John Burnside's gift for almost-happiness

Something Like Happy - review.

John Burnside
John Burnside.

Something Like Happy
John Burnside
Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £16.99

“It’s hard work, being happy,” says one of the good women of Cowdenbeath who form the chorus of the everyday neighbourhood tragedies of John Burnside’s beautiful and disturbing memoir A Lie About My Father (2006). His new collection of short stories also bears witness to that never-ending and never accomplished labour. Happiness is always round the corner, glimpsed like a beast in a thicket or a woman vanishing into the twilight or the snow. One of his narrators keeps taped on the wall next to her computer a quotation from André Maurois, “Le bonheur est une fleur qu’il ne faut pas cueillir.” Burnside doesn’t bother to translate. He trusts his readers.

There is much familiar Burnside landscape here – the harsh beauty of dune-grass and headland, the casual and deadly knifing in the pub, the domestic violence (most vividly evoked in a terrifying story called “Slut’s Hair”), the truck driver’s lonely road, the treacherous friend, the sad affair. “Fallings from us, vanishings”: and yet, as in Words - worth, there are intimations of immortality, memories and moments, which make these stories more magical than lowering. His characters are reconciled to being almost happy when most alone, eating a slice of toast with blackcurrant jam and watching snow fall, or standing half naked by a window listening to the dark, or drinking a glass of Chablis in an empty house, or in “those fleeting moments out on the road, when I opened a gate and crossed an empty farmyard, a stranger, even to myself, in the quiet of the afternoon”.

The narrator of “The Deer Larder” writes scripts for commercials and is surprised to find herself happy (or almost happy) working on “a defined project, with clear limits and constraints”, from which she can occasionally create something that shines, like a medieval copyist illuminating his text. Negligible events, she reflects, almost persuading herself, add up “to a more or less happy life”. Happiness, she claims, is ordinary and slow.

Burnside’s search for the elusive beast is the theme of “The Fair Chase” in his most recent poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, and the hunting of birds features in two of the stories here, set in very different locations. In “Godwit”, Fat Stan leads his friend to the dangerous Sands in search of the rare black-tailed godwit, which, he has been told, was prized “in the olden times” for its meat. His friend, not wholly trusting Stan’s tale, looks the bird up in the Field Guide to British Birds, and there it is, looking cleaner and more graceful than the one they thought they’d glimpsed wading, “but then things always do look better in books, all in their true colours, like they would be if the world was perfect”. Stan fails to catch the godwit and ends up in prison, doomed from the first sentence of the story, and his friend is left wandering through the ghostly fog of the tideline, where there is no godwit, nothing but whiteness. The search has ended in the nothingness of “relief and disappointment”.

“Roccolo”, set on the sunlit Amalfi coast, is a sinister tale of psychological games-playing, in which an Italian woman enacts her annual erotic ritual of ensnaring a young English boy, bored on his summer holidays. She leads him up the steep hillside to the rocky cave where small birds are lured by a blinded decoy into nets. It is many-layered and full of menace and surprises, illustrating Burnside’s impressive range: Salerno is a long way from Cowdenbeath, but just as realistically portrayed. It has echoes of Angus Wilson’s story “Raspberry Jam”, which also featured blinded birds and a young boy trapped by older women. Wilson, by his own account, was advised to start writing fiction by a psychoanalyst whom he visited in Oxford during the war, while working at Bletchley Park: his mental equilibrium was always delicate, and he saved his sanity by writing. Burnside, too, as we know from his own testimony, has plunged further into the lower depths. Both Wilson and Burnside, though very different as writers, managed to find self-knowledge and salvation (not too strong a word) through their work. Not enough ordinary slow happiness, perhaps, but something like happy.

While I was reading these stories, lines from Dryden’s “The Secular Masque” (1700) kept running through my head:

All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
’Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.

The hope and defiance of Dryden’s verse seem to augur well for Burnside and 2013.