The curious locution "arguably," a staple feature of the British lecture, recurs repeatedly in each chapter of Ten Modern Scottish Novels. It precedes statements like: "Fergus [Robin Jenkins' Fergus Lamont] writes his only two books of poems, based arguably on his only two 'real' experiences before Oronsay (which inspires more poems), the Gantock childhood and the war"—statements with which no [End Page 816] one is likely to disagree. I offer this as one sure indication of the kind of book Murray and Tate have produced—a solid, helpful work directed to readers who need (or have been directed to find) help identifying the narrative forms, crucial scenes, significant images, and numerous ironies of ten novels as different from one another as James Kennaway's Tunes of Glory and Alasdair Gray's Lanark.
Although the first named of that pair might not seem to require much in the way of explanation, the chapter on it is one of the most satisfactory in the whole book, especially in its comments on the snow imagery, the surprising complexity of the character of Jock Sinclair, and the "foreignness to each other" of most of the characters. Lanark, on the other hand, is a text so irregular and so baffling that straightforward help in the making of connections will be welcome by every reader (and every teacher). Even those not persuaded to adopt the "somewhat sunnier reading" put forward here will not want to argue with many of the possibilities raised in the course of it.
The following quite representative passage, on William McIlvanney's Docherty, indicates the prevailing method and manner:
Even without the disruption of the War, a certain growing apart in the family is inevitable at this stage, because of the ages and situations of the characters. Kathleen, married, is more peripheral to the family now, although as time goes on and her relationship with Jack sours she returns more and more to her family with her own babies: her silence about her private miseries keeps her to some extent apart. Angus has begun to assert himself, and chapter 5 here is devoted to a predominantly sympathetic account of his development and his increasing need to compete with his father. When he is fifteen and his strength saves Tadger from a nasty and possibly fatal accident in the pit, Tadger's gratitude and the others' admiration become fuel to his image of himself, and Tam is alerted to the boy's egotistical, competitive bent. In passing, McIlvanney alerts us to future problems for Angus and his family. . . .
The proportion of summary to explanation and of restatement to interpretation is about the same throughout the book.
When the authors interrupt their summaries to elucidate images such as the limpets in Neill Gunn's Silver Darlings and the hireling shepherd in Fionn MacColla's And the Cock Crew, they do so most effectively—except, I think, for the serpents in George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe and the prison images in Docherty, both of which are overdone. Too many passages begin or end merely by pronouncing the section dealt with "interesting," "crucial," "balanced," or "economical." Sometimes they work toward interchangeable conclusions like: "Always there is great compression: the novel is very full and rich, and because of the ambitious nature of the narrator and authorial irony, a constant challenge to the reader." And such breezy statements as that Muriel Spark "is very 'laid back'" and that Chris Guthrie "assesses her looks and anticipates a lover with whom she can share not only her body but all her dearest thoughts" are likelier to make the reader wince than to argue.
I found especially unhelpful the...