As our airport bus reaches Grenoble, the Aberdeen student wishes me 'Bon courage!' She's one of many young foreign arrivals who face this new year with a mélange of calm and bounce. No language problems for them. Aren't they the real 'New Europe,' rather than the politicians' sloganising? I wonder. In the eastern reaches of these mountains which now surround us, there rages the most vicious European conflict since 1945. Sarajevo, like Grenoble, once hosted the Winter Olympics.
We disperse. The students head for the city tram stop. I'm here for six months as a lecturer; already I feel an estrangement from the home country. However, it's a Scot, Keith Dixon, who greets me at the bus station, and he's arranged for me to conduct postgraduate seminars in Scottish literature and culture. He takes me across the square to an Indochinese restaurant.
He's been in France for 20-odd years, taught at various universities. Now and then he goes back to recharge his 'scotticité', see his folks, fish at Loch Leven. His wife and daughters are French, as he has become. He's of working-class Edinburgh origin, politically combative, conspiratorially witty; Parisian confrontations have acquainted him with the ungentle custody of the flics
. He was expelled from the French Communist Party for 'lack of discipline.' At Grenoble he's a specialist in 20th-century Scottish fiction and politics; his colleague, Pierre Morère, tackles the Enlightenment and its aftermath. So my own interests, spanning the years 1871 to 1914, will fit neatly into the syllabus.
I ask Keith why he left Edinburgh. 'Because of the contradictions.' Robert Louis Stevenson remarked that if you look over posh South Bridge to the Cowgate below, you could 'view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of an eye.' For me the 'contradictions' are as much cultural as sociological, and involve the city's hinterland. Working in Edinburgh and living in Fife, I found that the Forth Bridge, not South, was the point at which I felt culture shock.
February – March 1993
My flat is in Meylan, now a suburb of Grenoble. A Sunday stroll becomes a climb, through the original village, up farm roads and woods until you reach the bare rock. You can leave one weather for another: in winter, you can lie on a grassy slope, stripped to the waist, and look down at the cold, polluted reek of the city; more 'contradictions'.
Only a few minutes walk from the flat, I pass a memorial to Resistance fighters (on the site of their execution), and then the house where Berlioz, aged 12, fell in love with a girl of 18. In the heart of old Grenoble is the birthplace of Stendhal. Composer and novelist were variously close to French Romanticism, which (as elsewhere in Europe) had made a guru of Sir Walter Scott. Berlioz took the cor anglais theme from his 'Rob Roy' overture and redeployed it for viola in his second symphony, 'Harold in Italy': a curious, if unintended, symbol of the mutuality of north and south.
Keith has introduced me to my office-mate, Dominique Delmaire. He's a Scotophile, more precisely an Orcadophile; a friend of George Mackay Brown, on whom he's writing a thesis. In his home town, Gap, he runs a writers' and performers' group called Les Alpes Vagabondes. They want to present a spectacle on the theme of the alchemists' four elements: could I contribute? Again, there's a confluence of my own and colleagues' plans, for I've just been researching a possible 'Scottish Faust' project; my archetype is Michael Scot, historical polymath and legendary wizard of the Middle Ages. He originated in the Borders or, less plausibly, Fife. Chauvinistically, I opt for the latter. Dominique and I discuss text, translation, masks, costumes and props for what is to become 'La tentation de Michael Scot.'
At my desk in Meylan, between the massif of the Grande Chartreuse and the mountain chain of Belledonne, I find my raw material in Michael's 'birthplace', Balwearie Tower, now a bleak ruin a mile from my Kirkcaldy home. This isn't culture shock, it's culture stock: sampling it, adding to it.
