Tribute to Willie - by Allan Massie   

As Allan was unwell on the day of the Memorial, Willie's agent Jenny Brown read the following tribute on Allan's behalf:

It’s an honour to have been asked by the family -  Siobhan, Liam and Siobhan – to speak about Willie today, and to pay tribute to his life and work.

There are many here who knew Willie much better than I did. We met only occasionally, corresponded only occasionally. But there was liking and respect, a high regard on my side. If we had been French rather than Scottish novelists we would probably have addressed each other as “cher confrere”.

Cyril Connolly once said the writer should aim at a masterpiece, and nothing  else was worthwhile, or words to that effect. It’s not really true. Nevertheless any writer of quality does hope to write something good enough to be judged by the very highest standard and hailed as a masterpiece. Willie brought this off twice, which is remarkable, first with Docherty and then with The Kiln. Docherty won the Whitbread Prize in 1975, at a time when – it’s fair to say – Scottish fiction was not always highly regarded in London. He was still a teacher when he wrote it, and I find it astonishing that he should have had the intellectual and physical energy to combine such a demanding job with the writing of a novel of such scope and depth.

The second masterpiece, The Kiln , came twenty years later – after he had written the three Laidlaw novels which are, and may remain, his most popular work.

I gave The Kiln what is called “a rave review” in The Scotsman– and am proud to have done so. This is the first paragraph of what I wrote then.

“Ford Madox Ford says somewhere that imaginative literature is the only art which makes you feel and think at the same time . Many would dispute this, but there’s enough truth in the remark to make it worth carrying with you. It is the great strength of William McIlvanney’s new novel that on almost every page it offers matter for reflection and the sudden stab of emotion that comes from reading something that is truly evoked or created, something which has that quality of great art striking  you simultaneously as new-coined and yet also as if you had known it all your life, but never quite caught hold of it before..”

Twenty years on I wouldn’t dissent from that judgement or alter a word.

Willie was always concerned to explore moral or ethical questions. At the heart of his work – sometimes implicitly, but made explicit in The Kiln – is the question of how to reconcile your sense of what you owe yourself with your knowledge of what you owe to others. The existential self nevertheless has social obligations. Willie, like one of his favourite writers, Albert Camus,digs at this dilemma – but always digs elegantly as well as deep.

It goes like this. His narrator, Tam Docherty, living alone in a rented flat overlooking a graveyard, reflects that he “had seen the wilful control of anybody else’s life as immoral because it was an existential lie against your knowledge of your own weakness, your certain death”. But then “like the other side of the moon, there loomed up before him the converse of that principle. What of the point at which concern for others becomes erosion of the truth of self, denial of self-need?. He thought maybe he was lying now at that point…”

This question is at the heart of all his  work, because it’s at the heart of the life of any thinking and feeling person. It’s at the heart of the Laidlaw novels, and is one of the things which lifts them out of the common  run  of crime fiction – of any fiction indeed. I won’t speak about them because Val McDermid, one of our best crime novelists, will be offering her tribute. I’ll say only that the fellow-teacher who told Willie in a Glasgow bar that he had disgraced himself by turning to crime was talking nonsense.

But I would like very briefly to say something about his last novel Weekend. It came after a longish silence, and this sad and comic story of a university reading party weekend received less attention than it deserved. There’s a character in it,a  novelist who began  glitteringly, faded and is now embittered. He is granted some  sort of redemption in the course of the weekend, but  there is self-reproach in  the portrait, as if he was Willie’s shadow-self, or the self he feared he might have become if he had taken  a different fork in  the road at some  point in  his life’s journey. During the weekend he gives a talk on the story or myth of Oedipus, in which he says:

“What we have conceived of as humanity  is a state we aspire to constantly rather than one we live in.|For us, to live is to be endlessly conflicted…”  --- engaged, that is, in  a struggle we cannot win  but must never abandon.

I’ve said enough. There’s only this to add: Willie was a questioning writer but an affirmative one You feel better, may indeed be better, for having read him, and his work will last as long as men and women care for good writing. As Scots we may take a pessimistic view of the outlook for literature, but let’s pretend the glass is at least half-full .It will be a poorer Scotland – a poorer world – if the day comes when people no longer read Willie’s novels.

Allan Massie

From the William McIlvanney Memorial Service, 2nd April 2016