linklater is having fun with it, but that he's making a point about what he feels it is that women writers do which maybe male ones don't.

  5. Andro Linklater said his father's 'primitivism co-existed with a highly cultivated intelligence' and that after the war 'he took an excellent First and every English prize in sight at Aberdeen University'.
    I don't mean to identify Eric Linklater with his fictional characters.
    Virginia Woolf said that the imagination is hermaphrodite.
    War is a subject about which you might expect to see some deep division between men and women.
    Yet the American novelist James Jones wrote as sensitively on war as the campaigning journalist Martha Gelhorn.
    Jones told his friend William Styron that men in combat zone never speak about courage or the lack of it.
    Words such as 'courage' and 'heroic' are what civilians and politicians like to imagine about war, Jones said, but the awful reality is quite different.
    While visiting Washington, Jones said that the men who fell in the American Civil War died for nothing. He had a huge Civil War library at his home in Paris.
    The remarks of Jones are quoted in an essay by Styron that prefaces a book entitled 'To Reach Eternity - The Collected Letters of James Jones'.
    In an hour-long YouTube documentary Gore Vidal speaks of the death of his best friend at Iwo Jima. His friend's mother asked Vidal if he wanted to read her son's letters.
    'I have never read such bitter letters,' Vidal said. 'And this was a sunny boy, a football player.'
    Linklater saw that war twisted everything.
    But I am sure he was also tongue in cheek as you say.
    My 98 year old uncle, an ex-regimental sergeant major and a veteran of the battle of Monte Cassino, once said to me, 'Don't take life too seriously.'
    My uncle is the most life-affirming man I know, and lives in rural Devon, a place he loves.
    Jack Haggerty

    1. The YouTube documentary is titled, 'Gore Vidal The United States of Amnesia', and is well worth watching.
      There is also a documentary on Vidal first shown on BBC Omnibus as well as a Vidal two-part interview fronted by Melvyn Bragg.
      There is a YouTube documentary on James Jones while his friend William Styron is interviewed by Charlie Rose, also on YouTube.
      The old William F Buckley TV interviews with such luminaries as Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Jack Kerouac and Paul Goodman still make compelling viewing. Again YouTube.
      On YouTube can see an excerpt from a terrific film about Nelson Algren, a writer who identified with the poor and socially marginalised.
      Jack Haggerty