Tim Robinson first moved to Aran, an island 8 miles long and 2 miles wide, located just off the west coast of Ireland, near Galway Bay, in 1972. He wrote his first book on the island, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage
which recounts his walk around the island's perimeter, with, for sure, plenty of diversions. I have previously reviewed "Pilgrimage" at Amazon, and said, in part that: "He ranges over disciplines as varied as cosmology, geology, botany, sociology, history, linguists, economics, anthropology and literature." At first glance, one would believe that one book on such a small island would be sufficient. But no, Robinson has so much more to say in "Labyrinth," as he examines the island's interior. One aspect is the subject sentence, for he is documenting a vanishing way of life. Elegies unawares relates to his description of Evelyn's shop, the last one on the island, and he notes that he no sooner described it than she retired, and the last shop closed.
"Bad reviews" can often provide the motivation for reading a book, even more than good ones. Robinson includes a bad review of "Pilgrimage" in "Labyrinth," which is written from the point of view of some impossible academic twit, who objects to Robinson's "polymath" generalist approach to knowledge, as opposed to the "rigors" of narrow specialization. The review reeks of condescension: "Such failings are only to be expected; a multidisciplinary study demands the modesty of teamwork, and the best that can be said of Robinson's attempts is that he manages to fall between more professorial chairs than most amateurs." Or, "Striding roughshod over the bounds of specialisms and genres, it seems to imply that some overarching meaning of it all is going to be revealed... Robinson ends up being nothing in particular." Of course, one assumes that the review is not apocryphal, but even if it is, Robinson captures the essence of the academic specialists proudly defensive of their turf against the generalist.
Robinson "nailed" the tourist also, of a particular nationality, who came to the island, and said: "We would like to see something, if there is anything to be seen!" Robinson retorts: "That what was to be seen was exactly this grudging parceling-out of barrenness, was more than I could explain."
As in "Pilgrimage," Robinson's prose and insights continue to dazzle. Consider: "Time, in such places as London, is a disease of the wristbone; one see sufferers glance anxiously at the glittering lump. I had come to Aran to escape the infection, and bitterly resented its outbreak here." Or: "The sun, on a rococo stage of lavishly gilded cirrus, was retiring with the bravura of a diva well practiced in farewell performances." And then he goes on to give a concise and accurate description of "the green flash" at sunset. Or: "If one waits by the well until the turbidity of the mind settles, then the scratching of a bramble stirred across the rock gives one ground to stand on..."
Robinson concludes the book on a typically strong, yet self-deprecating note: "The virtue of reality is that no understanding is equal to it; no walk, however labyrinthine, wears out the stone... Perhaps when I open it (his book) in seven year's tome it will tell me what I had hoped to learn by writing it, how to match one's step to the pitch and roll of this cracked stone boat of a cosmos; but for the time being I cannot read it."
Robinson has written another masterpiece. Kudos to the New York Review Books Classics for re-issuing it.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on September 14, 2009)