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House of Tides

Edinburgh, Polygon, 2000.

Publisher’s presentation

     White’s latest work is an extraordinary hybrid of intimate autobiography, social commentary, live literary theory, geopoetic field work, oceanic poem, quiet cultural manifesto, all rolled into one. He tells about life and work in his “Atlantic”, about neighbours, visitors, correspondents. About travelling to other parts of Brittany, towns and islands, where he meets up with the ghost of Celtic monks and Arctic fishermen, as well as those of bygone writers with whom he feels affinities. […] There is a deceptive artlessness here, an effortless voice that conceals a deep, unified purpose. This is dynamic, meditative writing that takes prose to the highest level.

     A few hundred yards down the road live the Thoravals. Monsieur Thoraval told me when I first met him that he was “17 – the wrong way round”. His is probably the longest memory in the district, his family has lived here for three centuries. […] At that first meeting, we were sitting in the Thoravals’ big room, which at one time was a bar. Through the big window to the South, you could see a good stretch of the Finisterrian coast, with an apple-tree hiding the Île de Batz. Thoraval told me that when you hear the pebbles rolling on the beach at Beg Leguer, it’s a sign of bad weather – same when the tide roars loud under a North wind on Lannion Bay. […] But most of the talk that day was about what Thoraval called le whisky de la mer (“sea-whisky”), that is, all those kegs of whisky that had been washed ashore in the winter of 1982 on the beaches of Trébeurden and Île Grande, and which the people had appropriated under the noses of the customs officers. Invited to sample it (“Yehed mad”, said Thoraval), I found it pungent stuff, slightly salty. It made Thoraval want to sing. Declaring that he had a voice “that could go through walls”, he proceded to demonstrate. He didn’t like modern songs, they were all too lovey-dovey : Je t’aime, je t’aime… He didn’t like the Marseillaise either, found it too nationalistic and bloody-minded. When they sang it at the Old Soldiers Club, he would keep his arse stuck to the bench, with his gub shut tight. He preferred Breiz ma bro, which, he said, had the same tune as the anthem of the Welsh. After singing a bit of this, we had more talk. The other day, old man Thoraval said, he and some pals were out gathering mussels on the Île Millau. After the fishing, they were, naturally, thirsty, so they went over to the café Les Roches Blanches. They were nattering away among themselves, when a couple at a neighbouring table, who turned out to be Swiss, put a question to them, which lead to the following conversation :
     “What language is that you’re talking ?”
     “Our mother tongue, naturally.”
     “And what is your mother tongue ?”
      “Oh, that’s a dialect of French, isn’t it ?”
     “No, to tell you the truth, French at its best is a dialect of Breton. French is what they talk in Paris. Breton is what they talk in paradise.”
     Once they’d got the linguistic question worked out to their totally unscientific satisfaction, they began talking about the weather, which happened at that moment to be very fine. The Swiss had always heard that the Bretons lived perpetually stooped under umbrellas.
     “Not quite, madam”, said Thoraval, “sometimes we even get sunstroke.”
     The Swiss were delighted to find such pleasant, sunburnt people.
     “Are all the Bretons like you ?”, they said.
     “No, I’m afraid not”, said Thoraval, “the others are better.”

Extract from the chapter “Neighbours”

     I spent a week there on Ushant (it seemed to get quieter with every passing day), in the company of stones, plants and birds : a prolonged silence interspersed with only a few minimal conversations. […] When St Pol Aurelian and St Gildas set foot on it and started raising crosses, if they experienced the kind of Indian Summer weather I did, they must have thought it was Paradise. I wouldn’t talk about Paradise, at least not too loudly (people talk about it, then do eveything they can to make anything like it impossible), all I can say is that these September days spent on Ushant, the time of a first reconnaissance, will stay in my mind like pages of sun, earth, sea and wind in a bible of the biosphere.

Extract from the chapter “September on Ushant”

House of Tides opens with an evocation of the Atlantic’s pervasive influence and continues in the ternary rhythm of thought and writing which structures his sentences, informs his ideas and impressions and makes each chapter come in like a wave. It is clear and light of touch but reverberates with depths of multiple meaning.
     Tony McManus, Scottish Affairs, n° 36.

House of Tides has in its subtitle the reference to “Letters” and of all the possible categories, if one must categorise […], “letters” is the most appropriate term. But what letters ! Confessional, anecdotal, literary criticism, philosophical reflection, travelogue, character sketch, antiquarian, cultural commentary, cartography, natural history, human history, guide, meditation […].
Kenneth White’s voice is always intimate, colloquial and relaxed ; he avoids grand generalisations and always focuses on particulars. There are many passages of delightful and memorable description, none of which burden the reader with an over-accumulation of facts.                                     
     John Hudson, Markings, issue 12.

In House of Tides, you will find “phrases that lift the mind into a kind of eternity”. You will really feel that you are “getting out on the roads, making acquaintance with the territory, seeing into the whole space” at the shoulder of a peerless guide and amiable companion. Each tale is a journey, an adventure, an exploration, a pilgrimage in quest of the primordial ever-renewing relationship between humanity, language and landscape.
This is more a vade mecum or pillow book than a conventional travel book. If geopoetics does its magical work, you will find yourself appreciating your own environment from a wider perspective […]. This man does not just love landscape, he enjoys intimacy with it ! So can you.
 Kenneth White’s books may not be fabulously scarce, but they sure are rare.
     Allan Levack, Scottish Book Collector, n° 27.

… one of the most rewarding books I have read in a long time, not least because it gave me reason to investigate White’s other writings.
The importance of White’s writing is that he does not write about this and that, but about this. And then he continues to write about this, in the clearest way that I have encountered.
     Angus Dunn, NorthWords, n° 26.