The International Companion to John Galt.
Like other John Galt admirers, I cannot understand why he is not read by everyone. Galt is often as slyly witty as Austen, as moving as Dickens, as subtle a social observer and theorist as George Eliot, a prescient, frequently brilliant commentator of all the underlying processes and contradictions of modernity--and a wonderful conjurer of character and psychology, with a special predilection for delineating depression, loss, fanaticism, unease, and other modes of half-knowing. He has Defoe's dash, documentary impulses, flare for detail, and for the vicissitudes of the confessional voice. His master-works are many, including Annals of the Parish (1821), The Provost (1822), The Entail (1823), and Ringhan Gilhaize (1823). He is fully the intellectual and literary equal of his now more famous Scottish contemporaries, Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, and a lasting influence on other nineteenth-century Scottish novelists.
The essays here by literary critics, social historians and men-of-letters find further ways to measure his virtues. Andrew O'Hagan's opening essay (as so often with O'Hagan, autobiographically tinged and compulsively readable), lauds him as a Proustian conjurer of lost place, of experience lived in constant anticipation of loss, of complex, melancholy social worlds, as of the powerful psychic bonds between character formation and place, 'bringing the psychology of loss to our understanding of social pattern'. O'Hagan grew up in Irvine, Galt's childhood home, so is particularly lyrical in evoking that world, including the way particular dialect words serve as Galt's madeleines. For O'Hagan, Galt's fiction anticipates Joyce's 'The Dead', with its sense of dead and living composing a continuous community: Galt is a 'wizard of time', whose 'Hogarthian parade' of characters 'tumble through pages like the broken furze of time itself, landing year after year in these annals before blowing out again into a vast and unknowable universe of the dead'.
Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd praise Galt's mastery of scale: if Scott lauded (and in the process, implicitly diminished) Austen, with her little square of ivory, her delicate touch, Galt too largely eschews macro-history in favour of 'the intimate spaces of national life'. Kidd links the peculiarities of Galtian narrative voice, and Galt's recurrent interest in hypocrisy, self-suppression and providential registers of explanation, to regional schisms within the eighteenth-century Presbyterian church, intensely attentive to the increasingly vexed relationship between ministers' personal beliefs and official doctrinal teachings. Galt, indeed, demonstrates 'an eye for the blurry conjuncture where providential happenings and deeper sociological trends appear to coincide'.
For Craig Lamont, Galt's fascination with providence is less Calvinist theology than a preoccupation with the secular theology of Adam Smith's invisible hand. His suggestive essay contextualiscs Galt's work in relationship to Glasgow, with its distinctive tradition within the Scottish Enlightenment, pioneering role as manufacturing centre (one of the world's first cities to 'beget a poetry of industrial pollution') and imperial nodal point. Galt's family background, and occupational immersion in business, manufacturing, trade and government enabled him to write with unprecedented authority and subtlety about the workings of empire and the emerging modern world order.
Angela Esterhammer explores the complexity of Galt's relationship to speculation as an economic activity, a force for social upheaval but also for the creation of self-made men; highlights include a particularly layered, nuanced rereading of the ideological complexities and narrative layering of The Entail. Ian McGhee contextualises Galt's activides in Upper Canada, clearing bush and founding settlements, as a mode of land speculation (sufficiently unsuccessful in the short run to have Galt cashiered and land in debtor's prison, but lucrative enough to make profits for the Canada Company for the next hundred years). Alison Lumsden reads Ringhan Gilhaize as Covenanter commemoration in light of Pierre Nora's notion of 'lieux de memoire'. Historian Christopher Whatley celebrates Galt's brilliance as a chronicler of 'improvement' in Britain itself, in a novelistic register in stark contrast to the statistical surveys that formed the movement's primary (non)-literary genre. And Gordon Millar argues for Galt as a pioneer of the political novel in English--interested in political power as it unfolds locally, regionally, in the provinces as much as in Westminster.
Yet the volume concludes by arguing for Galt's literary sophistication. Carruthers champions Galt's virtually unread late stories, innovative not only in their narrative technique but in their proto-feminist exploration of gender roles, quotidianness, and routine. Anthony Jarrells reads Galt's novelistic ethos in relationship to the Romantic 'tale' tradition, making intriguing arguments about the relationship between serialised fiction and novelistic recasting, the tale's generic focus on the act of story-telling itself, and the ways tale logic can eschew tight narrative arcs for a more meandering, associative narrative style. Galt, Jarrell argues, is a forerunner of Karl Ove Knausgaard in his preoccupations with writerly process, dailiness, and detail.
Together, these excellent essays persuasively situate Galt as a historian, a theoretical historian, a chronicler, an experimental writer and early realist master. In their interest in professional and institutional machinations, Galt's novels anticipate Trollope's 'Chronicles of Barsetshire', in their experiments with documentary fiction John Mersey's Hiroshima and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, in their quasi-anthropological sense of cultural survivals and upheavals, Hardy's Wessex novels and The Golden Bough, in their sense of a regional world, Proust and Faulkner; in their melancholy explorations of unreliable narration and desolation in the face of historical change, Kazuo Ishiguro. Galt was Coleridge's favourite novelist, and beloved to David Wilkie; a self-conscious inheritor of Smollett and Burns and Robert Fergusson; a bugbear of, but also obvious inspiration for, George Douglas Brown. (I see him, comparably, as a student of Tacitus, and a model for Alice Munro.)
This is a first-rate introduction and companion to Galt, with much to say, in the process, about Scottish canon-formation, city and regional literature, the nature of Scottish Romanticism and realism, and the relationship between early nineteenth-century literature and twentieth-century modernism. For some of us, Galt has long been an author to think with--to think about Scottish history, the coming of modernity, the nature of empire, the social contract, the social ecosystem. Elsewhere, Martha Bohrer has described Galt as the novelistic equivalent of Gilbert White of Selbourne, interested in regional and small-scale human ecologies as ways to think about social and historical processes. And yet Galt's prose is anything but dry; he is by turns funny, sarcastic, melancholy and mordant, with a prose style to be savoured, and an intellectual acumen that helps his readers recognise new social truths. He seems, to some of us, not only a central Scottish writer but a major European novelist. May this volume continue to inspire more research, reprinting and above all, rereading.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Publication:||Scottish Literary Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2018|
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