A Long Look at The Long Take
A Review by Jennifer Morag Henderson
Long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize (to be awarded on 16th October), Robin Robertson’s novel in verse The Long Take has been described as ‘remarkable’ and ‘showing the flexibility a poet can bring to form and style.’
North-east writer Robin Robertson’s new book The Long Take has been acclaimed as a unique and genre-defying ‘noir narrative’, but it is not a dark, dense text: it is full of “daggering light and sun laid out everywhere”; a sharp, bright illuminating read that throws stark black shadows. Robertson is a poet, the winner of all three prestigious Forward Prizes, and The Long Take is something special, yet also a logical progression from his five previous poetry collections.
Robertson was brought up in Aberdeen, where his father was a university chaplain. He went on to study English there, and his work often recalls the north of Scotland, particularly the coast. Poems in the 2010 collection The Wrecking Light talk about “The fishboxes of Fraserburgh, Aberdeen / Peterhead… nothing but the names / of the places I came from years ago…”, while the penultimate poem in the collection, “At Roane Head”, winner of the Forward prize for ‘Best Single Poem’, is well known for its gruesome tale of selkies. However, Robertson’s concerns are not purely Scottish, but something more international. He continues around different coastlines, with their liminal mixture of sea and land; at the edge, where things meet. Some poems go to the Mediterranean, others north to Scandinavia. The Long Take starts in eastern Canada, but travels “to another coast, a different ocean…”, across America “sea to shining sea” – “He’d arrived. Somewhere.”
“At Roane Head” is probably Robertson’s best-known poem, and, like much of his writing, this is poetry used to tell a story, not poetry as personal confessional. Throughout Robertson’s collections he returns to long poems or sequences of poems. There are Celtic folktales and Greek mythology; Acteon sees the goddess Artemis bathing naked and is turned into a stag in 2006 collection Swithering; while in Robertson’s first book A Painted Field, the biographical “Camera Obscura” told the story of photographer and painter David Octavius Hill, the creator of the huge painting of the main architects of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland. Robertson tells Hill’s life story through poems, and poetical diary entries and letters. The Long Take takes this story-telling form to book length.
The story of The Long Take is based around a soldier returning from the Second World War. Scarred by his war experiences and unable to settle back home in Cape Breton, Canada, he travels, first to New York, then west to Los Angeles and San Francisco. “He walks. That is his name and nature.” we read at the start, and Walker takes us with him through the seedier side of these cities of 1940s and 50s America.
The Cape Breton setting – and the precise use of language – are reminiscent of Alistair Macleod’s wonderful novel No Great Mischief, and Robertson studied for his Masters under Macleod’s tuition, at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. But whereas No Great Mischief was a richly Canadian novel that Scots could see themselves in, The Long Take’s Canada is sometimes very Scottish: we never hear of the French Acadian side of Cape Breton, or the long Africadian culture and history of Nova Scotia. Walker is a traditional man, silent, believing that the girl he has left behind can never understand the horror that men faced in the war. The Cape Breton scenes are glimpsed mainly in flashback, however, and most of the action takes place in America – and here The Long Take goes somewhere different, turning from an old story of contrasting country and city, to a meditation on the changing city itself. Walker leaves the fishermen of Cape Breton, first finding work in the docks where the fish are received, but soon moving on again, to Hollywoodland and the city of the movie industry that is referenced throughout the book.
From the beginning, Walker shares his interest in literature and film, the art forms where he finds respite from his restless thoughts: he encounters filmmaker Robert Siodmak, and stands on street corners as film crews run take after take. He finds work as a newspaperman: “I’m interested in films and jazz. Cities,” Walker says to an editor, as he looks for work.
‘Yes. American cities.’
‘What about American cities?’
‘How they fail.’ ”
Assigned to the City Desk, Walker finds himself following police cars, covering murders.
The character of Walker himself recalls another literary reference: Robertson has spoken before of his admiration of Welsh poet David Jones, whose protagonist Dai Greatcoat walked through Jones’ “In Parenthesis”, a prose poem of the Great War.
The form is not intrusive: poetry seems like the best way to express the disconnected thoughts of the war veteran, his short diary entries and brief conversations with fellow citizens of the city’s underbelly, the precise words of his newspaper copy, the elliptical dialogue of film. Robertson has said that he thinks poetry should be read aloud to be savoured, and combinations and descriptions in The Long Take reach moments that need to be re-read and tested: directionless and hungover, Walker wakes up: “He found himself misplaced in his bed all night, mislaid…”
Robertson has translated Swedish Nobel prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer, and he said of Tranströmer that he “continually returns to symbolism that stands in opposition to the natural world… most specifically, the car, the driver, the mass movement of traffic…” – and this is where “The Long Take” is going as well. Walker lives his unhappy life pounding the streets of his adopted cities, but the bulldozers are moving in and we are coming into the America where the car is king.
As well as his poetry, Robertson has a parallel career in editing. Not just a student of Alistair Macleod, he was also his editor, and he works or has worked with writers including Irvine Welsh, Ocean Vuong, A.L. Kennedy, Sharon Olds, Michael Ondaatje, Alan Warner, Ben Okri, Janice Galloway and James Kelman. Editing and writing are not necessarily compatible, and “Mortification”, a collection of essays Robertson edited, looks at the clash between the magic of writing and the business of promoting literature. It should be required reading if not for all aspiring writers, then certainly for all arts administrators who refuse to understand why authors don’t like doing talks for free. That said, the roster of names Robertson has worked with includes many whose work has made Scottish literature magical – whilst reaching an international audience that makes writing viable as a business. Writers need a practical streak.
As the wrecking-ball moves in, The Long Take moves to its conclusion. Readers familiar with the tone of Robertson’s poetry know from the start that there is little chance of a happy ending. Walker is not going to win, he is only going to find, as the sub-title of the book says, “A Way to Lose More Slowly”. The vile Pike, Walker’s over-keen colleague at the newspaper, shows that the new world cares little for those who served and are still fighting their demons. The only redemption is for the reader, who can see what art has been made out of the wreckage of the Second World War, the veterans’ lives, and the ruin of a dream of a city.