Allan Massie Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Singapore in 1938. Education: Glenalmond College, Perthshire; Trinity College, Cambridge. Awards: Niven award, 1981; Scottish Arts Council award, 1982, 1987; Society of Authors travelling scholarship, 1988. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature.
Change and Decay in All Around I See. London, Bodley Head, 1978.
The Last Peacock. London, Bodley Head, 1980.
The Death of Men. London, Bodley Head, 1981; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
One Night in Winter. London, Bodley Head, 1984.
Augustus: The Memoirs of the Emperor. London, Bodley Head, 1986; as Let the Emperor Speak, New York, Doubleday, 1987.
A Question of Loyalties. London, Hutchinson, 1989.
Tiberius. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.
The Hanging Tree. London, Heinemann, 1990.
The Sins of the Father. London, Hutchinson, 1991.
Caesar. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993; New York, Carroll & Graf, 1994.
These Enchanted Woods. London, Hutchinson, 1993.
The Ragged Lion. London, Hutchinson, 1994.
King David. London, Sceptre, 1995.
Uncollected Short Stories
"In the Bare Lands," in Modern Scottish Short Stories, edited by Fred Urquhart and Giles Gordon. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1978.
Muriel Spark. Edinburgh, Ramsay Head Press, 1979.
Ill Met by Gaslight: Five Edinburgh Murders. Edinburgh, Harris, 1980.
The Caesars. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983; New York, Watts, 1984.
A Portrait of Scottish Rugby. Edinburgh, Polygon, 1984.
Colette. London, Viking, and New York, Penguin, 1986.
101 Great Scots. Edinburgh, Chambers, 1987.
Byron's Travels. London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1988.
The Novelist's View of the Market Economy. Edinburgh, David Hume Institute, 1988.
Glasgow: Portrait of a City. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1989.
The Novel Today: A Critical Guide to the British Novel 1970-1989. London, Longman, 1990.
Editor, Edinburgh and the Borders: In Verse. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.
Editor, PEN New Fiction 2. London, Quartet, 1987.
* * *
Allan Massie occupies a curious place in Scottish letters. As a journalist and political commentator he embraces the politics of the conservative new right; in newspaper columns and elsewhere he has espoused the economic dogma of Margaret Thatcher (the British prime minister between 1979 and 1990), yet he is also a novelist of rare talent whose sympathies belong to the corrupted and the downtrodden, whatever their rank in society. All too often his critics are confused by the apparent contradictions between his public and his private face. In fact, a key to his thinking can be found in his novels about the emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Like Robert Graves before him, Massie uses the Roman world as suitable material with which to reconstruct the lives of these two very different men but then he goes a step further. In both he finds something of the loneliness of power and the constant battle between a temptation to use it for good or as a diabolic agency which can only corrupt and destroy. A recurring theme in both novels—parts of a planned trilogy—is the realisation that for rulers to do nothing is an evasion of responsibility yet action itself creates the possibility of doing wrong.
The idea is taken a stage further in A Question of Loyalties which takes a sympathetic view of the confusion of political ideologies in the establishment of Vichy France in 1940. Although this novel is rich in historical detail and contains real-life characters like Petain and de Gaulle, Massie's real concern is with the moral corruption of Lucien, the main character and a force behind the creation of a Vichy government. His life is recalled by Etienne his son and the action swings across Europe and between the modern world and the events of World War II as the moral ambiguities in both men's lives become ever apparent. It is an inventive and intellectually satisfying novel.
When Massie's first novel, Change and Decay in All Around I See, was first published, comparisons were made with the young Evelyn Waugh. The analogy was not fanciful. Atwater, the central character would feel equally at home in the flawed world of Decline and Fall, and the wasteland of 1950s London created by Massie is a timeless city in which social and spiritual life has slumped to a new ebb. The theme of things falling apart is explored further in The Last Peacock, a sensitive comedy of manners set among the Scottish landed gentry. Massie returned to Scotland in his fourth novel, One Night in Winter, but it is a very different country from the place he previously portrayed. Whereas his earlier preoccupations had been social, Massie plunged into the world of Scottish nationalist politics. Dallas Graham looks back from his middle-class London middle age to the years of his young manhood in Scotland when he found himself drawn into a bizarre coterie of nationalists and their fanatical camp followers. A murder lies at the heart of the novel, but Massie's theme is the tragedy of overweening ambition and flawed motives. Fraser Donnelly, a self-made man who espouses political nationalism, has his career ruined when fantasy overcomes his sense of reality, but Massie's concern seems to be less with the murder which Donnelly commits than with the effect it has on young Graham. In that sense, Donnelly's rise and fall seem to mirror the imperfect political ambitions of those who take up the cause of nationalism.
Political nationalism of a different kind also informs Massie's best novel to date, The Death of Men. In this modern parable of terrorism and politics, the scene is set in Rome in the summer of 1978, a period of political instability in Italy. Corrado Dusa, senior minister in the ruling Christian Democratic Party and a leading proponent of resolving the crisis of dissent and violence permeating his country, is mysteriously kidnapped, and a tangled series of political trails leads to the involvement of his son in the kidnap. At this point in the novel there are echoes of the uneasy relationship between Lucien and Etienne in A Question of Loyalties.
The action is based loosely in the events surrounding the real-life kidnap and murder of the Italian politician Aldo Moro in 1978, but it would be misleading to draw too many parallels between The Death of Men and those real events; neither would it be accurate to describe Massie's novel as a roman à clef. Writing with great assurance, Massie transforms the style into a fast-moving thriller, building up to a conclusion which, however expected it might be, is still cleverly handled. His gallery of characters all play expected roles and the Italian background is expertly and lovingly described: there are few better pictures of life in the inner city of modern Rome. And in the near distance Massie keeps open his moral options. Terrorism is roundly condemned, but he never loses sight of the question which is central to its occurrence: what are the political conditions which bring it into existence?