Read The Serpent Online

Authors: Neil M. Gunn

The Serpent

BOOK: The Serpent
3.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Neil M. Gunn


Introduced by Frances Russell Hart

When Neil Gunn's twelfth novel.
The Serpent
, appeared in 1943, Edwin Muir reviewed it with insight as ‘a mature book'. ‘The effect of imaginative maturity is to make you feel that everything you are shown is in its proper place and on its true scale … The harmony resides in the total effect, but the material out of which it is woven is conflict, disaster, loss, betrayal, and on occasion supernatural horror.' Muir's claim is just. But to realise this passionate, puzzling novel's mature harmony will take patient contemplation.

The Serpent
was written at peaceful, remote Brae Farm, the Gunns' rented home in Strathpeffer, in 1941, the darkest time of World War II. The timing may help to explain the mood of dark menace that pervades the book. Neil began it shortly after completing
The Silver Darlings
and continued during the same months that produced the delightfully whimsical
Young Art and Old Hector
and idyllic essays later collected in
Highland Pack. The Serpent
could not be more different.

It traces the tormented life of Tom Matthieson, a village mechanic and self-taught philosopher, from his young manhood in Glasgow (1889–91) to his death over fifty years later. Tom's story is told in retrospective segments, framed in a single day, his last, as he climbs the hill above his village to the ruined crofts and moor on the heights. ‘The place is “arranged a bit”,' Neil conceded later, ‘though the hill … is very like the hill and moor where Daisy and I spent wandering days … I fished in the small Skiach burn, while she hunted wild-flowers or bathed in a pool. Blessed days.' Within this frame of blessed tranquillity, Gunn encompasses Tom's story of conflict, disaster, and horror. How can mature harmony evolve out of this shocking dissonance of story and frame?

Gunn's friend, the artist Keith Henderson, claimed that all of his novels are ‘autobiographical'. Perhaps this is a truism. Or perhaps it adds a dimension of puzzlement. His biographers, with some help from himself, have found a few segments of his life refracted in
The Serpent
: his mind-awakening encounters with socialism and atheism as a lad in the city; his love affair; his walks at Brae; his growing antipathy to collectivism. Moreover, while Gunn often protested he could not remember his books, never looked at them after publication,
The Serpent
stands out as a novel he recalled and referred to years later in letters to friends. He recalled it as a reliable statement of his political beliefs, his communal anarchism. But his ideological attachment to the book does not even address what is special about the quality of Tom's experience. When I questioned Neil about the novel's origins, he replied, ‘
The Serpent
, like
The Shadow
, is one of my own peculiar ones of which I'd say nowt.' He then went on at length to build a hypothetical model of composition, a wonderfully rationalised subterfuge, which simply confirms the suspicion that he felt uniquely possessive of, secretive about, this book – ‘one of my own peculiar ones'.

What is ‘peculiar'? On a generic level,
The Serpent
is Gunn's Gothic novel. The episodes of the horrific Halloween prank, the father's phantom, the madwoman at the haunted bridge, the philosopher's weird death, are among the most ‘Gothic' he ever wrote. In its passionate pursuits and clandestine meetings among dark, windswept hills, it recalls the Brontës. The bleak mental torments of the outcast hero remind one of the Hardy of Clym Yeobright and
Jude the Obscure
. And the novel is Gothic in the prominence of that key theme from Radcliffe through Dickens to James – that is, the power and allure of secrecy and darkness.

Secrecy and darkness pervade Tom's story. If we ask of the carefully plotted trysts with Janet, ‘Why this secrecy?' the book answers, ‘Heaven knew, but it had been part of the fun, the delicious essence of their escape into freedom.' Secrecy is linked with pleasure, possession, and defiance. From Glasgow, Tom preserves ‘that particular impression
of a city at night … an impression secret to himself.' Back home, the ‘night was full of secrecy and merriment', and Tom would see ‘the secret loveliness and laughter in things' and would ‘smile in that secretive way that would often come over him when he was alone' – secretive even in solitude. After his mother's death, he ‘found in the loneliness of the house a secret pleasure', and on his last day, Tom the old philosopher, looking back over his life, ‘smiled like one who had found not a meaning but a secret'.

Careful readers may disagree on this theme and how Gunn views it. An esteemed friend poses the issue persuasively in a letter to me: ‘It is because secrecy is broken with his mother that he is saved. But secrecy is never broken with Janet. He has relished the secrecy and this relish was perverse. Secrecy has spoiled their relationship which could have emerged into the sunlight if he had allowed it to. Is Tom ever clear about his responsibility for this?
How clearly does
the author know this
?' Try as I will, I cannot accept this view that Tom's secrecy is culpable or that the author intends it to be seen as such. New readers must decide this question for themselves.