My Michael is a provincial Scot who builds a scholarly reputation in Paris and Bologna, translates Arabic alchemical texts in Toledo, then returns to Scotland where he is denounced for heresy and imprisoned. After many years, he escapes, and bitterly resolves to make up for lost time by entering a pact with the devil. In the traditional way, he's redeemed by love, but his young wife dies in giving birth to a girl. Perpetual seeker of the philosopher's stone, Michael enters a church bareheaded and a stone finds him; it falls from the roof and strikes him on the temple. He dies in the arms of his daughter, who represents a future which will consolidate and refine his scientific legacy.
Our Scoto-French spectacle
is scheduled for March, in the foyer of the Bibliothèque Municipale, Gap. At Dominique's behest, I've sculpted a plaster object which is supposed to be an alchemist's stone. As the poem unfolds, performed in English and over-head-projected in French, the 'stone' reposes on straw, in a basket. At the end, it's plucked from the straw and turned towards the audience, who now recognise it as a skull.
All along, source material has included images as well as texts. A painting by the 19th-century artist Fantin-Latour, a native of Grenoble, depicts Faust's famous vision of Helen of Troy; this is transmuted into one of the delights conjured up by Auld Nick for our Michael. 'The ripe young empress in the haze,' in my text, becomes Dominque's much sexier 'La jeune et mûre impératrice des brumes.'
Whatever Michael Scot's future, the French present is much less alluring. It's election time, and the far right fare better than expected: temptation by old devils in new masks.
My wife and daughter have come out for Easter, and we all cram into my flat. My family always tease me that Claire, our youngest, is my favourite, but I've been missing what remains of her babyhood. Over these months I've drunk coffee at the Place Sainte-Claire, not just because it is a photogenic part of town, but because it bears the name of my even more photogenic daughter. Now she herself, with her mum, meets me after work in that same square. It’s a fine spring day and I show off the old town to my womenfolk; we arrive at Place Félix Poulat where Claire makes straight for the carousel. In my wanderings I've noticed that many European towns have their own carousel, painted with local scenes. Rilke has a wonderful poem about the one in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris – 'And now and then, all white, an elephant.' That line, like the carousel elephant, is recurrent – with the counterpoint that each kid, sometime, will outgrow such pleasures.
We are an international collection, myself and my neighbours in the Résidence Lafayette. Portuguese, Spaniards, Canadians, Americans, Germans, a Scot (me) on two floors. A third floor is entirely Polish. We're all teachers or students, or both. A Pole accompanies me on the bus to the campus: we converse in the host language.
May – June 1993
It's still barely believable. I've had the chance to teach my favourite period in Scottish studies, and been paid decent money for it. No way could that have happened in Scotland. I head for an academic conference in Perpignan. My presentation is on Scottish artists in the Mediterranean: Crawhall, Melville and McBey in north Africa, the Colourists in Cézanne country, and the last years of Charles Rennie Mackintosh on the coast near Perpignan itself. I refer to Stevenson and Cunninghame Graham as their literary counterparts, wandering Scots who heeded the call of the south.
In 1893 RLS referred to his own 'voluntary exile'; in 1993 I am wary of the phrase – isn't 'exile' always compulsory? Preparing my talk has made me think of my own reasons for working abroad. These artists and writers left home out of mingled necessity and choice. In my own case it's not easy to separate the two. A healthier bank balance, professional fulfilment, experience of other cultures. To the genuine exile, these are luxuries. Whatever the constraints of Scotland, it's not Bosnia.
I'm fascinated by the varieties of European experience. In the art gallery at Nice, I face the self-portrait, painted shortly before her death, of Marie Bashkirtseff. It's dated 1884; she was only 26. A Ukrainian-born aristocrat whose family had settled on the Côte d'Azur, she outgrew the pampered posing of her adolescence and was desperate to prove herself as a dedicated and industrious artist. A Paris studio witnessed the long hours of a short life. Not quite the poor, kerchiefed Slav of more recent times, but her 'contradictions' were painfully real, not the self-dramatising of a poor little rich girl, as I had once assumed. As a northerner who has encountered her in the south, I will read her journal to discover how she united (if at all) the tendencies of east and west.
