Friday, August 22, 2014

Island by Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod died in April this year (2014) at the age of 77. The New York Times obituary reported that he was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, the son of a coal miner, in 1936. His parents were Gaelic-speaking Cape Breton natives who had moved from the island to seek work. When Alistair was 10, they moved back to Cape Breton. MacLeod worked as a logger, coal miner, and fisherman, earned a teaching certificate from Nova Scotia Teachers College, two bachelors  degrees from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia; a master’s in English from the University of New Brunswick; and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. He published his first short story in 1969, his last in 1999. Island contains all sixteen of his stories.

Sixteen stories in thirty years. John Updike may have written sixteen stories a month. But what MacLeod lacks in volume he more than makes up for in quality. While I did not find every one of these sixteen equally accessible, I found the least engaging story to be superior fiction.

They are all set on or off the coast of Cape Breton. Most of them are set at a time before electricity, telephones, and mechanized farm equipment. The characters a miners, tunneling into coal seams; fishermen and lobstermen, taking small boats onto treacherous waters; and farmers, trying to raise and bring in enough hay during the short growing season to sustain the animals through the brutal winter. Two of the most powerful stories—"In the Fall" and "Winter Dog"—convey a complex and intense relationship between animal and human, a relationship far more profound and complex than a woman's with her house cat, a man's with a pet dog.

MacLeod's descriptions of the natural world are marvels, almost poetry. For example,

"It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thing oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagull mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation—the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair."

And within this natural world of implacable ocean, scarred landscape, and brutal winters, the characters live as best they can. The men impregnate their wives repeatedly, drink, and fish and log and watch the seasons change. The women have five, six, a dozen children, garden, cook and mend, and wait for their husbands and sons to come home from the sea, from the mine, from the logging camp. In more than one story, MacLeod is able to portray an entire life, virtually from beginning to end, choosing and describing those key moments that gave the life its shape.

Let me quote three other writers because they say what I think better than I can say it: Colm Tóibin: "These stories have slowly become famous for their control of tone and cadence and for MacLeod's ability to handle pure, raw emotion." Michael Ondaatje: "Alistair MacLeod's stories are as regional and universal as the work of Faulkner or Chekhov. And they are, I think, as permanent." Thomas Curwen: "Like the great writer W. G. Sebald, MacLeod wanders across the landscape he claims as his own and lets the wandering reveal its meaning, content to know that the deeper you pour yourself into a reaction, the more you transcend the particulars and give the stories a universal sheen, an intimate gloss. It is a triumph of detail slowly spilled over the pages. MacLeod's deepening sense of the world and of the people whose lives he is responsible for gives each scene its bittersweet poignancy."

No comments:

Post a Comment