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Michael Gardiner, From Trocchi To Trainspotting: Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006

224 pp., ISBN: 0748622330, £16.99


Reviewed by Claire McCallum

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‘The Auld Alliance’ of Scotland and France is ripe for comparative literary study, particularly in examinations of the twentieth century. The novels of Proust, of course, feature heavily in any discussion of the literature of the 1920s and 1930s, but can be the only starting point for a real examination of the work of Neil Gunn, particularly Highland River (1937). The influence of poets like Baudelaire, with his constant meditation on decay and waste, is evident in the work of Edwin Muir and William Soutar; influences of the symbolistes (Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Valéry) are also noticeable in both of these writers but also, more famously, in MacDiarmid. In drama, playwrights of the stature of Robert Kemp and Liz Lochhead turned their skills to translating Molière into Scots – Kemp with Let Wives Tak Tent (1948), a reworking of L’École des Femmes; and Lochhead’s version of Tartuffe (1985) was such a success that she wrote a second play, Misery Guts (2002), derived from Molière’s Le Misanthrope.

Michael Gardiner’s latest book forms part of this overlooked comparative tradition[1]. The title is something of a misnomer – though given the abundance of major overviews of Scottish literature in the years since devolution, this comes as a pleasant surprise. It seems that the real motivation behind this volume is not to offer a traditional examination of Scottish literary theory of the last fifty years, but rather, a more comparative study of French literary theory and Scottish writers who have incorporated these theories in their thinking, and how this progress appears to be concurrent. Gardiner hints towards this in his introduction, when he lays out his position: ‘My study is not exhaustive by any means; far from it. It tends rather to take specific lines in Scottish thought and demonstrate that they were already ‘doing’ theory, despite the faux debate about whether theory should be used in Scottish literature.’(p.3)  It is unavoidable here to question whether Gardiner should bother getting involved in a debate he considers to be a non-starter; ironically most of the supposed ‘anti’-theorists in the Scottish literary scene completely ignore theory, rather than argue for the benefits of alternative readings. Yet, it is interesting that there are still very few books that cover explicitly international and theoretical ground in Scottish literary studies; and most of those are essay collections rather than monographs, such as the recent Scotland in Theory: Reflections on Culture and Literature (2003) edited by Eleanor Bell and Gavin Miller, and Beyond Scotland: New Contexts for Twentieth Century Scottish Literature, edited by Gerard Carruthers, David Goldie and Alastair Renfrew (2004). It is encouraging, then, that Gardiner’s book has found its way into the public domain, and one hopes it will be the impetus for the publication of more focussed comparative and critical studies.

Gardiner’s decision to home in on particular writers is fresh, and provides a very different approach to those readers used to literary criticism equating to Scottish nationalist historiography. When Gardiner states that he is demonstrating theoretical thinking in ‘specific lines of Scottish thought’, this seems to be a playful sidestep. Indeed, the lines of thought he traces are generally comparative ones between Scottish and French writers of similar movements, and elsewhere in the book he criticises the idea of ‘Scottish’ as an essentialist, ‘authentic’ category, outside of theoretical discourse. In his discussion of Alexander Trocchi, Kenneth White and Situationist theory, Gardiner examines areas of Trocchi’s work that have been generally neglected by nationalist readings. This internationalist perspective allows Trocchi to step out from behind the shadows of both Ewan McGregor and Young Adam and gain recognition, for example, as the editor of the Parisian journal Merlin. As Gardiner points out, this journal first introduced Beckett to an Anglophone audience and published Eugene Ionesco in English, and places Trocchi at the centre of a European literary scene. An in-depth discussion of Trocchi’s Sigma Portfolio, a collection of papers, is also creative in its approach to placing Trocchi very much in an international context, but also as being ahead of his time:

Here, almost a decade before Anti-Oedipus and two decades before the formalisation of Postcolonial Theory which stressed the recovery of the present from the colonial time-lag, Trocchi declares: ‘[w]e are concerned with the present and only by the way with a future ideal state (process) of society, the articulation of whose functions is forcedly terra incognita’. The negotiation of what kind of state we are headed towards is, of course, precisely the ‘state (process)’ which Scotland has been undergoing since. (p.82)

Revisionist readings like this one are the strength of this book – re-internationalising writers previously placed in a Scottish tradition in an attempt to strengthen the validity of that tradition. Gardiner similarly places Edwin Morgan in an international context, highlighting his work as a translator and as a ‘cut-and-paste’ poet in the postmodern sense; his analogy of Morgan and writers like him as DJs, mixing styles, textures and layers, is an imaginative and fruitful one. The analogy of ‘scratching’ records with interrupted narrative or poetic flow is a particular area of thought that could be expanded and used in the move towards a more interdisciplinary and open form of critical dialogue.

Any lack of conviction with Gardiner’s international approach, and with his critique of ‘Scottishness’ comes only, and somewhat ironically, in its eventual essentialism. This is most evident in his perceptible distaste for the Gaelic language. Native authenticity appears to be what is grinding Gardiner’s gears, yet he seems to forget that the term ‘Gaelic’, however it has been misappropriated in the past, refers to a language, and to a community of people that use that language. Rather than pose a challenge to such misuse of a minority group, Gardiner upholds this outdated view of Gaelic as ‘organic’ in almost every instance he refers to it. For example, in referring to Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, he states: ‘[Muir] agrees with London travel agents that the post-clearance Highlands and Islands come out best as ‘real’ Scotland (because they are more ‘Celtic’, ‘Gaelic’, ‘organic’, ‘natural’, etc. etc.)’. (p.27) One assumes that these descriptors are Gardiner’s words, and if so, they are misguided. To equate a language with words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ may be how some critics have treated Gaelic, yet as a revisionist, one feels Gardiner should know better. This is most manifest when he writes:

Described by [Tom] Hubbard as ‘trilingual’ (again, one wearily assumes English, Scots and Gaelic, rather than Urdu, Chinese and Jamaican Creole) are the poets George Campbell Hay and William Neill, who meet in the anthology Four Points of a Saltire (1970) (p.35)

Gardiner’s weary assumption is undoubtedly correct – those are the languages of that particular anthology. He is lucky in this correct guess, however, as in this instance Campbell Hay’s poetry in French, Italian and Norwegian (as well as his outstanding linguistic range as a translator) was not included. Additionally, the clear value judgement in placing Urdu, Creole and Chinese as more interesting than English, Scots and Gaelic strikes a strange and deeply essentialist note; exoticising Urdu, Chinese and Creole where he attempts to ‘normalise’, and disregarding equally important languages and literary traditions in the process. This kind of unclear linguistic fundamentalism only undermines the justified, vital arguments for equality and free discourse between languages and cultures elsewhere in this book.

Those reservations aside, this volume, particularly the sections on Trocchi, Morgan and Kenneth White, raises questions about the direction of Scottish literary studies and frames familiar texts in new ways, whilst introducing some neglected material into this new field of discussion. Gardiner is undoubtedly being provocative in his approach to an existing field of criticism, and at times this can come across as glib, or (as with the Gaelic example) not fully thought-out. There is the abiding sense that had Gardiner ignored the debate of whether to use theory or not altogether and stuck to what he is best at – straightforward, necessary discussions of writers in unfamiliar or fresh contexts – this book would have been a greater overall success. Perhaps, though, in deciding not to write the definitive book on Scottish Situationism, Gardiner has provided a wider catalyst for debate, and for more critics to interject into the new internationalist brand of Scottish literary criticism.



[1] Gardiner is also the author of Modern Scottish Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), The Cultural Roots of British Devolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004) and Escalator (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2006)