Alex Massie

We’ll have all the Tunes of Glory...

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It all depends where you are coming from I suppose. Tyler Cowen flags up this Observer survey of forgotten, under-rated or generally neglected novels.

And we're immediately in an odd, odd place. Will Self selects Alasdair Gray's Lanark. Well, you can call Lanark many things but given that Anthony Burgess (albeit absurdly) said it was the best novel to come out of Scotland since Sir Walter Scott was in his pomp, under-rated hardly seems to be the most apt description.

That's not the only odd Caledonian contribution however. Iain Rankin nominates James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Rankin claims only writers read it, yet - Burgess notwithstanding - it's frequently taken to be the finest novel ever written by a Scot. And given that it is taught in schools and universities can it really be said to be forgotten? Indeed, if you were to choose a nineteenth century Scottish book to make the list, you might choose Stevenson's Weir of Hermiston which, though unfinished, was shaping to be his masterpiece. As with Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon what we have left merits reading; what we've lost, grieving.

Personally, I'd have chosen another Scottish novel. James Kennaway's Tunes of Glory. Though it has been reissued as a Canongate Classic I'd hazard that few people have come across it. Indeed, according to Amazon.co.uk it isn't one of the 100,000 most popular books in the UK. I daresay more people have seen the (splendid) film adaptation starring Alec Guinness and John Mills. (Kennaway wrote the screenplay himself).

Indeed Kennaway is sufficiently obscure these days that he does not even have his own Wikipedia page. So it was nice to see him getting some recognition (along with Simon Raven) in The Spectator last week.

So what's so good about Tunes of Glory? Well I'll leave that for you to discover for yourself, but suffice it to say that the story of the conflict between the Sandhurst-educated new colonel of a Highland regiment and his predecessor Jock Sinclair, who having risen through the ranks resents being supplanted now the war is over, retains a freshness and a capacity to move 50 years after it was published. It's by turns tender and horrifying; intimate yet grotesque. A gripping portrait of an institution but also an examination of what war can do to a man and how, one way or another, the fragility of our expectations of ourselves can culminate in our destruction.

It's not a remarkable Scottish novel or a very fine army novel; it's just a splendid novel. Well worth discovering for yourselves.

So, what are your nominations for unjustly neglected or forgotten novels?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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