PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Some books are real surprise and this is one of them. What is at heart a detective story becomes in turn a love story, a tribute to friendship and courage, an ode to books and booksellers and to nineteenth-century literature. Perhaps strangest of all, Ohl clearly has an intimate knowledge of Islay and Jura, including the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, as well as of Edinburgh. The story is mainly set in the 1950s when Mary Guthrie, a brilliant English postgraduate from Islay, decides to write a doctoral thesis on Sir Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish author, mathematician and translator of Rabelais, who supported the Royalist cause in Scotland and then died in exile in 1660. The Urquharts – both present and past – play a leading role in the story, as does a renegade catholic priest, Ebenezer Krook, with whom Mary, rather improbably, has an affair. But against Krook’s unfolding family story, the most improbable events start to feel quite normal – even down to Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, who visited Jura regularly in the 1940s, being cast in a life-saver’s role. While researching her doctorate, Mary visits the Urquhart family’s crumbling home in Cromarty where the events of the Spanish Civil War, Sir Thomas Urquhart’s treasure, a Renaissance desk with a coded mechanism for opening its thirty-two drawers, not to mention servants whose nicknames are inspired by golf jargon and a voyeur maiden aunt are just some of the bizarre details invented by Ohl. For all its Gothic twists, this is a book filled with humour, acute observations of character and place, and literary citations worthy of a professional bookseller – Ohl’s other career. It has been flawlessly translated by Mike Mitchell in what deserves to become another of the latter’s award-winning works.
From rural Scotland to the backstreets of Edinburgh, The Lairds of Cromarty follows the stories of two characters whose lives are closely intertwined - Ebenezer Krook is a defrocked priest looking for clues about his missing father, while Mary Guthrie is a student researching an obscure 17th century writer. There is little to distinguish the narrative voices of Krook and Guthrie from each other, but a strong sense of place and a colourful cast of characters make for an intriguing journey.
ONE of the Black Isle’s most colourful characters, Sir Thomas Urquhart, the 10th laird of Cromarty, overshadows the lives of his 20th century descendents in a new novel from French author Jean-Pierre Ohl.
Sir Thomas’s own life reads like the stuff of fiction. Perhaps best known for his translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, he also put forward plans for a universal language, traced his family tree back to Adam and Eve, fought for the Royalist side in the Cicil War and, according to legend, died of a fit of laughter after learning of King Charles II’s restoration to the throne.
However. Ohl’s novel, The Lairds of Cromarty, is set not in Sir Thomas’s time but in the 1950s when young student Mary Guthrie becomes fascinated with the 17th century laird. Her researches take her to Cromarty where Sir Thomas’s (fictional) descendents are still living with his legacy.
Ohl, who recently visited Scotland to launch the book, told us how he came to write The Lairds of Cromarty.
How did you first hear of Sir Thomas Urquhart and what was it about him that made you decide to make him such a central figure in your novel?
I was 19 when I came to Scotland for the first time. To prepare my trip, I had read a book by Kenneth White, a Scottish poet settled in France. It wasn’t exactly a tourist guide, rather a cultural guide. Each part of Scotland was presented through a historical event or a character, and the north eastern character was Thomas Urquhart. And I was studying Rabelais at university. As soon as I came back, I wrote a short story on Urquhart: I was fascinated!
What is your view of Sir Thomas?
I’m not quite qualified to judge Urquhart’s significance as a writer: his style is not easy to grasp, and my English too poor.
But as far as I could find out, he was a kind of dilettantish genius, very similar to our Cyrano de Bergerac. Some of his intuitions about language sound so modern! He over-translated Rabelais’ work, which already was over-written! I loved his excess, his eccentricity. But what impressed me most was his amazing life — and death.
Whether his extraordinary death in a fit of laughter is legend or truth doesn’t matter. The point is that Urquhart could have inspired such a legend. He was perfect as a novel’s character. I had him in mind that when I wrote The Lairds of Cromarty.
Why did you choose the 1950s setting for the novel — and what prompted the cameo appearance from George Orwell?
A main character of The Lairds of Cromarty, Krook, already made an appearance in my first novel (Mr. Dick or The Tenth Book, Dedalus, 2008) as a secondary one: a Scottish defrocked catholic priest, settled as a bookseller in Bordeaux in the 1970’s.
A lot of readers were particularly fond of him, so I decided to "upgrade" him — and I imagined what his youth could have been. This became The Lairds of Cromarty. While I was writing, I heard about Orwell’s stay on Jura at the end of the 1940’s.
Orwell means a lot to me: he may not be as great a novelist as Dickens or London are, but he is definitely as clever, sharp and generous as them. I think we do need him for us to reconsider 20th century history. Besides, he allowed me to introduce history in my novel through the Spanish Civil War.
Did you visit the Black Isle to research the book?
