Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

‘A River Runs through It’

The film by the name, ‘A River Runs through It’ (Redford 1992) is based on an autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, similarly titled ‘A River Runs through It and Other Storie’s (Maclean 2017; Kindle edition). He was the older brother in the Maclean family, living in Western Montana – one of the most beautiful states in America – and the narrative unfolds more or less between the end of the First World War and the advent of the Second World War. His father, John, married to Clara, their mother, is a Presbyterian minister and unlike his younger brother, Paul, who is quite wild and wayward by nature, Norman is academically inclined (although he is also intermittently a street fighter, like his brother, who excels at it, as he does at fly-fishing).

What makes the novella extraordinary is the literary fusion that Maclean – a retired professor of literature when he wrote it at the age of 74 – achieves between the spiritual and the natural, with a tragic thread running through the events comprising the lives of the Maclean family and those whose lives become intertwined with theirs. A significant theme traversing the narrative is the practice of fly-fishing in Montana’s Big Blackfoot River, which is likened to something sacred by the boys’ Presbyterian preacher father, John.

The sequences where Maclean describes how the boys are taught this delicate craft, or perhaps rather art, by their father and subsequently practice it with various degrees of dedication – where Paul turns out to be the better fly-fisherman of the two – are among the most evocative in American English literature. Small wonder that among American authors Maclean’s literary work is among the best loved by readers. Take this wonderful passage, for instance, where Norman describes his brother, the artist fly-fisherman, in action in a raging river (2017, location 429):

“Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him, big-grained vapour rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapour that they had to be retained in memory to be visualised as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was always there and always disappearing, as if he were candlelight flickering about three inches from himself. The images of himself and his line kept disappearing into the rising vapours of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun.”

One of the compelling themes of the novella is the artistic status that Maclean attributes to fly-fishing – from the first sentence, where one reads that: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” (2017, location 142), it is apparent that fly-fishing was elevated to the level of an art somehow connected with worship. Moreover, this art was not easy to accomplish, but if it was, it would bring the artist closer to ‘heaven’. This is intimated where Maclean writes (2017, location 188): “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

The title of the novella, which also features in the film narrative – “A River Runs Through It” – is a metonymy of the continuity that the text establishes between fly-fishing and ‘heaven’ (whatever one conceives that to be; in Lacanian psychoanalysis it is called jouissance), and Maclean captures this graphically in the last two paragraphs of the novella (2017, location 1713):

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood [A reference to, among other things, an ancient geological event in Montana; BO] and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

“I am haunted by waters.”

Part of the reason for this haunting is the fact that Norman’s tale recounts the tragic events in which his brother, Paul – the wild one – perishes, and although this is an autobiographical narrative, the character of Paul has all the attributes of a tragic hero in the literary sense, no doubt partly imparted to him by the literary reconstruction of his character by his brother. A tragic hero or heroine usually possesses a tragic ‘flaw’ of some kind (‘hamartia’, as Aristotle called it), and Paul is no exception. His headstrong personality, which refuses to back down even in the face of overwhelming odds, combined with his inability to resist the lure of gambling (for high stakes; even in his fly-fishing he does not hesitate to brave tumultuous waters to reach a good spot for casting), eventually leads to his downfall.

And Norman’s haunting by waters is simultaneously a haunting by the association of the powerful river with his brother’s power (and also his weakness), and by his melancholy awareness (expressed in the narrative) that, despite his best efforts, in the end he could not help his brother overcome his own tragic inclination.

The film, which deviates here and there from the novella, retains its spirit through the sensitive direction of Robert Redford, who (in the Foreword of the 2017 edition of the book by Maclean, containing the novella and other stories) recounts how he arranged to meet with Maclean to discuss the possibility of transferring his novella to film, knowing that it would be difficult to persuade the writer to grant his blessing to such an undertaking.

Although Maclean had never before given his blessing to such a request, apparently he and Redford came to see eye to eye about it, although he died before filming was completed. Redford confesses to doubting whether such an evocatively literary work could be transposed to film, but it turned out to be one of the more successful ventures of this nature, and the picturesque surroundings of Missoula, with its rivers and canyons, contributes to this in no mean visual measure.

The art exhibition by award-winning artist, Rachelle Hugo, which opens at Huis Paleis near Somerset-West (on the road to Stellenbosch) on the 27th of October, bears the same title as the novella and film discussed above, to wit, “A River Runs Through It”. One might ask what the connection is – a question that would be partly, but not fully, answered by the frequency with which river-scenery features in her paintings. A more satisfying answer has to do with the resemblance of her art to Maclean’s concluding remarks about ‘a river running through it’, where he intimates something ‘heavenly’ in the riverine landscapes of his and Paul’s fly-fishing.

The sheer art with which Hugo has crafted these beautiful (mostly landscape) paintings – which are set in South Korea, where the artist spent some time near the coastal city of Busan – powerfully reminds one of Maclean’s contention (attributed to his father the preacher), that “all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy”, except that here the ‘good thing’ is the intimation of jouissance (‘grace’ or ‘heaven’) in Rachelle Hugo’s art which, despite her youth, could not have come easily. And through her art fortunate viewers can share in the ‘grace’ imparted by them. If you live in the vicinity of Somerset-West or Stellenbosch, do yourself a favour and visit this exhibition; you will not regret it.

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