Notes on a Biography

After a downsizing/move that consumed the better part of a year, I am still unpacking books and papers.  I came across my 2016 hand-written reading journal and found notes on a biography that I read last summer.  I recall being so moved by it that when I finished it, I left the book out where I would see it each day – I missed that person I had met, grew fond of, then lost.

George Mackay Brown1

Sunday, July 17, 2016: Began reading George Mackay Brown, The Life by Maggie Fergusson and Brown’s novel, Beside the Ocean of Time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016: Finished Beside the Ocean of Time – lovely, find out more about GMB home [Orkney Islands}

George Mackay Bown-stromnessOrkney Islands

”He passed everything through the eye of the needle of Orkney” (Seamus Heaney)




Saturday, July 23, 2016: Continuing to read George Mackay Brown The Life – a strange consolation, why is he such a compelling figure to me?

“When a friend once confided in George her belief in reincarnation, he was quick to respond that he hoped it would prove unfounded.  There had been enough pain in his present life for him ‘not to be an Oliver Twist and ask for more’. . . He was drifting through what felt like a ‘desert of time,’ dragging out a semi-invalid existence in which the weeks seemed to fold greyly into one another with little achieved, and less to hope for. . . Wasted years, ‘years that the locusts ate’. [tuberculosis/treatment in 1940’s, prejudice][Chap.5]

[alcoholism] “Those first glasses were, he wrote ‘a revelation; they flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries. I remember thinking to myself, “If I could have two pints of beer every afternoon, life would be a great happiness.’  It was not long before two pints ceased to satisfy.” [Pg.89]

Sunday, July 24, 2016: continuing to read GMB The Life

“He learned to become disciplined in his response to depression. He began to believe that not only was it temporary, but it was in some sense illusory – it was no more a part of his life than the shadow on a tree is part of the living organic tree itself.” (Pg. 81)

Monday, July 25, 2016: continued reading GMB bio.  It is a companionship.

Thursday, July 26, 2016, continuing GMB the Life:  The Children’s Encyclopedia was to Robert Rendall [GMB friend]  “his vade-mecum, leading him into fields of study that he would pursue with passion over the years”. . . From Rendall and Ernest Marwick, GMB received encouragement and “courteous, meticulous critism”.

Sunday, July 31, 2016:  GMB:

“Over the years I have developed a settled routine, and any alteration upsets me in a hundred subtle ways.”

“George was certain now that he would never have either a wife or children of his own, and this, he confessed to [friend] Willa Muir, was a relief to him: ‘the thought of such responsibilities really would drive me round the bend’. He felt his days flying ‘swifter than a weaver’s shuttle’. All he wanted was to be left alone with his books and pens and paper.”

“He felt himself growing in determination and patience as he confronted difficulties, and developing a will as hard as granite as he outfaced them.  He was confident, and would remain so until the end of his life, that Magnus contained some of the best prose he had ever written.”

And it sometimes happens that the stone breaks into flower in your hand. (GMB)

August 1, 2016: finished GMB the Life. He died on Friday, April 12, 1996, age 74.

“Just before he lost consciousness – before, in the language of the sagas, he passed ‘out of the story’ – George had spoken his last words to the doctor and nurses attending to him. Lying back against his pillows, he said: ‘I see hundreds and hundreds of ships sailing out of the harbour.’  On his headstone were engraved his words:

Carve the runes
Then be content with silence

Notes/impressions: admiration, inspiration, affection, grief

2 thoughts on “Notes on a Biography”

  1. Linda: What an interesting blog! Utilizing your journal entries is distinctive, I’ve never seen anything like it before. And I certainly don’t keep such a record of the books I’ve read. It’s a very much alive method. It’s nice to see you blogging again. Richard


    1. Thank you, Richard. That biography really engaged me – for two reasons. The subject was such an interesting, sympathetic figure and the biographer so skilled in making me care about him, that I made copious hand-written notes as I read. Then, when I looked at my notes after almost a year, I was so glad that I did. That effort, I think, is the value and the reward of keeping a commonplace book. And I’ve learned that for me, the best way to capture my response to a book is by hand-writing, old-fashioned pen and paper, as I read.


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