THE novels of James Robertson (b.1958) include The Fanatic (2000), Joseph Knight (2003), The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006), And the Land Lay Still (2010), The Professor of Truth (2013) and To Be Continued … (2016). His short stories are collected in Close (1991), The Ragged Man’s Complaint (1993), Republics of the Mind (2012) and 365: Stories (2014). And his poetry shouldn’t be neglected: Sound-Shadow (1995), I Dream of Alfred Hitchcock (1999), Stirling Sonnets (2001), Voyage of Intent: Sonnets and Essays from the Scottish Parliament (2005) and Hem and Heid (2009).

Start with Joseph Knight (2003): a determined exploration of Scots complicity in the slave trade and the West Indian plantations. Joseph is one of the most original creations of modern fiction. Arriving in Scotland and suing for freedom from slavery, he confronts the property-owning racists who command commercial Scotland’s financial authority. This is a novel of epic geographical scale, confronting ethical, political and social issues that continue to bear upon us in the 21st century.

The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006) revises James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) in a complex parable of belief and delusion in modern Scotland. A minister whose faith appears to have disappeared attempts to rescue a dog as it slips on a cliff-edge, and finds himself in a cavern, saved by, and opening a dialogue with, the devil himself.

In The Professor of Truth (2013), Robertson takes a number of stories associated with the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 and creates a fiction set in snow-bound Scotland for its first half, then in sun-beaten, ultimately fire-consumed Australia in its second. A structure that looks broken-backed delivers a profound sense of the drive to discover the truth, from one side of the earth to its polar opposite, across all weathers and against all odds.

But Robertson’s most ambitious work is a multi-faceted chronicle fiction of modern Scotland, travelling from 1950 to the beginning of the 21st century, And the Land Lay Still (2010). This panoramic exploration of the modern nation takes us through major political changes and growing cultural self-confidence with a cast of memorable characters, including portraits of historical figures like Hugh MacDiarmid. It culminates in an overwhelming sense of growing awareness, determination and political commitment to the unfinished business of Scotland, the universal value of the arts, from poetry to photography, and the common virtues and failings of individual men and women.

Realism and fantasy combine in To Be Continued ... (2016). The central character, Douglas, confronts a telepathic toad, Mungo Forth Mungo. They have various dialogues as the novel progresses. Early on, Douglas is impressed by Mungo’s knowledge of historical Scottish explorers, such as Mungo Park, after whom he has taken his name. “With respect,” Douglas asks the toad, “what possible use to you, a toad, or to your survival, is knowledge of long-dead Scottish explorers?” Mungo replies that the phrase “with respect” normally signifies its opposite and that Douglas’s question endorses this general rule, and furthermore, asks his human interlocutor whether his supposed knowledge of the so-called “common” toad is relevant to his own existence or survival. Douglas is about to reply, hesitantly, when Mungo interrupts with one of those crucial little speeches that sticks in the mind forever:

“Do you or do you not subscribe to the view that all knowledge is potentially valuable, and that its value, potential or realised, cannot be determined by the superficial assessment of its perceived utility at any given moment?”

“I’ll have to think about that,” Douglas said. It seemed too grand and complex a proposition to be unscrambled so late in the garden of October darkness, especially after the best part of a bottle of red wine.

“Do so,” Mungo said. “I already have.” And in one untoad-like leap he left the table and landed somewhere in the night.

This might stand as a motto for enlightened thought about literature, the arts, and the world, a maxim that carries proverbial wisdom and bears repetition: “All knowledge is potentially valuable, and its value, potential or realised, cannot be determined by the superficial assessment of its perceived utility at any given moment.”

The National: Ali SmithAli Smith

ALI Smith (b.1962) would acknowledge its truth, I think. She has won high acclaim for her novels and stories, and their distinction lies primarily in their demonstration of understanding of human values beyond “perceived utility”. Her novels, including Like (1997), Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005), Girl Meets Boy (2007) There But For The (2011) and How to Be Both (2014), all deploy original formulations of narrative and character, juxtapositions of time and place. Her story collections, Free Love (1995), Other Stories and Other Stories (1999), The Whole Story (2003), The First Person (2008) and Public Library (2015) employ similar technical virtuosities. And in Autumn (2016), Winter (2017) and Spring (2019), she addresses the continuing condition of Britain since the referendum on membership of the European Union.

Spring begins like this:

“Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth”

And goes on:

“We want the people we call foreign to feel foreign we need to make it clear they can’t have rights unless we say so. […] We need emotion we want righteousness we want anger. We need all that patriotic stuff. What we want is […] fury we want outrage we want words at their most emotive anti-Semite is good Nazi is great paedo will really do it perverted foreigner illegal we want gut reaction we want […] We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it. We need it not to matter what words mean. […] We’re what this country’s needed all along we’re what you need we’re what you want."