For many, like my friend, there is always a link between secrecy and deceit. Jung wrote, ‘The keeping of secrets acts like a psychic poison'; Acton, ‘every thing secret degenerates'; and Sartre, ‘Transparency must substitute itself at all times for secrecy.' On the other hand, the secret, writes sociologist Georg Simmel, can produce ‘an immense enlargement of life', offering the ‘possibility of a second world alongside the manifest world'. It can, writes philosopher Sissela Bok, ‘delight, give breathing space, and protect'; guard creativity; and ‘lend the joy of concentration and solemnity to the smallest matters'. It makes for ‘a correspondingly strong feeling of possession', as in Tom's ‘impression secret to himself' and Neil Gunn's ‘one of my own peculiar ones of which I'd say nowt'. Moreover, the secret, adds Simmel, is ‘a first-rate element of individualisation'; an ‘essential preliminary', Jung acknowledges, ‘to the differentiation of the individual'. Tom, we are told, was ‘like something that had escaped
from between [his parents] … in mind very much like something that had escaped and secretly knew it.' Yet, the secret is also essential to the intimacy of which the deepest communal bonds are made. It is at the crux and tension of individuality and community, separateness and intimacy. Out of this tension, Tom's wholeness and the wholeness of his story evolve.

Only in
The Serpent
does Gunn recreate a whole individual life. The old man looks back on its wholeness: ‘The pattern was inexorable and pursue it he had to, from some inner need in himself', trying to ‘bring to focus in himself, if not the meaning of the whole, at least some coherent apprehension of the whole'. The pattern is woven of three relationships, three plots: the conflict with his father, the affair with Janet, both ending in catastrophe, and, ultimately most important, the slow flowering of intimacy with his mother, ending in tenderness and vulnerability.

The pattern is
, for Tom makes it, it is ‘the pattern he himself had woven'. An essential feature of his character must not be overlooked: he is a craftsman. He is Gunn's version of Eliot's Adam Bede, not just in the tragic love triangle (Adam, Hetty Sorel, and her seducer), but also in Tom's dedication to craft. He is recognised first for his skill in fixing clocks, and he becomes the village's ‘working craftsman', the entrepreneur, building his shop, building a life for himself: ‘Life was shaping, was being shaped by his hands.' But the shape is repeatedly broken, the wholeness destroyed, to be built again. After Janet betrays him, his ‘essential nature' changes, and a ‘new nature' is fashioned. Following his father's death, this hard new nature disintegrates. He recovers, but then ‘chance brought a piece of news' that ‘shattered the framework he had so slowly been building'. A core of identity remains, but how can one identity contain such radically changed natures? How can the Tom of these changes ever be identified with the serene old philosopher? Where is the wholeness, the harmony, to be found?

The novel is crafted to pose these questions. Tom's story and its frame repeatedly clash. They embody antithetical states of mind. Indeed, sometimes ‘the incidents' of the
story, says the author, are ‘little more than embodied states of mind, states of grace'. Neil's insightful reader Nan Shepherd said of earlier novels, ‘You can take processes of being – no, that's too formal a word –
is too static, this is something that moves –
I suppose is best – you can take movements of being and translate them out of themselves into words.' As story and frame alternate – first an episode of Tom's conflicted life, then a glimpse of the happy, enlightened old man climbing his hill – the antithetical movements are repeatedly contrasted.

The most startling disjunction comes in Chapters 13 through 15. The first and third narrate Tom's nightmarish disintegration after his father's death. In between is a pleasant philosophical interlude, where the old man explains to a friendly shepherd his anarchistic views of society based on early experience of the now-vanished crofting community. The philosopher seems untouched by the horrific drama whose telling surrounds his talk. The story is no longer truly ‘his'. It is told, not by him, but by an omniscient author with that double quality of ‘intense immediacy and a sort of enclosed detachment', one perceptive reviewer had found in
, and ‘that intimate detached way of his' which Ian Grimble thought typical of Neil's own talk. The story is not told as
but as
, with a ‘certain detached interest'.

