Shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize, this was the last novel that George Mackay Brown published before his death. However, it is not exactly a novel, and not exactly a collection of interlinked short stories, it is something very slightly different.
There are eight stories, all centring on the imaginary Orkney island of Norday. In the first four stories, a young boy in the 1930s, Thorfinn, dreams of episodes in the island’s past, often inspired by the history lessons of his bête noir, Mr Simon.
Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarsson.
Curled up in his father’s fishing boat, Thorfinn dreams of sailing to Byzantium with Vikings; dozing in the smithy, he fancies himself riding to Bannockburn as a squire; perched on the kirkyard wall while a grave is dug, he imagines the biography of the old man who will presently occupy it; on a school trip to a broch or circular fort, he thinks about the people who might have taken refuge there. But the next story, ‘The Muse’, switches focus slightly; although Thorfinn is entranced by the sight of a yellow-haired girl riding a horse at the beginning of the story and is given her horse at the end, this is a tale about the laird in the hall and the minister in the Manse and the yellow-haired girl in Thorfinn’s present, not one of his daydreams.
Its stitching together of Norday’s past and present continues in the story which follows it, ‘The Press Gang and the Seal Dance’, which lays ominous visits by the Ministry of Defence in Thorfinn’s present beside a tale of how the islanders outwitted a press gang in the early nineteenth-century and a selkie tale which perhaps represents Thorfinn’s claim to an imaginative heritage, one that makes him different from the farmers and fisherman around him. ‘Aerodrome’ describes the annihilation of Norday’s culture, history and way of life as it is turned into an RAF airstrip at the outset of the Second World War; it is a distressing chapter to read. Finally, ‘Fisherman and Croftwoman’ charts Thorfinn’s return to the now uninhabited island, his wartime experiences as a POW and his first literary successes, his possible future.
(George Mackay Brown and his father; photograph taken in c. 1926; found here); according to the caption young George’s clothes were made out of postman’s uniforms)
It is in Stalag 29 that Thorfinn writes his first novel, a ‘romance’ or ‘historical thriller’ about ‘the navigation of the Dnieper by Norsemen in the Dark Ages’ – in other words, the first story in Beside the Ocean of Time. His second novel, another ‘historical thriller’, is ‘about the Scottish War of Independence culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314’ – the second story in the book. But by the time he has returned to Norday after the war:
He is sick to death now of historical thrillers. He is trying to dredge something rich and strange out of the mythical past of the islands – the selkies who shed their coats on the moon-bleached sands and danced; the trows who live under the green knolls and love above all the music of men, so that they cajole young fiddlers to their courts inside the hill and keep them there for fifty winters; but the young crofter with the fiddle, having drunk from their silver cup, thinks he has been among the roots and sources for half an hour, no more. And so there is a great mystery in this connection between music and death and time and the food that the Earth yields for the nourishment of men...
Through this final story, the book transforms: it becomes not only stories about Thorfinn and his physical life, but also stories by Thorfinn and about his imaginative and literary development, and stories about the essence, the soil and the water and the spirit, of the island of Norday. All of these things are woven together so that the individual stories form a greater whole.
At the beginning of ‘The Press Gang and the Seal Dance’ Mackay Brown lays out his philosophy. It is Christian and ostensibly contrasts our search to ‘garnish’ ourselves with worldly possessions to the quest of our ‘real’ selves, ‘a soul that is seeking life-long for the true treasure, the grail’. He imagines a guardian angel beyond a distant star playing a pipe:
The music goes on and on, unheard for the most part. Through this lifetime of vanity we creep, stumble, march, follow plough and scythe, linger, hirple on a stick, until at last the feet are folded and lie still: but seen through the angel’s eye, it is an immortal spirit that dances from birth to death, all the way, from before the beginning till after the end.
Every dance, every lifetime, is unique, and that infinity of dances from every race and from every era, is of incalculable value, and comprehends the great ceremonial dance of mankind. But the music will not be known in all its glory until it is rounded with silence.
And it is this concept of the individual dance as part of the whole, of the harshness of physical existence illuminated by the dance of the soul, that informs the organisation and meaning of the stories in this book.
Thorfinn is deeply saddened by the destruction of Norday: ‘It should not have ended that way,’ says Thorfinn Ragnarsson. ‘I think the saga of the island can never be told now...’ But this book is the saga of the island, he has found a way to tell it after all. Thorfinn Ragnarsson is not George Mackay Brown but there are clearly parallels with his own biography and experiences, and this book seems a deeply personal expression of island life, personal philosophy and literary calling.
(George Mackay Brown writing, from here)