Sean O’Brien is moved by a quest for the meaning of life

In the dark abyss of time, the Incredible String Band had a number called “Hedgehog’s Song”, containing the lines: “Oh, you know all the words and you sing all the notes, / But you never quite learned the song.” The context was the narrator’s failure to connect fully with the various girls he encountered, but the problem could be rendered more generally as that of authenticity. The teenage Andrew Greig was one half of a sadly unrecorded duo called Fate & Ferret, who made contact with the Incredibles’ management and were encouraged to send in tapes, to which the legendary Joe Boyd listened with tolerant amusement. Music was not to be Greig’s vocation, alas: he turned out to be a poet with a hard road ahead.

Most of the signposts on that road seem to have reiterated the lines from “Hedgehog’s Song”. Going to university to study philosophy while having a strong interest in the meaning of life rather than of language was perhaps a sign of quixotry to come. An attempt to “face reality” through marriage and work in copywriting (attempting to keep poetry as “a hobby”, dear God), led to attempted suicide and breakdown. There followed the long, dedicated, hand-to-mouth scramble of the writing life, interspersed with mountaineering expeditions and love affairs. His considerable success as a poet, a novelist, a writer on mountaineering and other matters including golf, vindicates his decision to follow instinct rather than economics; but books, he makes clear, are not life, and life is what counts, the arena in which we are tested. He may sound like a Buddhist at times, but really he’s a Protestant, carrying the guilty accumulation of should-if-and-buttery everywhere he seeks to be free of it.

In order to meet the test, Greig searches for a way of occupying the present. The pursuit verges on the frenzied. What has he to show for his openness to life? No child; no wife when this book opens. As Louis MacNeice observed, “the mind [is] by nature stagey”, and Greig keeps facing himself with set-pieces: here it is a fishing trip, an attempt to fulfil a task conferred on him by a dead friend, a landscape made for symbolism, a proposal of marriage.

The friend was the poet Norman MacCaig (1910-96), doyen of Scottish literature, a poet loved by the Scottish public. While the Scots in the street are on the whole more literary than their English neighbours (hard not to be so nowadays, you might think), it is nonetheless a great achievement to enter the national consciousness. Inevitably this was as much a matter of MacCaig’s perceived character as of his writing. While I was reading Greig’s book there was an eerie inevitability in finding myself in a taxi in Edinburgh listening to the driver as he explained MacCaig’s appeal – straight talk about matters of common concern. It would have been discourteous of me to argue that MacCaig’s work is often slant and subtle and that he did much to create the areas of interest that his audience came to view as common property. That would be to privilege the poet and his art in such a way as to arouse the scepticism that accompanies the Scots when in direct mode: neither the driver nor (it might seem) MacCaig would have liked that.

Greig’s own journey is born of love and admiration and during it his view gains in depth and realism with the knowledge that MacCaig was in the first place a fellow human, brought low in old age by the death of Isabel, his wife of 50 years, and by illness which meant he could no longer travel to the place that gives the book its title. If it could happen to him, Greig implies, it’s a grim lookout for the rest of us.

On Greig’s last visit to MacCaig’s legendary Edinburgh flat, the poet asked him to go and try to catch trout in the Loch of the Green Corrie (in Gaelic, Lochan a Choire Ghuirm), in the hills above Assynt in the Western Highlands, where the older poet spent many summers fishing with friends. Should Greig succeed, and in the unlikely event that the afterlife existed, MacCaig would be greatly amused. It is the sort of mission a John Buchan character would feel both honoured and obliged to undertake (and indeed Greig has remade parts of Buchan’s world in his fiction). The first problem is to find the place, which MacCaig helpfully observes is not called by the name he gives it.

Greig, of course, is in no position to leave matters alone. MacCaig is presented as his literary exemplar and seems also a second father, to whose wisdom and self-possession the younger man aspired. So the journey to Assynt with two friends, intended as a spontaneous approach to the real, is, even by Greig’s standards, burdened with an almost disabling load of duties: assess the past, enter the here and now, discover meaning, balance the contradiction between the intense pleasures of the landscape and the fact of death. And catch the fish.

He has four days in which to do this, as though in some crazed and un-commissionable reality show about how men finally grow up. It is completely absorbing, though the reader is aware of Greig the novelist, literary descendant of RL Stevenson, giving Greig the seeker a steer away from loose ends and inconsequence. The initial refusal of the hidden loch to match his idea of its beauty or to grant him a fish becomes metaphorical, despite his avowed mistrust of language’s embroidery of the actual. And fortunately the intense self-scrutiny is matched by landscape writing worthy of Stevenson himself. Over and over, Greig makes place into an event in its own right: “Today the lochan was two-toned, cornflower blue then gleaming platinum, with a sharp divide where the wind halted. Lewisian gneiss and quartzite scree overhead, in our ears the non-silence of wind and water. It was an Assynt within Assynt, a small cradling, a stand-alone excerpt from a larger work.”

When an acquaintance casually describes a solo return journey to Assynt as escapism, Greig is furious. The West Highlands, he elsewhere explains, are the location for the great geological controversy which led the way for plate tectonics and an understanding that continents themselves have travelled the globe to reach their present positions. Nothing is fixed; the Earth remakes itself in deep time. We may sense that Greig is distrustful of irony, perhaps doubting the distinction between its active imaginative function (more prevalent in English poetry than Scots, perhaps, but see MacCaig) and the complacent knowingness which can make everyday life so wearisome.

It is in part because he looks for a place where they do things differently that Greig is drawn to Assynt, close to the site of his own childhood holidays, and some of the best of this fine book is taken up with attempts to face down his tendency to reify glimpses of the ideal. With an east coast Protestant lowland background, he longs to connect with the older Gaelic world, to find a home for his intensely felt but relentlessly analytical romanticism. His conversations with the now-elderly women who remember MacCaig and his local friends in the days of fly-fishing, whisky and all-night music and recitation reveal people with no need to idealise their own experience.

There were great days but they passed, as earlier incarnations of Highland life passed, under the pressures of mortality and economics – or, let us be frank, the greed of owners in a world in which hitherto the most important possessions had been a name and the songs that preserved it. The restlessness with which Greig walks the ground of the “good place” will for the most part have to be its own reward: “Everything is clear and sharp now – the travelling slash of ripples, cool breeze over my hands, my own roughened skin, smell of turf and heather. I’ve escaped not from life but out into it.” It is Greig’s habit to set literature aside in favour of life, but the rich contradictions involved in doing so require him to exercise all his considerable art.

Sean O’Brien’s novel Afterlife is published by Picador. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds