Alistair MacLeod: a man of musicality of language

A week ago, on a slightly rainy Sunday evening, the sad news broke that the great Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod, had died.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair came onto the radar of most serious readers in 2001 when his only novel, No Great Mischief, a quietly towering, multi-generational treatise on tradition and family ties, won the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. By then, though, he was already one of my small obsessions, had been from the day, several years earlier, I happened across a collection of his short stories while browsing the shelves of the city library.

It was the title, a six-word poem: As Birds Bring Forth The Sun, that knocked the breath from my body. Knowing nothing about its author, I sat, started to read, and happily lost an entire afternoon of my life. Then I took the book home and read it again and again, peeling back layers, pouring over the seamless sentences and losing myself within their rhythms. Two qualities stood out: a sense of place that was absolute, and an utterly authentic voice. No one can read Alistair MacLeod’s stories and not believe them.

At that point, I had already begun to write, though without any confidence or direction. His stories were a revelation. They read almost as memoir and had what Hemingway’s stories had: an unwavering and indisputable truth, a sense of having been quarried from stone. Cape Breton was his world, and the world of his people all the way back to the Highland Clearances, and it insinuated every pore of every word he wrote. Even though he kept his horizons close, the innate honesty of his work, and his relentless weighing of the human heart, ensured it would always transcend the specific. His were the stories of people everywhere.

In 2010, I was invited, as part of a small group of Irish writers, to attend the 11th International Short Story Conference in Toronto. My first question was whether or not Alistair MacLeod would be there. The answer was a thrilling yes.

Meeting our idols can often disappoint, but not always.

On the afternoon of my reading, in a York University classroom, he was part of an audience of less than two dozen people. I attempted to pour a glass of water but was shaking so hard with nerves I put ice everywhere. When I looked up from my book, his was the first face I saw, looking back at me and smiling ever so slightly. Afterwards he sought me out and told me how much he’d enjoyed my story, and though my natural insecurity insisted I put his kind words down to politeness and even pity, I still felt immensely grateful, proud.

And then, little by little, I got to know him.

He was multiples of everything I had imagined he would be. Shortish, stocky and ruddy cheeked, decked out in a flat cap and with the Order of Canada, his nation’s highest civilian honour, pinned proudly to his lapel, he was a man of gentle and generous nature, easy with stillness and easier still with smiles, a man whose voice when spinning some yarn held all the softness of a sigh.

Today, his reputation as one of the world’s finest writers rests on a single novel and two books of stories, The Lost Salt Gift Of Blood and the aforementioned, As Birds Bring Forth The Sun. Following his IMPAC win, both collections were combined, along with two new stories for a sum total of 16, in a volume called Island, which should be essential reading not only for anyone with writing ambitions, but for anyone with a heartbeat.

In a career spanning nearly 50 years, he was anything but prolific, yet the precision and musicality of his language, and the wholeness and assurance of his vision, ensured there was not a single missed note. Few can boast as much.

Our paths last crossed back in September, when he came here as part of the Cork International Short Story Festival. He gifted us a 17th and still-uncollected story, Remembrance, the first he’d written in over a decade; a beautiful, poignant tale of war’s aftermath, about how the present is always shaped by the past.

Now, a week on from his passing, it is his legions of admirers who are left to remember. Alistair MacLeod was not only one of the good ones, he was one of the greats.

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