Salar the Salmon - Critical reception

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

The book attracted a large number of reviews; inevitably many are repetitive, as they give the story line.

 

The first notices appeared ahead of publication:

 

Daily Mirror, 26 September 1935:

 

salar review mirror

 

Observer, 13 October 1935:

 

Those who know “Tarka the Otter” know also that Mr. Williamson is a born observer of rivers. To these powers of observation we owe “Salar the Salmon” which Faber’s publish on Thursday [17 October].

 

Sketch, 16 October 1935:

 

salar review sketch

 

Yorkshire Post, 16 October 1935:

 

salar review yorks

 

Glasgow Herald, 17 October 1935:

 

This is the work of a man who knows the life of moor and stream as well as he knows his craft of writing. It is a fascinating study of the habits of creatures which live in and around the river of the West Country . . . The most successful feature of the story is that it makes the reader aware of the salmon as an organism experiencing the tide of life flowing by it . . .

 

We are introduced to Salar five years old and over twenty pounds in weight, a she is coming into the estuary of the Two Rivers after his yearly sojourn in the cleansing ocean. He is menaced by porpoise, grampus, lamprey, hagfish, eel, otter, heron, owl, by anglers and poachers, by polluted water and ebbing flood . . . after his life’s purpose is fulfilled for the last time, he yields to the disease which threatens every salmon during its freshwater stay. . . .

 

The Times Literary Supplement, 17 October 1935 (11-inch column):

 

Mr. Williamson here does for the salmon what he did for the fish’s deadliest foes in “Tarka the Otter” eight years ago. He weaves a searching and comprehensive knowledge of the life-history and habits of the fish into a tale which for absorbing interest leaves behind many a romance of human character. . . . [Goes through various incidents and characters involved.]

 

Among these stands out the picture of old Shiner – a masterly study – once a prince of fish thieves, cunning in every nicety of his craft, now a jobbing gardener . . . sympathetic watching of its ways, but with enough of the old Adam to be capable of cheating a poaching gang out of their haul.

 

Mr. Williamson’s handling of scientific facts . . . is deep [etc.] but is seldom allowed to interfere with the run of the vivid narrative. But in a few places . . . we are perilously near to those controversies which are not yet altogether stilled by recent investigations.

 

Evening Standard (Howard Spring), 17 October 1935:

 

salar review standard

 

Daily Mirror, 18 October 1935:

 

Salar review mirror2

 

The Times, 22 October 1935:

 

salar review times

 

Evening Chronicle & Evening World (Dr J. M. Bullock), 25 October 1935:

 

Books of the Week [large column but little to say]

[Four of the books concern the Stuarts & Mary Queen of Scots – possibly history was Dr. Bullock’s subject. Re Salar the Salmon, after opening remarks: ] Mr. Williamson gets into the very skin of Salar – which means the leaper . . . It is a wonderful, vivid, and even moving book.

 

Yorkshire Post (L. A. G. Strong), 23 October 1935 (large 7”x 11” column with lots of interest):

 

A PHILOSOPHER AND A MYSTIC

Puritan Ideas and the Habits of a Salmon

 

[Mainly reviewing The Last Puritan by George Santayana (Constable, 8s 6d) & Salar the Salmon by HW] Santayana (1863-1952) gets pride of place for his (only) novel (it is a philosophical idea novelised). The hero, incidentally, goes numbly through the Great War and is killed in a motor accident after the Armistice. One can see the connections being made in Strong’s mind.]

 

Mr. Henry Williamson is a mystic, in that he had never once lost sight of the oneness of Nature. Where the vast majority of writers celebrate the human race, Mr. Williamson celebrates life. In [this book] Mr. Williamson has a subject perfectly fitted to his perceptions and his powers. Every statement in this book, even the lightest, is the result of long and passionate observation.

 

This story will delight countrymen and naturalists, but it will delight even more those who have in their make-up a touch of Mr. Williamson’s own. They will apprehend in him a perfect sympathy for [all the various characters and incidents – especially old Shiner].

 

Grimsby Evening Telegraph, 25 October 1935:

 

. . . Mr. Williamson found Salar in the waters of the estuary of the Tor [sic] and Torridge, and follows him in his devious wanderings. There are excitements wilder than those in a novel about human beings. Salar is an adventurer, a hero, and a survivor of many perils. . . .

 

Aberdeen Press & Journal, 25 October 1935:

 

. . . In this book he has made of Salar’s life an odyssey. With the language of a poet he has immortalised his wanderings . . . Into the story are packed all the known facts about salmon . . . Salar’s story is [moving and true] . . . It is fact clothed in beautiful garments fashioned as a labour of love by one of the finest craftsmen of today.

