Taking the Gate:|
A Journey Through Scotland
by Stephen Scobie,
A Celebration of Winter Feasts, Summer Loves, & Rising Brookies
Post Your Opinion
|A Letter to Tasmania
by Maureen Harris
May 6th, 1997
I've just finished reading two Canadian books which I know you'd probably read yourself if you were still here in the bookstore: Stephen Scobie's Taking the Gate: A Journey through Scotland, and David Carpenter's Courting Saskatchewan. Scobie grew up in Scotland, so his journey is a return, with the invoking of memory a large part of its itinerary. I'm tempted to say Carpenter's book is about surviving in Saskatchewan, but that panders too much to the usual notions about that province-it's really about living well (and being at home) in Saskatchewan. Or for that matter anywhere, even Tasmania.
The two books belong to that surge of writing about place we've noted in the past several years. There's the travellers' camp where we find Bruce Chatwin and Dervla Murphy, and the home-place party with Wendell Berry and Annick Smith, for example. In the books I've been reading, Scobie is the traveller while Carpenter speaks for the home-place. For fun I made lists of opposing terms which are more or less descriptive of the books. Here's what I got: Stephen Scobie, the solitary traveller, introverted, moving through a landscape variously rain-soaked, misty, or stormy, immersed in his own musings about Scotland as remembered and as found on this trip, and David Carpenter, gregarious, sometimes manically extroverted, feet planted in his own sunny or snow-filled backyard in Saskatoon, facing the challenge of the weather with the help of family and friends. Weather is a dominant fact in both books and I have wondered if the crucial difference between them isn't the presence or absence of sunshine (the sky is dull here as I write). Both writers are immersed in time as well as place, but Scobie's focus seems more linear as he zigzags between past and present, while Carpenter goes round the circle of the seasons, principally in the present tense.
My sketch over-simplifies both the books and my reading, but take it as a pause to survey the scene. At the end of his prologue Scobie notes: "To visit a strange place is to indulge a tourist's curiosity. To re-visit a place is to honour its claims on your memory; it is to pay your duty as you cross the border: once again, in your own country, taking the gate." ("Taking the gate" means "setting off", according to Scobie's list of terms adapted from The Concise Scots Dictionary.) He travels to return home, and in returning asks some of the same questions of the place as does Carpenter at home.
As reader I approach each of these books from the other's perspective. That is, I enter Carpenter's landscape as a return to a place I know and love (are you surprised to hear I fantasize about owning a house somewhere in Saskatchewan?), and Scobie's without any stake in the place through family or experience. These differing perspectives may account for some unease I have with Scobie's book. But I haven't even mentioned the obvious differences between the two books, differences which are formal and tonal.
Taking the Gate is a mixture of prose and poetry. I think of Scobie as first of all a poet, yet he omits the term in his prologue description of himself as "a writer, a reader, a professional critic, and a teacher of literature..Everything I write is imbued with self-reflexive awareness." This awareness turns the writing as much toward the author as the reader. It's as if the writer were talking to himself but allowing us to eavesdrop. Scobie is determinedly anti-romantic about Scotland, cranky with the romance of history that overlays the presentation of much of the countryside. His mistrust of this is deeply felt; yet in the piece called "Blackwaterfoot", the prose and poetry blend perfectly, and the thrill of the legendary past is present throughout. I'm moved by the section of elegies for his mother, but often I've found myself questioning the text, wondering (not unenjoyably) about the mixing of genres, my expectations as reader, and the author's intentions. Threading the lyrics of Bob Dylan (the only tapes he had in his rental car) into both his movements and the narrative seems to me another romanticism. Those lyrics have wound their way through many parts of my life too, but their presence here seems too random and occasional to be given the last word. Perhaps it's Scobie's reticence that makes this book somehow incomplete, or it's the complex questioning of memory and history. Or perhaps the book is really only the beginning of a larger work, as those final words suggest: "But you know that we shall meet again/ If your memory serve you well."
Carpenter, a fiction writer and essayist, describes his book as creative documentary, "rigorous about facts and figures but inventive where it needs to be." He addresses the reader quite directly, telling, showing, explaining, including recipes, instructions for building a snow house, and a lovely lonely prose poem called "February". He's a very good comic writer, mainly with himself as butt (and also as Everyman), using comedy effectively as a vehicle for feeling. He doesn't limit himself to obsessive lunacies like trout fishing, or mock-heroic accounts of midway rides; he also details his struggle with the short dark days of winter and a narrow escape from nearly bleeding to death. At the end of it all, I come away feeling I've been invited into his life. He's above all a genial host, seeing to the entertainment and comfort of the company with great verve, particularly good at a comic turn as a way to balance depression and fear. I've had a good time with him, recognizing my own seasonal swing of moods and feelings, and I want to go to his next solstice feast, bringing johnny cake in an iron pan like my great-aunt in Manitoba used to make.
I've enjoyed reading and thinking about both these books. I wonder if you're finding this kind of writing going on in Tasmania. Just what kind of a place is it, anyway?
Maureen Harris is the author of A Possible Landscape (Brick). Her letter was written to Irene McGuire, the former proprietor of Writers & Company, a bookstore in Toronto.