My undergraduate classes have ended, and I'll be leaving Grenoble for good. The first-year course took place in large, ill-lit ampithéâtres, during the last period of the day. I was lecturing, in English, to young French folk: I had to play it for laughs, poetry spectacle had taught me how to maximise the use of space. Beside the platform, there was a door in the wall; we had no idea what lay behind it, so it became a useful prop while explicating the mysteries of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.'
July – September 1993
Interregnum in Scotland, unexpectedly brief. I've been offered a year's contract at the University of Connecticut. We take a last family outing, to Dunfermline Glen. Sons Christopher and Gavin accompany me to the ruins of Malcolm's tower. I love to stand up there and hear the chimes from the Abbey. 'Isn't it great, dad,' says Christopher. 'This place is hundreds of years old, and we can walk through it and touch it.'
The next day is my first in the New World. The Jewish writer Abraham Cahan, arriving in America, saw a dilapidated building and marvelled: ‘How did it get time to get old?’ That was in 1882. Now, heading north from JFK, I'm aware of the forest on either side of the highway; my first digs will be within walking distance of the Nipmuck trail, blazed by the ancient indigenous nation of north-eastern Connecticut. The very name 'Connecticut' derives from a native word, referring to the wide river which divides the state in two. I'm wondering how America got time to get new.
October – December 1993
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones (MacDiarmid). In Connecticut, there is juxtaposition of the primeval, the prosperous, and the Puerto Rican; from the Caribbean island came the workers for the thread industry, but that has gone, leaving unemployment, drugs and decay. The campus is hosting a reading by the Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal. I've long been an aficionado of his work. He speaks frankly of the successes and failures of the revolution in which he was a key player.
Henry James, who was more obsessive than most in contrasting America and Europe, remarked that 'it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.' Well, to me there seems no shortage of American literature, which is just as well since it provides me with much of my raison d’être. I'm in Hartford, checking out Mark Twain's eccentrically-designed home. Here he wrote his major works, but he had to flit when he went broke. He, too, contrasted the two continents, but with little reverence for Europe and much apprehension for America. Personal tragedy caught up with him, as well as America's 'contradictions' – not least between its decorous pretensions and its crude realities.
Y'all starin at this here shack o mine?
It's a-spoutin an a-spillin o hot vermilion bricks
Likes I wuz gittin mad at folks, or busting maself cryin
My jokes in blood. But, enter! See, I can fix
Them rooms real genteel. We had lit out for Eu-rope,
Brought back the fancy stuff from Geneva – Edinboro –
Livy an the galls sure had some cause to hope
They'd sivilaaazed Sam Clemens kinda thorough.
Still – sittin cozy – within the conservatory plants
I sees a graveyard, bowie knife, injun dance;
Armageddon from a dynamo's single spark.
City kids are shootin up along the Avenue:
An this shocked old clown lays by his billiard cue.
Gazin down a microscope at the Great Dark.
While teaching the American 'tall tale' in my short story course, I show slides of the Mark Twain house. A student tells me he lives just round the corner but has never visited it. Actually that neighbourhood is rich in American icons. Next door to Mark Twain lived Harriet Beecher Stowe: one of her walls bears a watercolour of Aberdeen's Brig o Balgownie. Katharine Hepburn was born a few houses along, and nearby was the abode of Noah Webster, compiler of the classic American dictionary. He was a real pro. His wife once caught him embracing the maid. 'Noah!' she exclaimed, 'I am surprised!' 'No, my dear,' he replied, 'I
am surprised – you
I'm to address a colleague's class on Scots language. In the course of research, I'm amazed to encounter the Victorian Doric classic, 'Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk,' on the shelves of the UConn library. Here's Scotland, less than a mile from the Nipmuck trail. Not so surreal, however: Gushetneuk and Nipmuck both concern the means by which the land is ill-divided. More surreal is my Thanksgiving break in Quebec: France, Scotland and north America, mosaically together. It sums up my 1993.
