22 May 2009

Allan Massie - Surviving

Last week’s blog about Newton and the Oliphants of Condie threw up an interesting book, John Buchan’s ‘Witchwood’. One of John Buchan’s greatest admirers is Allan Massie, who wrote the foreword for the recent edition of Buchan’s book. ‘Witchwood’ deals partly with the struggle for survival in seventeenth century Scotland against the horrific popular sway of the witch-prickers and the extreme Puritanism of the anti-royalist Covenanters.

"Surviving", Allan Massie tells me, "is something that becomes increasingly difficult."

Vagabond Voices, a splendidly-named imprint operating off the Isle of Lewis, should find survival amongst tyrannically large publishing houses slightly easier now they have Massie’s latest novel to shout about.

The project seems a laudable one, and I am intrigued and impressed by this marriage of best-selling author and exciting, quirky publishing house, and am keen to honour Allan Massie’s request to disseminate ‘Surviving’ across the web, this blog being one such outlet, to help this worthy venture (and to embrace the technological netherworld - this from a man who revels in a life of dogs and seasons and the quiet might of the Borders).

This novel appeared rather unexpectedly; Allan Massie has been better known in recent years for his historical fiction, but his love affair with Rome receives a modern treatment in ‘Surviving'. This wistful, often biting novel surprises in its searingly honest portrayal of alcoholic ex-pats in Rome. The misplaced misfits of the novel are all numbingly human, their lives, sex and daily habits muttering and mulching uncomfortably under a Roman sun.

Massie introduces a bevy of characters in this ensemble piece where life between AA-meetings is played out around the piazzas and warm streets of central Rome. Massie’s ex-pats are a haphazard crowd, single people living in the aftermath of alcoholism and the daily struggle to not have a drink, blessed and cursed by the wisdom brought on by years, the naïve beauty of youth, the sad slow passing of time. This comes across as entirely credible. These characters, being human, are always given the chance to deal in redemption, and the slowly unfolding semi-tragedy is bathed in the glow of lazy Mediterranean Fate that glories in the minutae: life may be a battle to keep your head up, but spaghetti alle vongole and a glass of sparkling water and a battered copy of one of the Maigret stories can make it, if only momentarily, bearable.

The central motif of a writer setting down his addled thoughts is pleasing, a tender, even plaintive melody that rounds this brave novel off nicely:

Grief zur Feder, Kumpel – Grab your pen, mate.

That’s an admirable way to survive.

'Surviving' is published by Vagabond Voices and is available through their website

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