Friday 16 November 2007

Dreams to sell, fine dreams to sell . . .

I mentioned in a previous post that I was looking forward to reading Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith – his contribution to the Canongate Myths series.

I have mused at more length about Alexander McCall Smith – whose Law and Medical Ethics I used to have the pleasure of copy editing and typesetting - in previous posts. Suffice to say for now that I am a very big fan of his fiction and rather wish he were even more prolific than he is, though goodness knows he clocks up novels at a truly amazing rate.

Dream Angus is a character from the Celtic mythology of Scotland and Ireland – a bringer of dreams, and an embodiment of youth and beauty. He features in a haunting Scottish lullaby, the words of which are set out here (scroll to end of post), and also in W B Yeats’s poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ (1899):

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Fans of McCall Smith’s Scotland Street, Isabel Dalhousie and No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series may find this offering rather strange. I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it myself for a while. I ended up reading it over a couple of months, rather than straight off. I kept putting it down, rather than picking it up!

It takes the form of a series of individual short stories, set in the recent past or the present day, mainly in Scotland, which are interwoven with scenes from the story of Dream Angus’s life, as handed down in the Celtic myths.

The ‘modern’ stories are vignettes from the lives of people to whom dreams are, or will be, or should be significant in some way. An Angus figure hovers in the margins of each story - sometimes making a definite appearance, sometimes merely alluded to. They are beautifully written, with the kind of wry observation we expect from this author, yet not only are the tales are unrelated to each other, but their connection with Angus can seem fairly tenuous at times. When I’d finished I was a little stumped, in a ‘wassat all abaaat, then?’ kind of a way (not that I would ever give voice to such a phrase, naturally, heaven forbid, etc).

And yet, and yet . . . this is a book about the power of dreams and what gradually formed in my mind as I tried to come up with a coherent ‘opinion’, was a cloud of half-remembered characters and ideas, snatches of place and time. What did that remind me of? Remembering dreams. The book itself is like a series of dreams. Clever. Which of course is nothing more than we expect from McCall Smith. And wise. ‘Wise’ is an old-fashioned word and an old-fashioned notion but it’s one that has always sprung to mind when reading AMcS.

This is a book that sticks in the mind – not at the forefront, but in the place where it belongs, at the fuzzy edge of our conciousness – reminding us that, as the author says in his Introduction, ‘Angus puts us in touch with our dreams . . . there is always an Angus within us’.

You can see Alexander McCall Smith talking about the book here:

No comments: