Friday, September 4, 2015

Sick Heart River by John Buchan

It was John Buchan's 140th birthday last week, and it's appropriate the day should have found me slowly meandering through his very last novel, the quiet, introspective, poignant and beautiful Sick Heart River.

Buchan died in February 1940, aged 64, following a stroke. He was the Governor-General of Canada at the time of his death, of course, and had recently signed Canada's declaration of war against Germany. According to George Grant, Winston Churchill responded by calling Buchan's death the most terrible loss of the whole war to date. The "Christian statesman par excellence" had passed on to the other side, but days before he left, he finished one last book to record just what he thought of it.

(It seems to me typical of Buchan's Scottish business sense and practicality that he should somehow have arranged to have completed his last novel, when so many authors--Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance, or PG Wodehouse--had to depart leaving unfinished business behind them. Not even Death, it seems, could catch Buchan napping.)

Sick Heart River is the fifth book in the Edward Leithen series. (The others are The Power-House, a novella that acts as a sort of spiritual precursor to The Thirty-Nine Steps; The Dancing Floor; John Macnab; and the very odd time-travel-ish tale The Gap in the Curtain). Sick Heart River finds Leithen now in his late fifties facing a terminal diagnosis of turberculosis. Leithen has enjoyed a dazzling career as eminent barrister, member of Parliament, Cabinet minister, and attorney-general--but with only months left to live, he leaves it all behind and takes up a whole new mission into the bleak arctic wilds of Canada. The friend of a friend, Francis Galliard, has gone missing in the North, and Leithen volunteers to find him and send him back, and so to die well, far away from the irking sympathy of his friends or the coddled atmosphere of the sick-room. But the North has some surprises in store for Leithen.

When I first read this book, I didn't appreciate it anywhere near as much as I did this time round. It is an extraordinary novel, full of the anticipation of death, valedictory of life. All of Buchan's books deal with danger, hardship, and adventure in the wilderness, but in this book, poised as it is on the threshold of death, everything becomes somehow harder, clearer, and sharper.

Sick Heart River is an outdoors tale, full of long hikes, mountaineering, hunting, and tracking in winter in the extreme North. Despite periodic bouts of illness, John Buchan himself was an avid and lifelong outdoorsman--and a particularly seasoned mountaineer. In fact, when the closing years of his own life took him to Canada, he couldn't have been happier having a whole new country to explore and climb up and ski down and shoot caribou in--resulting in worried letters from the King, who hoped he wasn't overdoing it at his age. Buchan was, in other words, a man who pushed his body hard and expected it to rise to whatever challenges he threw at it. His hero, Edward Leithen, has the same idea of the strenuous life--but now, with death approaching, he must now hike and climb and hunt with a body steadily decaying through time and sickness. There is a very keen sense throughout the novel of the departure of a certain physical glory. And yet Leithen's reaction to this is neither self-pity nor rest and ease. Rather, it is to keep going, and to die, if die he must, in a hollow in the snows rather than in a nursing-home. Buchan's philosophy of the strenuous life is nowhere more apparent.

Buchan is perhaps most famous as the inventor of spy fiction, but he was always willing to try something more introspective and thoughtful on occasion, and Sick Heart River is perhaps his most quiet and character-driven tale. The Canadian North itself seems to be the antagonist here. I should take a moment to say that Buchan employs some of his most beautiful and evocative writing to describe it.
A wave of icy air swept out the frowst, and Leithen found himself looking into a radiant world, rimmed with peaks of bright snow and canopied by a sky so infinitely far away that it had no colour except that of essential light.
JB does not get a lot of recognition for his writing style, which is rarely showy but always crystal-clear, measured, and elegant. Here, though, it is almost showy, and the result is not just a pleasure to read; it's so clear and so vivid that you feel like you've actually been there.

But lovely as it is, Buchan also imbues the North with a good deal of terror and awe. At first glance it seems cold and vast, cruel and pitiless, an immensity with no care for humanity. Throughout the book, the characters are tested and challenged by it. Francis Galliard, who has abandoned his Northern roots as a young man, is drawn back to it in an attempt to face and conquer it, but instead is frightened to madness by its power. The Indians, from Lew and Johnny Frizel, the half-Scots half-Cree guides to the Hare tribe suffering from pessimism, have an uneasy truce with the North--they are able to eke out survival by its suffrance, but they know it has the strength to crush them. Only Leithen finds the key to face the North without blinking. At first, it's that he is already dying, and therefore has no fear of what the North might do to him. But though that provides him with a certain stoic reserve of strength, it's unable to lift anyone else out of despair--until Leithen discovers something else. In one of the most uncharacteristically emotional passages I've ever read in Buchan, he has a sudden and staggering vision of the North as full, not of impersonal harshness, but of God's mercy and provision for large and small creatures.

Buchan uses the North as a symbol of life itself--"it's a great life, if you don't weaken", as Blenkiron says in Mr Standfast--and the fear of the North is described once or twice as accidie, the sin of apathy, or a despairing detachment from the duties of the world. The cure for this fear and despair is initially sought by Galliard and Lew Frizel at the hidden Sick Heart River itself, though they are disillusioned when they discover that the Sick Heart is even more inimical to life than anywhere else in the North. Rather, it's Leithen's vision of the tender mercies underlying creation that provides the cure--not just because it provides hope to counter despair, but also because it refocuses Leithen himself. The man who went into the wilds to get away from concerned friends and to die alone in stoic silence discovers that this is no longer an option. Instead, the vision drives him to spend his last hope of recovery in work, pulling a dying tribe of Indians back from the brink of extinction and demonstrating that the North can indeed be beaten.

No doubt I've only scratched the surface of this extraordinarily deep and thoughtful book. Sick Heart River is unlikely to win much acclaim these days; it's too character-driven to please the lowbrow, and too politically incorrect to please the highbrow. All the same, it's a beautiful book.

Find Sick Heart River on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg Australia.


Lady Bibliophile said...

This sounds like a beautiful book. I can't wait to read it. :)

Joseph J said...

Its certainly a fascinating, strange, and beautiful book. Buchan is such an odd combination of practical man-of-the-world Scotsman and emotional dreamer. This book is rather like a meandering dream actually. And considering it is the last book written by one of the most interesting men that ever lived, its theme of death and mortality is particularly poignant. God rest his soul!

I'm glad somebody of his calibre was able to grapple with the mystery of the Canadian wilderness. His meditation on the brutality and beauty of the North is helpful for coming to terms with it and its inherent contradictions. Hawaii may be like the garden of Eden, but perhaps harsh landscapes have their own unique positive characteristics and can call forth virtues in their inhabitants that would languish in an easier environment.

Suzannah said...

Schuyler, oh, yes, it's a beautiful book. Not one that can be read in a hurry, though.

Joseph, I love your assessment of Buchan! :) He certainly was an unusual blend of practicality and dreaming. And as a book about death written by someone who was actually dying, it takes on a whole new significance--you know Buchan himself has had to face the same physical disintegration in much the same landscapes.

Guh. Everyone should read this book. That is all.

Lisa S said...

I've never heard of this book, but you make me want to read it. When I read Rob Roy one of my thoughts was that Scott's descriptions of the highlands were just breathtaking. That crossed my mind when I read this review. And I love a good wilderness story. I'll be looking for this one. Thanks.

Suzannah said...

Lisa, oh, I love Rob Roy. I'm sure you'll enjoy this book!


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