February – March 1994
A benign conspiracy by my Irish-American house-mate, Jack Manning, and his office-mate Richard Peterson, who in infancy was emigrated from his native Ayr. We're all in the Faculty Renaissance Group, and it's Jack's and my turn to be the hosts. In our New England parlour, I'm to present not a Burns, but a Henryson Supper. After the Christmas break, I carry a haggis from Kirkcaldy, Fife, to Storrs, Conn., and its consumption accompanies my tribute to our greatest tragic poet and sometime schoolmaster of Dunfermline Abbey.
Another faculty colleague, Marilyn Waniek, is an Afro-American poet who works with jazz musicians. We meet up in the Cafe Earth off Rte 195, and compare notes on the status of Scots and Black English. I've included Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932) on the short story course. He was a pioneering black writer who transcribed the speech of his ex-slave characters; like printed Scots, it looks confusing until you read it aloud. We shouldn't overstress such identifications. The South's Scottish legacy hasn't been considered altogether benign: the cult of medievalism, derived from Walter Scott; slave-owners from the old country.
Farewell to students. Jack and I receive a last invitation to the sorority Phi Beta Kappa. The young women are trim and polite: they serve tea and home baking. You feel they should all be called Harriet or Abigail. They're extremely strict on membership: to get into Phi Beta Kappa, a girl must have an excellent GPA (Grade Point Average). The walls are adorned with group photographs going back decades. It's a long way from my Grenoble encounter with an economics professor who was agonising which communist candidate to vote for, the official one, or the dissident.
A Philadelphia professor, passing through, informs me of the death of Labour leader John Smith. It occurred a fortnight ago.
It was difficult, returning to Scotland for the foreseeable future. I experienced not so much culture shock as culture block. Successive relocations had left me with a sense of possible permanent dislocation. If I felt like that, though, how must it be for the Turkish migrant or the Bosnian refugee? Such comparisons seem ludicrous, but they do help you empathise with what you will never have to experience.
Now, all at once, come confirmations of new postings. In August I begin two years on the Literature and Language faculty of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, a centre of Scots and Scots-Irish settlement. Before I leave for a week's lecture tour of northern Italy, I learned that the British Council will back me for a month’s work at Budapest University's English Department, in the spring. I'll be teaching an expanded and intensive version of the Scottish course which I'd presented as a one-off at Grenoble.
In Italy I speak on Robert Louis Stevenson, a northerner who settled permanently as far south as it was possible to go. Before flying back, I stop off at Campione, on the eastern shore of Lake Lugano. It's a detached piece of Italy entirely surrounded by Switzerland. Entering the town through an unguarded frontier that is difficult to take seriously, I visited the first building. This is the church of the Madonna dei Ghirli, its terraced garden descending to the lake. Storms are not unknown in this region, but the boats look so flimsy. Inside the church there's a book where visitors inscribe prayers, requesting the Mother of God to protect them and their families. I turn over the pages and, despite all my suspicions of organised religion, I am strangely moved. Outside, the Alps recall Grenoble, three years ago.
Travel makes you aware of your strength and vulnerability. RLS wrote of the strolling player 'who has gone upon a pilgrimage that will last him his life long, because there is no end to it short of perfection.' The perfection's impossible, the insecurity inevitable. My own secular pilgrimage seems more endless, more recurrent, than the childhood carousel. Daughter Claire has asked me if there's a carousel in Budapest. In fact, the English Department flanks the City Park where Ferenc Molnar set his play 'Liliom', about a fairground barker who mans the merry-go-round. The political upheavals of the 1930s forced Molnar, a Jew, to settle in America. Rodgers and Hammerstein turned his play into the musical 'Carousel', and he received his ample share of the royalties. But he was no longer the boulevardier of Budapest, the inveterate ladies' man. He died in New York at the age of 74, rich but lonely. Exile, pilgrim, bon courage
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