Andrew Greig's Poetic Non-Fiction

Andrew Greig
Querus Non-fiction, 324 pages
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I'm about to start Andrew Greig's new novel, but one of his older books, The Green Corrie, inspired musings best phrased as "Whither Non-Fiction?"

As a historian I read lots of non-fiction books. Alas, too many must be labeled occupational hazards. I used to joke that many academics couldn't write "This End Up" on a box and make themselves understood, but now I think the joke is on me because it's more true than I ever imagined. The non-academic world is only marginally better. Non-fiction comes mostly in three forms these days: biography, memoir, and social problem exposés. Some biographies are quite good, but many writers suffer from Robert Caro Disease and can't sift relevant from mere detail, or tell a story in under a thousand pages. For every great memoir there seems to be a dozen penned by people who are legends only in their own mind–especially musicians! Books that probe sociological conundrums, political issues, and challenges economic, social, and cultural tend to have a very short shelf life, even when they are well written. Journalists are generally best at making this type of book readable, but we consume them more to be informed than for the sheer joy of reading. Where are the non-fiction books that make us marvel over the prose, provoke our imaginations, or contemplate our natures? Where, in short, are other books like At the Loch of the Green Corrie?

Green Corrie stands out because it's autobiographical, yet self-effacing; reflective in ways that invite us to probe rather than listen to homilies; and poetic both literally and figuratively. It's short, yet it's also a travelogue, a history and geology lesson, and a meditation upon friendship. It dips into everything from mountain climbing and fishing to questions of land ownership, a sense of self, lessons learned from the departed, and the meaning of life. All of this unfurls from the slimmest of premises: Greig set off with two friends to find, then fish, a remote mountain lake in Assynt, a region in the far north of Scotland. Why? Because Greig's departed mentor, poet Norman MacCaig, spoke fondly of it and Greig hoped to discover more of MacCaig's spirit and nature there. MacCaig's poetry appears throughout, as does some of Greig's own verse.  

No review can do justice to this book, so let me simply offer a few samples that give a sense of the glories of the book's prose and profundities.

On remembering the departed: Our days are numbered and we still don't know what that number is. So let us not sift through the dead who grow more numerous every year. Let the book of homage remain unwritten and unread. Yet there are places and times on this Earth when the ground as it were grows thin, and the dead rise of themselves. Gone days, dead parents, lost friends, old loves, rise round us as an escort, an entourage, to provoke, counsel and console. As we drive, or lie with a book at the day's end, we may glimpse them at the edge of vision. They must be spoken with, if we are to remain honest.

On over-learning about things intrinsically sublime: Sometimes the more you know, the less you see. What you encounter is your knowledge, not the thing itself.

On seeking to be mindful of the now and geologic Deep Time: I ambled back down to the car and drove off into the rest of the day, floating on Deep Time. I sometimes think only the unfolding present moment and Deep Time are good for us, and better not to mess with mister inbetween. As with the bifocal lenses I tried last year – the close-up and the long distance are true, while the middle distance is fuzzy and befuddled. Unfortunately that is where we live most of the time.

On the inevitability of change: World rolls on. This lochan is still here, maybe a degree warmer, though none of the water can be the same as last time we were here. A loch is essentially a bath with the tap running and the plug out. We are not so different. Let me not stand here and deplore. We are in danger of doing what we swore we never would when we were young, saying that the world is all changing for the worse. Dangerous, doomed and horrendous, or beautiful, mysterious and magnificent beyond reason– one's take on the world says more about oneself than the world. Let me not end up ringing my hands over all who have gone. They in their time were doubtless thought not a patch on their predecessors. The past is a bourach*. Let's pay homage, cut off the useful hooks and tie them to a fresh cast.

I could pull out dozens of poignant quotes like this–phrases that induce wonder, melancholy, and lucidity. The beauty with which Greig wields the English language is a hatchet to the argument that today's 140-character world can be called "communication." Not a chapter flew by without slowing my mind and forcing me to think upon the whys behind a world full of whats. Read any Andrew Greig book upon which you can put your hands.  

Rob Weir

* Bourach (boor-ack) is a Scots dialect word that means a muddled mess. It's also a hill, but an untidy one.

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