4th August 2009

Weekend follows a group of Glasgow students and lecturers who head for a study weekend at the facility of Willowvale on the Scottish Island of Cannamore. Of course, study is only the espoused function of this trip, with the more manifest reasons, and the ones explored in this novel, being sex, belonging and self-affirmation through others. It tackles the human dilemna; how we are propelled by animal instincts, but are also given the gift of reason. This enables us to recognise those instincts, try to control them, and if this fails, regret our weakness in indulging them. Never one to resist a good metaphor, the author draws a comparison to the mystical half-human, half beast figure of Egyptian mythology, the Sphinx.

Initially hiding its considerable ambition, the novel starts relatively low key, almost positing itself as a romp as some Glasgow girl students discuss the pros and cons of the coming adventure. But this is William McIllvanney, and Weekend then builds layer upon layer, constantly beguiling the reader as it rises into something trancendental. While it’s arrogant and presumptuous of any critic to state as fact their opinion of a writer’s influences, it’s a safe bet that directly or indirectly, many Scottish writers owe a great debt to McIllvanney, who has left a substantial body of work over the later part of the last century. Weekend is his first novel of the 2000’s, and his first in a decade, ensuring this influence will continue.

To say the book was worth the wait is something of an understatement. Weekend stands comparison with anything else he’s done, and indeed, might just be McIlvanney’s finest hour. The amazing thing about this book is that it has the hunger, verve and freshness of a stunning debut novel. Indeed, Weekend’s point of focus, academia and its pretentions, is so removed from McIllvaney’s usual millieu of West Central Scotland working-class masculinity, it sometimes feels as if that’s exactly what it is.

Structurally, Weekend is probably his most complex novel, spinning around different points of view as the tales of various liaisons, most of them clandestine in nature, start to knit together. One of William McIlvanney’s greatest gifts as a writer has been the unerring humanity he manages to invest in his characters, even when they’re at their most desparate. In this book they’re more beautifully drawn than ever, illuminating our vanities, foibles and desires, and will resonate with everybody who has a pulse. In the interests of social stabilty, Weekend should be read by anyone who is, has or ever will, consider embarking on a break of this type.

The weekend of the title’s organiser, Andrew Lawson, is taking a break from looking after his striken wife. His joining with the vivacious but troubled Vikki Kane is both uplifting and desperate, full of tragic twists. But Lawson is an innocent; the real man pulling the strings at Willowvale is his colleague, the philandering David Cudlipp. He has a reductivist view of relationships and is in the process of upgrading his wife with his new girlfriend. His supposed devotion to this new mistress does not prevent him from getting together with Jacqui Forsyth, embittered after a recent break-up. She’s the sort of woman whom, back in the seventies and eighties, might have (misguidedly) shrilly condemned McIllvaney’s writings (along with just about everything else) as mysogynistic.

McIlvanney, in fact, shows a deep empathy with his female characters. It’s man who is labelled as the ‘three-legged slob’, while the women –often equally predatory- are generally given at least some complimentary higher motives to explain their behaviour. Most of the psychic woe falls on Cudlipp – a serial shagger who makes the mistake of getting emotionally involved, and therefore his come-uppance.

The novel’s dramatic sweeps and turns constantly wrong-foot the reader, no more so than when it’s narrator is finally revealed. And while setting up Willowvale as a haunted house might seem a cliche, its done with great skill and finesse, giving us a fine pay-off when the spectral force, to David Cudlipp’s disquiet, is revealed to be all20too human.

Perhaps the real moral centre of Weekend, though, is the visiting writer Harry Beck. Coming from a broken marriage and having various career humiliations visited upon him, it’s the raw scribe who provides much of the action and introspection. The rambling letter he recieves from a townswoman’s guild official, singularly unimpressed by Harry’s performance at a recent event, is extended comic genius. Also hilarious is the author’s deadpan send up of the ruminations some academics will deploy in order to cover all bases, until it all becomes meaningless, the point long lost. In fact, Weekend is generally a very funny book, veering deftly and seamlessly from playfullness to tragedy. I felt myself clenching uncomfortably at the painfully recognisable humiliations visited on the characters, then able to laugh at them, but always uplifted by their uncompromised humanity. It’s Harry Beck who becomes one of the most redemptative figures in the book. Up against the wall and under the cosh, he still finds the generosity of spirit to spectacularly right a wrong he visited upon a would-be protégé, the young rebel, Mickey Deans.

Mickey’s romance with teenage Kate, anxious to unbruden herself of virginity, is touching and well-observed, even if I had the persistent feeling that her first time might be a little more perfunctory than earth-shattering. However, she was looking for sex and found love, so one can perhaps forgive the romantic excess here. While we’re being picky, I was positive that I’d seen the shark-crocodille square-go joke appear in a previous work of William McIllvaney’s. But this is an occupational hazard for writers, who never look back through their old books. I blame the publishers myself.

2006 is been proving to be a year of spectacular vintage for the novel in Scotland. Alan Warner, Louise Welsh, Andrew O’Hagan and James Robertson have all produced book of the year contenders. Some of these writers were little more than children when William McIllvanney’s acclaimed debut Docherty first hit the shelves. After the success he has had over the years, just holding your own in that sort of company might be considered enough. Far from coasting along in the territory he’s mapped out for himself, however, McIlvanney’s still enjoying exponential growth as a novelist. And with this book; challenging, iluminating and thought-provoking, he’s audaciously right back at the top of the pile of fiction writers from these islands.


Originally featured in the Guardian.