Smith’s passionate satiric indignation is compelling. The novel begins as political commentary but moves into fictional exploration of human capacities for survival, and fallibilities, vulnerabilities, frailties, susceptibilities to temptation. She presents human potential at its worst, as well as its best.

The Book Lover (2008) is a collection of her favourite writing by others, including Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood and Joseph Roth, an eclectic, unpredicted and illuminating selection. Shire (2013) is part autobiography, part biographical tribute to the great pioneering medievalist scholar of Scottish literature, Helena Mennie Shire. And Artful (2012), based on four lectures on European comparative literature given at Saint Anne’s College, Oxford, combines the scholarly enquiring mind with the storyteller’s art of singular focus, as it builds into a quasi-novel with characters, lovers, narratives and encounters. Ultimately, it’s a meditation, serious and playful, erudite and humble, on life and presence, death and absence, memory and revitalisation, and the arts, pre-eminently writing, painting and film.

Each “chapter” has a title that is both thesis, provocation and pun: “On Time”, “On Form”, “On Edge” and “On offer and reflection”. It is partly critical enquiry but it is also a personal account and testament about the capabilities of the arts, and proof of why they’re so vital. It might be read alongside her 2017 Goldsmith’s lecture, “The novel in the age of Trump” (“When politics is built on fictions, it’s fiction that can help us get to truth.”).

Alan Warner (b.1964), in his debut novel Morvern Callar (1995), described the west coast ferry port of Oban as no-one had before, and presented a new fictional character, whose self-serving ambition is understandable, sympathetic and unsettling. The town, the landscape around it are not immediately recognisable. Morvern herself is a young woman living there but more familiar with the working-class areas, pubs, supermarkets and the day-to-day lives of people than with the picturesque seafront and the ferries to the islands best known to tourists. These Demented Lands (1997) and The Man Who Walks (2002) are surreal, visionary: dream landscapes shift into nightmares, pastoral fields, coastlines, seas and islands are momentarily idyllic, then ragingly infernal. The bodily properties of individual characters and the terrain they move through are permeable, tough, vulnerable, wounded and bleeding, pregnant and regenerative. Nothing is inevitable.

The National: Alan WarnerAlan Warner (Image: free)

More conventionally realist are The Sopranos (1998) and The Stars in the Bright Sky (2010). These novels follow Morvern’s contemporaries, both at home and away. In The Sopranos, Orla, Kylah, (Ra)Chell, Manda and Fionnula (the Cooler) are on an excursion from Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School and go pub crawling, shoplifting and body-piercing, as they make their way to a singing competition in “the city”. The Sopranos are a brazen antidote to Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie’s schoolgirl set. The Stars in the Bright Sky reunites them, out of school now, meeting in Gatwick, set for an economy-flight holiday. Published in 2010, it is set in 2001 and concludes with the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York being brought down by suicidal terrorists flying two planes into them. The Sopranos are sobered, for once: “Why would people do that?” one of them asks. And the final sentence leaves us in suspense: “They all waited to see what would happen next.”

SET in London, Their Lips Talk of Mischief (2014) takes place in 1984. Date and place make a cradle for the uncertainties of Douglas Cunningham (Scots), Llewellyn Smith (Welsh), and Aoife McCrissican (Irish), each caught in the metropolitan capital of imperial legacy. In The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven (2006), though Spain is never named, the story centres closely on its first-person narrator Manolo Follana and builds a deep historical background, a history of fascism and its relation to media: the questions here apply anywhere, regardless of nationality.

The Deadman’s Pedal (2012) returns to Oban, a coming-of-age story centred on a young man encountering divisions of class, gender, social employment and expectation. Set mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, the novel moves with its main character, leaving school to find work as an apprentice on the unionised trains while his father runs a lorry company. The book delivers a strange sense of dignity in its portrayal of every character, avoiding any tendency to caricature or satirise. It describes childhood dens and adult homes, private worlds and public lives, motives rising from selfishness and senses of responsibility, modes of commercial transport, lorries and trains, social structures of class. Questions of tradition and change in the political system and the economy are implicit throughout. The cultural moment sees the rise of punk rock, opposing to the unctuous friendliness of mass media and the rise of celebrity culture and mediocrity.

In all Warner’s fiction, as in Robertson’s and Smith’s, what seems final is always only partial. There are still and always will be folk out there wanting to rule over you. Imperialism never goes away forever.

These writers show us the arts of resistance.