The Merry Muse, by Eric Linklater (1959)

Review by Val H

Eric Linklater’s Latest!’ proclaims my copy of The Merry Muse (Jonathan Cape, 1959) in large letters.  Bloomsbury, which publishes it as an e-book, says it is:

“part farce, part satire on manners and social attitudes [sparkling] from beginning to end…the work of a master…at the height of his powers”.

Two contemporary reviews are quoted:

“[Linklater] has created one of his most memorable characters in that solid and yet strangely vulnerable citizen, the inimitable Max.” – The New York Times

“This is one of those rare books of comedy in which the humor depends solidly on situation and character and not merely on wisecrack” – Chicago Daily Tribune.

Perhaps you guess that I’m quoting all this upfront just to disagree with it.  Oh not entirely.  On the whole, the satire is telling and the farce funny (if you like that sort of thing – I don’t mind a smidgeon).  But an underlying cynicism shows through clearly and the humour is harsh.  There is little warmth or humanity here.  The characters are, almost without exception, unpleasant and types, about whom it is difficult to care (I don’t mean ‘like’).  As a result, the whole becomes, ironically, tedious.

The story is of Edinburgh lawyer Max Arbuthnot and his trouble in authenticating a potentially valuable pornographic manuscript by Robert Burns*.  Max is acting for his recently widowed sister left the manuscript by her husband.  He entrusts it to Hector Macrae, Scotland’s current literary lion – in a sense, Burns’ heir.  Various characters steal it from Hector, out of spite (for Macrae or Max) or admiration (for Burns) and pursue each other for it, while Max’s sister agitates for its return.  She is deeply ashamed of it, thinks about destroying it, but wants the money.  When word gets out, the manuscript liberates traditionally dour Edinburgh society.  Women leave their homes, socks go undarned, children and men are unfed etc.  One newspaper, for example, claims that a:

“vast, unruly horde of young women…having driven in a large flock of young men…had folded them…in pens at the station [where] they bleated like sheep” (page 160).

After a few days, the manuscript is found a home of sorts and Edinburgh settles.  Max regrets the money he might have made, but looks forward, self-satisfied and irrepressible to the last.

The Merry Muse is all about deception.  It seems appropriate to quote Burns:

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Against a respectable background of dinner parties, shooting parties etc, the characters routinely deceive each other.  Almost all of them project a false image.  Sometimes they even deceive themselves.  Max, for example, appears to be a successful, honourable lawyer.  His peers and employees respect him.  Businesses invite him to join their boards. But he is unfaithful to his wife, he indulges in financial sleight of hand, he is happy to manoeuvre his sister into bad choices so that he can make money.  He sees himself not as venal, however, but sharp and therefore entitled to deceive and to profit.  He is also conscious, in his 60s, that he is slowing down and is fighting against this.  His energy and appetite are his most attractive traits, but they also betray him.

Representing Scottish arts, Hector Macrae is set against Max.   He too is not what he seems.  He is depressed and suicidal but cannot quite bring himself to the point.  He is diverted by an affair with Max’s daughter but it does not last.  Lionised by his peers, he yet despises his work, colleagues and Edinburgh society.  Through him Linklater satirises the literary world (is there a roman à clef here?).  A pretentious gathering includes:

Sir Beaumont Macready, who “in his early years…had cultivated an elaborate literary style, and in his maturity…become a stylist in the habit of his life” (p.283); Randolph Younger who cannot decide whether a “meditated lyric would look better in Romansch, the Norwegian landsmål, or demotic Greek” (p.287); and “Roland Owl, who, with great cleverness, wrote about nothing at all” (p.288).

Scottish nationalism, which Linklater supported, is also mocked, but more gently.

Hector is the excuse for very funny scenes not out of place in an Ealing comedy (one of the darker ones).  Rather than spoil these, here is another, unimportant to the plot.  Max’s brother-in-law’s ashes are being scattered at sea, but when the wind direction changes, the many mourners have hastily to dust down their clothes.  Later, when Max and his mistress Paula are making love on the floor of his office (so enthusiastically that those in the office below worry knowingly about their ceiling), she finds a fragment of bone in his hair.  Ghoulish?  Perhaps you have to read it.

Eric Linklater has rather faded from the scene.  If The Merry Muse is anything to go by, perhaps it is because, while his targets remain, his treatment of them has inevitably dated.


* Robert Burns apparently did secretly collect and write explicit verse published as The Merry Muses of Caledonia after his death.  Copies are very rare, and this furnishes the basis of Linklater’s plot.

2 thoughts on “The Merry Muse, by Eric Linklater (1959)

  1. Yes, I think Linklater was probably both paying off scores and including affectionate in-jokes here. There’s probably a nice little research project in unmasking all these people, if one had the time. I suspect for example that Compton Mackenzie (recently reviewed here) is included, as he and Linklater were apparently friends. One of Linklater’s sons wrote a biography of Mackenzie.

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