I think settings are very important, so, while I was writing The Lairds, I went to Scotland three times.
In 2005, I visited Cromarty, which is a lovely place. Its "sleepy" look was perfectly suited perfectly to greeting such an eventful story and I was lucky to discover Urquhart’s automaton in the museum, which plays a certain part in the novel — I’ll say no more about it!
The following year, I stayed on Islay, just above the Caol Isla distillery, in the very place where Mary Guthrie, the other main character, lives in the novel.
And eventually, in 2007, I went on a pilgrimage to Jura and Barnhill Farm, the place where Orwell had written 1984 — how moving! — and then up to Corryvreckan. I was deeply impressed by Jura. Beside Edinburgh, Islay and Cromarty, it is the fourth important location of my novel.
The book has a different title in the French version. Are there major differences between the English and French versions?
The original French title was Les Maîtres de Cromarty, and the name of Urquhart was quoted. But my French publisher was afraid of some very unlikely (legal) proceedings because in the novel Urquhart’s descendants are not exactly the kind of people you’d care to associate with. So, Cromarty became Glenmarkie, and Urquhart Lockhart. English translation restores the former version, and it is for the best.
By the way, I want to apologize if I cause any concern to the Urquhart family! I have great respect for their ancestor. In the novel, all the Urquharts except him are pure fiction, and so is the castle.
The book is full of literary references. As a novelist and bookseller yourself, who are your own literary heroes and who would you most like The Lairds of Cromarty to be compared to?
The French title pays tribute to Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae. I dare say that Stevenson and Dickens are my masters. The name of Guthrie comes from A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon — probably the more extraordinary female figure of modern British literature. I’m also a huge fan of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and I have read recently The Sound of My Voice, by Ron Butlin: a masterpiece!
As you see, I’m keen on everything coming from Scotland, including whisky, shortbread — and rugby. When "les Bleus" don’t play, I’m supporting Scotland!
Any plans on returning to the Highlands?
As soon as possible! Maybe next summer.
Any future writing plans you can share with us and is Scotland a setting you might re-visit?
That’s already done! My third novel, published in French last August, is set on a Scottish island…
Frenchman Ohl fashions an atmospheric and convincingly Scottish whisky-steeped novel in intertwining several stories and paths. Ranging from various isles to the (remains of) the Urquhart estate (complete with secret passages) and more cosmopolitan Edinburgh, and populated with a set of appealingly odd characters (and the occasional apparition), The Lairds of Cromarty is an enjoyable multilayered literary puzzler that works on its several levels -- from plain treasure hunt (the desk and its mysteries) to literary-historical mystery. Thoroughly bookish, it's a nice homage to several writers and many books (as, for example, Jack London's Martin Eden plays an important role), but Ohl also nails the locales.
Good fun, and cleverly done.
The Lairds of Cromarty presents us with a thoroughly engrossing mystery as well as an intriguing collection of supporting characters such as Par the butler, or Mary's Aunt Catriona, who watches the citizens of Edinburgh through a telescope, exclaiming loudly at their behaviour. There's even a cameo by George Orwell, for reasons we won't go into here. An absorbing page-turner that defies all attempts to put it down.
If this were merely the tale of the hunt for the lost treasure of the Urquharts, carried out by an odd assortment of characters, it would hold the reader's attention with its brain and wit We have Mary Guthrie, who having, inexplicably, slept with Ebeneezer Krook, a Catholic priest, decides to write her PhD on Thomas Urquhart and travels to Cromarty House, the disintegrating ancestral home, to discover rum goings-on and a 32-drawer desk which slowly reveals its contents using codes. Meanwhile, the priest, now defrocked, is taken up by a group of friends interested in the Urquhart legacy for reasons dating back to the Spanish Civil War because, unknowingly, he holds the key.
Yet Jean-Pierre Ohl gives us much more. The French bookseller from Bordeaux is in love with the Victorian novel and, while his setting is the 1950s, he offers us a pastiche including chapter headings such as 'In which the reader visits Urquhart House and makes acquaintance of its bizarre inhabitants'.
Ohl has called the British relationship with novels unique ' in which the pleasure of narratives is never absent -a long way from the intellectualism which too often characterises French literature'. So while giving his story of secret passages, identical twins and debauched Scottish aristocrats, he adds layers of ruminations on love, death and anything in between.
Mike Mitchell's translation has depth and reach, with Ohl, he creates the density of a Victorian novel, but leavened constantly as the disparate parts of the complicated plot are pulled together. This wonderful, humorous , book should be displayed in all good bookshops.
Jean-Pierre Ohl's The Lairds of Cromarty (Dedalus) is a bulging carrier bag of a novel, a bibliophilic jeu d'esprit, containing the best literary rugby match since Tom Brown's Schooldays, a homage to the International Brigades and a convoluted love story.