The story's initial crisis arises from sullen hostility between father and son. What is this conflict really about? Before his illness, the father was an ordinary, decent man; after it, he is dour and defeated. His quiet opposition to Tom's building, his few outbursts at Tom's religious scepticism, cannot explain Tom's extreme reactions: ‘disgust', ‘loathing', ‘dizzied' anger, bitterness. His death brings more than simple guilt. Some in ‘the community' blame Tom, demonise him as the atheist patricide, the Serpent, but not even this can account for his utter collapse. The main cause is in Tom, in what he does to his own nature, in what the defeated old man comes to symbolise in Tom's consciousness, his power as a concept of power.

‘The father had the all-knowing power', a ‘mystery of austere unfathomable power'. ‘The grey face, the grey
beard, the blazing eyes, the pursuing face' evoke ‘the power of the father created in the image of God. The tribal power, the unearthly power.' This transformation is something ‘more terrible and penetrating' than belief or disbelief in God, ‘more than the Father and Son Relationship'. Gunn is adapting Freud's
Totem and Taboo
and at the same time rejecting it, as he will later in
Atom of Delight
. Tom is wrestling with his own embodied concept. Growing fear and hatred of this concept consume him. He makes himself a hard, destructive rationalist. Having harshly rejected his concept, he has nothing positive to put in its place. He regresses into the opposite of destructive rationalism, an imagination possessed by primitive demonism. This is no cure. The only cure must come, not from any male concept, but from the women in Tom's life, Janet and his mother.

In them, he has already found a secret, conspiratorial counter-force to male power. The Halloween prank of the lads, disrupting the girls' secret meeting with the ‘witch', the girls' conspiracy against ‘schemes of damnation reared by male elders', is a juvenile portent of this revelation. The prank leads to Tom's affair with Janet, and from it he learns tenderness. When Janet proves unfaithful, this lesson is forgotten, and after her death, only his mother is left.

In fact, she has been a central presence since the start, always the antithesis of power: ‘When society could produce beings like his mother, it could from that moment dispense with all force and coercion … Was she in this respect in her simple way the embodiment of a once perfected mode of society?' Yet, she has a very different power of her own. Tom realises what this is only much later. His reading of philosophy leads to Rousseau, and
in Rousseau
he discovers ‘the feminine mind', opposed to the ‘male categories, the philosophical absolutes, the masculine rules of life'. Much in Gunn's earlier fiction may well bespeak ‘stereotypes' of the traditional Highland male. Yet here is the extraordinary revelation that the ‘feminine' is not merely a matter of gender. One wishes that Christopher Whyte, author of a recent provocative challenge to critical orthodoxy in
Gendering the Nation
which may infuriate some Gunnians but demands a careful response, had overcome
his irritation long enough to read past
Butcher's Broom
Silver Darlings
into Gunn's later novels, where very different versions of ‘masculine' and ‘feminine' emerge.

At any rate, this revelation carries Tom into a new awareness: ‘He saw now how vivid a woman's apprehension of the real was. A man could cloud his apprehension with all sorts of rules, categories, principles, theories. Not so a woman.' His own apprehension clears. He cares for his dying mother, their roles now reversed, with practical tenderness and vulnerability. He reads to her from the New Testament of a Christ who was ‘so gentle and kind … Always that human understanding and warmth.' He is nearing the point in his evolution when he will become one with the philosopher on his hill and say of his mother to the shepherd, ‘She is pretty nearly my philosophy, my religion.'

The Serpent
is Neil Gunn's most religious novel. We can say this so long as we do not define religion as a system of supernatural doctrine, or religion as distinct from philosophy. Tom's final philosophy is not a conceptual structure any more than his religion is a doctrinal system. Both transcend concept and doctrine, for both have crystallised into what John Burns, in an excellent chapter of
A Celebration of the Light
, calls ‘a quiet awareness of reality', a spiritual stasis. Burns likens this to Taoist wisdom. One might also liken it to Blake's higher innocence, an innocence beyond experience, the higher innocence of Old Hector in his ‘second childhood'. But Tom's higher innocence is attained only by way of a painful, cataclysmic evolution. His final vision is of a ‘vast evolutionary process' from the primal affinity of atoms ‘up to the tenderness of Christ, to love'. It is a vision close to that of the author of
Adam Bede

BOOK: The Serpent
3.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

In Sheep's Clothing by Rett MacPherson
The Visible Man by Klosterman, Chuck
Scott's Dominant Fantasy by Jennifer Campbell
Defy the Dark by Saundra Mitchell
Una página de amor by Émile Zola
Fallen SEAL Legacy by Sharon Hamilton
Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe
Cathy Hopkins - [Mates, Dates 04] by Mates, Dates, Sleepover Secrets (Html)