So the Summer Holidays drew to a close with a visit to the cinema to see The Inbetweeners. Of course, I laughed throughout, not least at moments of painful self-recognition. It’s cleverly observed, shrewdly written and somewhere there’s compassion for the characters. But somewhere it’s also vacuous: after the booze and the bonks there’s not really much else.
The Inbetweeners offers us the teenage years twenty-first century style but its themes are probably timeless: a search for a place within society, carving out self-identity, negotiating the adult world. And it’s a theme which many writers have explored. Indeed, in The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger has even been credited with creating our modern concept of what it means to be an adolescent. Stuck on a desert island and forced to make a choice, I’d plummet for Salinger over the Inbetweeners. Salinger is famed for the highly authentic voice of Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. It was unquestionably a novel where I sympathised with Holden’s plight, not least his rejection of the superficial ‘phony’ students of Pency Prep. But beyond the beautiful image of the catcher in the rye, drawn from Robert Burns’ poem Coming through the Rye, it’s an equally bleak, almost nihilist vision, which leaves a feeling of emptiness. Read it – doing so is almost a rite of passage in itself and trying to read the novel over the age of eighteen is pointless – but move on.
This summer, however, I finally read Iain Crichton Smith’s Bildungsroman The Last Summer, an evocative exploration of growing up on a Hebridean island. It’s a novel of which I was already aware, and I found a work immediately close to Salinger and the Inbetweeners in theme but a thousand miles away in terms of its sympathies, emotional insight and tender observations.
Malcolm, the focus of the novel, is seventeen, uncomfortably innocent yet able academically and heading towards his final school examinations. Success is expected of him, both from his widowed mother and from the village in which he lives. Success means university and a scholarship, and a chance to leave the island. A loner yet desperate for relationships, he fits in nowhere. At school he is an outsider, mocked by his teachers and irritated by other pupils, not least the local solicitor’s son. To his home village, where most leave school at fourteen, he is painfully aloof, despite their evident care and love. Girls whom he pursues are distant.
At the novel’s core lie conflicting loyalties – to the tradition from which he has come, to the world beyond – and a quest for something more. Football, physical suffering, women – Malcolm must somehow find his own way through life. Crichton Smith is no sentimentalist: The Last Summer never strays into romanticising its bleak Second World War setting, nor the very real deprivations of island life.
Today, Iain Crichton Smith (1928-1998) is becoming an almost forgotten figure in Scottish Literature. Writing both in Gaelic and in English, he was very much a leader in the Scottish Renaissance of the Twentieth Century, a poet, a writer of short stories, a novelist and a teacher. More prolific in English than in Gaelic – though Gaelic was his mother tongue – Crichton Smith’s prose is distinctive in its style – somewhere in its idioms and images the Gaelic almost sings through. There’s a sparse beauty to his writing: a prose which is immediately accessible and yet resonant of much more.
My copy from Amazon came second hand. Like many fine works from the last century, it is, sadly, out of print. Yet it’s not been without influence. If you know me, borrow it. As for me, I’m awaiting my Amazon Prime delivery of Consider the Lilies – the next Crichton Smith novel on my list!