‘But for the tune I did it’: Gunn’s bagpiping novel strikes Modernist note

Sometimes reviews get lost. It happens. You file something, it falls through the cracks of a busy editor’s schedule, and, though you might have really enjoyed the book (as in this case), you overlook the fact that the piece never appeared on account of the constant rush of new reading which is the life of a reviewer. Here’s an instance of that, an article I wrote last year which I only re-discovered (and realized that it never appeared in print) when going through old files at the weekend…

The Big Music

Kirsty Gunn

Faber; £20.99; eBook 14.99

Review: Val Nolan

When called upon to defend the Modernist novel, the critic Malcolm Bradbury was quick to praise the form’s unmatched ability at balancing “referential and discursive and aesthetic functions”. It is a dictum which derives from the heyday of writers like Joyce and Woolf and which, many decades later, finds purchase again among the pages of Kirsty Gunn’s astonishing novel The Big Music. A university professor as well as an established creative writer, the New Zealand born Gunn has crafted one of the few recent fictions to have truly unified Bradbury’s “polar distinctions” between “on the one hand, the novel’s propensity toward realism, social documentation and interrelation with historical events and movements, and on the other its propensity toward form, functionality, and reflexive self-examination”.

Rejecting a traditional narrative in favour of “journal entries, papers, and inserted sections of domestic history”, the novel takes its cues from the Piobaireachd, the titular Ceol Mor which is the classical compositional form of the Highland bagpipe. The Piobaireachd is a music written to be played outside, “in a wide space that may best set off its sound and range and scale, addressing large themes of loss and longing”. It is also music with a social function, a call to gathering or a lament; in this case a dirge for one John MacKay Sunderland and those who knew him.

John is 83 and a man who doesn’t allow himself to be free or open with anyone, even the women with whom he was most intimate in his life. A respected if eccentric heir to a centuries old piping school called the Grey House, the first thing we see him do is steal an infant and abscond up a strath to a hidden cabin. The child is to be the inspiration for his most accomplished music, the “Lament for Himself”, which he has been composing in secret as a means to preserve the traditions of his father (crucially the “great twentieth century Modernist piper”) and as a final contribution to the library of compositions established by his Grey House forbearers.

For Gunn too, The Big Music is a labour of love, a means to marry her avowed interest in literary Modernism with the unique musical identity of her adopted Scotland. In the foreword – a convincing fake-out that what follows are, in fact, genuine documents – she cites T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “the novel need not be just a simple form of communication from and about the real world but, like a poem, can be intricately and fully ‘written’.” While Gunn definitely fulfills her ambitions in this regard, her “arrangement” of The Big Music’s fractured notes and asides is, if anything, more resonate with Eliot’s assessment of Joyce’s writing, “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”.

For like history, indeed like life itself, John Sunderland’s music is impossible to describe accurately. Its value therefore becomes clear only when the four movements of The Big Music are read in concert with the novel’s academic trappings, its appendices full of genealogies, maps, and sheet music, along with footnotes riffing on the stylistic aspects of the narrative. This additional level of discourse provides “a context – emotional as well as economic, practical and historical – for a particular way of life that is defined by living in a part of the world that is far off and remote”. Though Gunn notes that it is “in no way necessary to read all or any of this material”, this is in fact where her novel truly becomes a masterpiece, where the social function of the Piobaireachd finds its counterpoint in one of the core ideas of heroic Modernism as practiced by Scottish nationalist writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid: the artist as occupying a “high and honoured position” and teasing out new meaning from a world which defies straightforward explanation.

Some may sense a crusading quality to the appendices’ digressions and they would not be incorrect. Within them, Gunn does not limit herself to the topics of hereditary pipers or the changing face of northern Scotland; she also delves into Gender Studies, the ‘invisibility’ of motherhood’, and the changing role of women in literature over the last hundred years. Helen, the daughter of John’s housekeeper and life-long lover, is in some respects an authorial surrogate here. A scholar with, of course, “a particular emphasis on the fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf”, Helen’s strand of the story is Gunn’s comment on women’s increasing centrality to the historically male-dominated academic study of literature.

As such it is tempting to dismiss Helen, like John’s adult son Callum, as a mere cipher for the author’s pet peeves. Yet to do so would be to disregard Gunn’s use of them as the literal embodiment of John’s composition, grace notes repeated to deepen and vary the novel’s themes: the relationship between authors and texts, between parents and children, and between familial responsibilities and personal desires.

With all of this filtered through the book’s Modernist obsession with experimental form and expression, The Big Music’s emerges as the work of an author acquiescing fully to the notion of novel-as-intellectual-game. The result is Joycean, not so much in the wheel-reinventing fashion of Ulysses but in the mode of a people’s moral history pioneered by a volume such as Dubliners. “Challenging” is probably the best word to describe Gunn’s writing, but “challenging” in the best possible way. The Big Music is an extraordinary, immersive reading experience which succeeds in being innovative and clever while avoiding the associated peril of self-indulgence. Filled with “curious sentences and half-stories”, and with its language exhibiting all the poetry associated with the best of the literary genre, the vast spaces of this novel more than live up to the example of its musical precedent.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on 20th century and contemporary literature at NUI Galway.


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