Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ring of Bright Water!

Our book today is Gavin Maxwell's immortal 1960 nature classic, Ring of Bright Water, the story of his life in the West Highlands of Scotland in a picturesque little house he calls Camusfearna in the book - and more than just the story of that life: of course, as millions of readers have discovered to their delight over years, it's the story of the friendships Maxwell forms with first one remarkable otter, Mijdil, and then a second, Edal. So memorable is the impression the book leaves of these two remarkable animals that the returning reader is surprised to find that Mij doesn't even appear until 80 pages have passed - you remember it as his book from first to last, but Maxwell actually sets the stage for many pages before his acquires his friend in Iraq and brings him half-way around the world to the cold lakes and waterfalls of Scotland. We get many beautiful descriptions of the majestic bleakness of that part of the world - a bleakness that's ultimately impossible to capture in words, although Maxwell comes closer to doing it than any other author I've ever read. Even when he's in haste to tell an unconnected story, his descriptions are wonderful:
It was a cloudy night with a freshening wind and a big moon that swam muzzily through black rags of vapour. By eleven o'clock it was blowing strong to gale from the south, and on the windward side of the islands there was a heavy sea beginning to pile up.

But the real story here is Mij the otter, who takes immediately to domestic life and displays an abundantly energetic affection for Maxwell from the start. The reader is given scene after scene of Mij wandering the lakeside and hills, fishing and exploring, and coming back faithfully each night to the warmth of the fireside. The gentle nature of his curiosity about everything around him certainly clashes with my own face-to-muzzle experience with otters, but the passion of Maxwell's account is irresistible, and as in the best books of this kind, he gradually learns to un-learn his previous, inevitably parochial conceptions of what love is. When Mij disappears for a day, Maxwell is frantic with worry, and it moves him to self-examination (as he puts it, writers are duty-bound to a certain visceral honesty):
I knew by that time that Mij meant more to me than most human beings of my acquaintance, that I should miss his physical presence more than theirs, and I was not ashamed of it. In the penultimate analysis, perhaps, I knew that Mij trusted me more utterly than did any of my own kind, and so supplied a need that we are slow to admit.

And when Mij finally leaves the book forever (after only a year with his human friend), the sense of desolation that fills the pages before the arrival of Edal is suffocating:
I missed Mij desperately, so much that it was a year before I could bring myself to go to Camusfearna again. I mourned for my fallen sparrow; he had filled that landscape so completely, had made so much his own every yard of the ring of bright water I loved, that it seemed, after he had gone from it, hollow and insufficient; for the first time all the familiar things in which I had taken joy appeared as a stage backcloth against which no player moved.

But these quotes, though often foremost in my mind, are in a way misleading: Ring of Bright Water isn't a sad book - it has sadness in it, yes, but no reader will frown when they remember it. It's full of joy and communication and nature gloriously described, and the two pudgy, opinionated, stubby-legged creatures who star in its pages give no end of delight, which Maxwell has captured perfectly throughout. This author's career has long been a puzzle to me - it's absolutely strewn with some of the most poorly-chosen writing projects imaginable. This book is his only real masterpiece, despite the fact that he had talent enough for six or seven books this good. But at least we have this gem of an account - like Maxwell in this book, we must, I suppose, be grateful for whatever pure marvels come our way, for however long.

1 comment:

Mijbil said...

Here in Italy it is almost unknown, but I absolutely love this book (as you can guess from my nickname).