Isle of Mull – The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre

Usually after I finish reading a book, I know exactly how I experienced it. Sentences and scenes can stay with me for days. With The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre I wasn’t sure of my ‘final judgement’. It was such a mixed bag. I thoroughly enjoyed some parts, but struggled with others. And it’s hard to summarise in a few lines what the book is about, which can be a good thing.

Ivor Punch is an old man and former policeman on a small island in the west of Scotland. He doesn’t speak much. But when he does, he throws in the word fuck every few lines, a habit that I found utterly annoying, because it made him come across as an imbecile, and it halted things, I didn’t see the point of it. But what Ivor does do really well, is write loads of letters (which, again, he peppers with countless fucks). The letters are revealing, touching and very true, and are the framework of the story. All those letters are linked to island stories, to the people who live(d) on it, including multiple Punch generations. Fiction and facts are liberally mixed up.

To me, the storyline that was head and shoulders above the others was about Henrietta Bird, the stay-at-home sister of the Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, her one moment of passion with one of the incommunicative Punch men and a visit from Charles Darwin (who is introduced as a kind of counterpart to the strong Christian faith on the island), who comes to Mull to officially reveal the new clock in Tobermory, but doesn’t quite make it on the day. I would have been really interested in reading more about these two sisters and Henrietta’s life on Mull; a subject worthy of its own novel.

An example of fiction mixed with fact is that the building of the clock tower in the harbour of Tobermory on Mull was indeed funded by Isabelle Bird in memory of her beloved sister Henrietta.

I loved it that the island is at the heart of the book. The relationship with the land and the sea, with all the things you can lose as an island. Many eccentrics inhabit the book. There is folklore, grief, disgrace, clifftop landscapes and  a headless horseman. As a non-islander I felt the magic of it, but also the oppression, the possibilities, the history you can only really understand if you or your family were part of it.

After finishing the book, I came across  the afterword – first published as an article in the Irish Times, called Mull of Colin MacIntyre; from stage to page. I read the book on an e-reader, so hadn’t really leafed through the book before I started, otherwise I may have read it first. And I wish I had , as it cleared many things up for me. I would have understood and perhaps appreciated the book more.

Here you can hear and see author Colin MacIntyre tell you a bit more about his debut novel.

Erik Orsenna – Deux étés



Erik Orsenna – Deux étés

Original title and publisher: Deux étés – Paris : Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997

The first sentence of Deux étés is made up of no less than 175 words. After reading it, I was somewhat discouraged and put it aside, at the bottom of my ‘must read’ pile. After a week or two, I picked it up again for a retry and found myself reading it in one go. And since then I can not help but wonder why this book was never adapted for the screen.

Place of action is an idyll : île de B., a Breton island,  ”deterring the clouds; they keep their distance, as if they’re attached to the mainland. An irresistible smooth sky, it must be the caress of a sidetracked Gulf Stream. Flora from different climates, aloes, mimosas, palm trees, a piece of Sardinia in in the middle of the Channel.” Orsenna’s visual and colourful language makes you experience the blue of the ocean, the green of the trees and the variegated flower splendour.

The plot is equally film-worthy: one day translator Gilles arrives at île de B. He escaped Paris, taking his 47 cats and his Remington with him and moves into an old island cottage. He is commissioned to translate Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, a hell of a job. But Gilles prefers dead writers to the complicated Nabokov; dead writers never interfere with his translations. Besides, the translator rather drinks wine and have lively discussions with the island vicar than sit down at his loyal typewriter.

Meanwhile in Paris, his publisher is becoming increasingly impatient and Gilles is bombarded with letters and personal messengers that are sent to île de B. To no avail. Until the summer arrives and the island is flooded with holidaymakers. Under guidance of Mme de Saint-Exupéry (indeed, a descendant of …)  they all do their bit and help to complete Ada.

The contemplative metaphors on the translator profession, the comical discussions with the publisher assistant from Paris and the poetic island views of the protagonist would have been perfect for the film scenario.

About the author: 

Erik Orsenna is the pseudonym of Eric Arnoult, a French politician and member of the Académie Française. The first-person narrator of Deux étés is Orsenna himself. His father’s family owned a holiday house on île de Bréhat where as a child he spent many memorable summer vacations. These memories have been woven into the novel. His website suggests that his love for the island has always remained.

Deux étés has not been translated into English. But in addition to the original French, you can read it in Dutch (Twee zomers) and German (Inselsommer).

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

To the lighthouse

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

The Hogath Press, 1927

What does one send to the Lighthouse? It opened doors in one’s mind […]

Woolf set her story about the holidaying Ramsay family on the isle of Skye. The Scottish island setting is distinctive – the weather, the sense of isolation, the sea, the vast and often inhospitable landscape – but there are no clearly recognisable landmarks. And the lighthouse is not a distinct Skye lighthouse, but was inspired by her own childhood memories of Godvery beach n Cornwall. Fans have no locations to trace.

So much has already been written about this gem of a novel; people have obtained their doctorate with a dissertation on its structure, symbols, hidden meanings. And when you take the time, To the Lighthouse will capture you and transport you the island of all childhood summers.

I first read it when I was still in high school, where the modernist classic was considered essential reading (meaning obligatory). As a teenager I was taken by the allure of the lightly connected sentences that seemed to mean much more than I could understand. Nothing was too obvious, it was all so inconclusive. The characters seemed very old-fashioned and vague. All that ado about not going to the lighthouse, and then going after all.

Thirty years later, for my visit to Skye this year, I read the book for a second time and it was like reaching a new destination. I now understood the lighthouse to be a symbol of unfulfilled desire, an unreachable destination. The quiet, profound love of Mr and Mrs Ramsay’s marriage says it all.

This novel about a family holiday to a far away island, in a time when not many people had the privilege to go on vacation, is essentially a group psychoanalysis of familie ties, braching off at friends, memories, time and death.

Read more about about  Skye on 2Islomaniacs.