Tretower to Clyro
Essays by Karl Miller
London : Quercus, 2011
Hardcover. 232 pp. ISBN 978-0857385802. £20.00
Reviewed by Élisabeth Vialle
Université de Paris Est Créteil
With Tretower to Clyro, literary critic and editor Karl Miller offers us a jubilatory collection of essays which takes the reader along a journey through time and space in the world of the pastoral. However miscellaneous these pastoral investigations may first seem, the text gets its coherence from the immense erudition, melancholic energy and huge sense of humour that run through it.
Another thread that binds these essays about pastoral literature and poetry of the British Isles (extended to Canada and American Baltimore…) is provided by Andrew O’Hagan’s preface entitled “The Excursions”: it tells the journey he took with Karl Miller and another major figure in the literary landscape, Seamus Heaney. It is not surprising that the journey should have brought them – and the readers along with them – to the Celtic lands of Scotland and Ireland. The celebration of space, landscape, language – sometimes in its most vernacular form, either Scottish, Irish or Welsh – is an irresistible invitation to the reading of the celebrated as well as the lesser-known authors and poets Karl Miller is dealing with in his essays. These texts try to unite the many aspects of the British Pastoral, the many languages that it has taken from the very early ages of English literature to nowadays, with a particular and significant interest in the borders.
Andrew O’Hagan’s foreword starts with the Scottish saying – school wisdom as he describes it: “You’d better take an interest in the earth and the air, for your own poor body will go there some day.” This melancholic mood is present in the essays but always counterbalanced by tremendous vitality. Similarly, O’Hagan describes their common journey as a succession of endings and beginnings and one might derive the same feeling from Karl Miller’s essays, not only because of the very form of the collection but because of the constant back-and-forth movements between the present and the past which prevent the question of the pastoral from being frozen in an archaic past. One of the essays is particularly relevant and interesting as such: the text devoted to James Hogg and Irvine Welsh – with its enticing title “Carnival Scotland” – weaves a significant thread between the emblematic works of the two Scottish writers, Hogg’s eighteenth-century Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Welsh’s Trainspotting.
Karl Miller’s intention is made clear from the first essay, “Country Writers”, dealing with the generic question of the pastoral: “The word ‘pastoral’ has referred both to the work of writers who live in the country and to the work of writers who don’t, but are moved to inhabit a country of the mind, and there are so many people now for whom the generic practice, with its traditional devotion to the ideal, the exemplary, the imaginary, the fantastic, has become archaic. It would be a pity to lose the word, if only for the nostalgic cravings it commemorates, but it can be hard to apply to modern work. There are country books which do not invite it, and there are pastorals which barely mention the countryside.”
In his collection he questions this supposedly archaic nature of the pastoral in our modern world and wants “to give land a voice” in order to see what connects the voices of literature to the shape of the land, be it rural or urban. In order to do so, he does not bind himself to the limits of the countryside and devotes some of his essays to “Rus in urbe”, and to the “convergences of the two” – city and country – that you found in a country like Scotland. In that sense the texts devoted to Alice Munro and Ian McEwan – celebrating the latter’s novel, On Chesil Beach, as a masterpiece – open a wider perspective than what we might expect from a limited definition of the pastoral, although one may think it rather unsettling to find these works included in the collection. One may consider that we are taken along a progressive drift away from the traditional and reassuring conception of what the pastoral is whereas Tretower to Clyro actually gives different answers to the interrogation about the relevance of both ancient and modern pastorals. The journey offered by the very title gives us the opportunity to travel from the British Isles to Canada and the United States (with a last visit to Anne Tyler’s Baltimore). At the end of this journey, it is probably the image of the borders that lingers on because the very word offers more than the obvious reference to space and landscape – although the main focus of Miller’s collection – but also because it deals with generic questions and the freedom of transgression.
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