 

Evening Telegraph & Post (Dundee), 26 October 1935:

 

[Resumé of story-line etc.] . . . Quickening the whole story is the restless purpose of nature, driving Salar to the shallow stream where a new cycle of life is set in motion. Mr. Williamson conveys the grandeur and tragedy of it all in the language of a poet.

 

Manchester Evening News, 26 October 1935:

 

. . . It seems a remarkable task to set the hand to . . . here are the perils by which it is beset, and the joys which it must surely experience, woven into a book which holds the interest like a novel. . . . it is also a book about a river, and the author has poured into his pages an extreme knowledge of its moods and the life in and around it.

 

Shooting Gazette, 26 October 1935 (First mentions Silver: the Story of an Atlantic Salmon by R. L. Haig-Brown for comparison):

 

“Salar the Salmon” is a great deal more than the bare story of a salmon, It is an absorbing and revealing study of the happenings in, on, and above a West Country stream. Accurate observation of details, amazingly clever descriptive powers and creative ingenuity beyond the ordinary, have enabled Mr. Williamson to produce a brilliant and arresting composition, which will rank high among the best books of this generation. [Then goes through the story-line.] “Salar the Salmon” will appeal to a far wider circle than . . .

 

John O’London’s Weekly, 26 October 1935:

 

[Shortish item – opening ‘Eight years since Tarka etc.] Mr. Williamson refuses to humanize the non-human creature [as many do to their detriment] . . . We can only be grateful for the exquisite telling of a fascinating tale.

 

Current Literature, November 1935 (quirky!):

 

salar review current

 

Cambridge Daily News, 6 November 1935:

 

All lovers of wild life . . . a worthy companion to [Tarka the Otter] . . . the author is a great, patient, naturalist . . . the book is not only a monument to painstaking observation, but a wonderful example of knowledge and understanding . . . [followed by the story-line]

 

Herts and Cambs Reporter (Royston), 8 November 1935:

 

I can think of no one author whose books have consistently given me pleasure as have those of Mr. Williamson, both a naturalist and a literary man . . . [who] stands in a class by himself. [Story-line] . . . The book holds one in its grip as much as the most moving ‘human document’ . . . [This reviewer then moves to the Santayana novel.]

 

Sunday Times (Robert Hartman), 10 November 1935 (8½-inch column):

 

“Salar the Salmon” is the work of an all-seeing naturalist who is also a writer of very great merit, and the book is in every way a worthy follower of “Tarka the Otter”. [Story-line] . . .

 

The exploits of Shiner the poacher and his subsequent reformation contribute delightful pages to this fascinating and instructive tale.

 

It is to be regretted that the map which forms the end papers of the book is not a better one. It has no scale and many places mentioned in the story are not marked on the map. . . . The wrapper design by C. F. Tunnicliffe deserves a special word of praise.

 

Observer (Basil de Selincourt), 10 November 1935 (5 x 11-inch column):

 

NATURALISING WITH A DETECTIVE

 

[The review roams around the idea of science versus art (by which this writer means literature) and cites Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as the most original artistic creation of late. Science deals with temporary, art with enduring truths.]

 

. . . Mr. Williamson, for romantic purposes, knows rather too much [about salmon] . . . the book cannot compare with “Water Babies”.

[De Selincourt brings in Blake and Swinburne – but more to show off than really say anything useful.]

 

There is too much science in “Salar the Salmon”; there is rather too much craft as well. . . . Nevertheless when all is said, his book is one to brood and pore over, because it is packed with a poet’s observations . . . Shiner is adorable . . . [Not quite the best descriptive word to use?]

 

The Scotsman, 11 November 1935:

 

Mr. Williamson is a fine naturalist with a special knowledge of rivers, their inhabitants and visitors. All know this who have read “Tarka the Otter”: some will prefer “Salar the Salmon” . . . [Story-line]

 

Naturalists, anglers, and many others will rejoice in this singularly engrossing book, because the author not only knows the life-story of salmon, but he knows how to tell it.

 

Oxford Times (A.P.D.), 15 November 1935 (9-inch column):

 

. . . It is unnecessary to report that Mr. Williamson stands alone as a writer of books of this sort. . . . Now instead of the otter we have his prey the salmon, the uncrowned king of fishes [with its mysterious and romantic life history] . . . [Story-line] . . .

 

So Mr. Williamson tells us the story of Salar, with its joys and troubles, pleasures and dangers . . . in phrases that surprise the reader by the sudden realisation of their truth. . . .

 

Sunday Mercury, 17 November 1935 (succinct!):

 

salar review mercury

 

Manchester Guardian (A.W.B.), 19 November 1935 (10-inch column):

 

. . . Mr. Williamson, who, perhaps alone among modern writers, is capable of doing justice to such a subject. [Notes that descendents of Tarka have a place in this tale of Salar] . . .

 

No lover of the country can fail to be thrilled by this new history. [Story-line] The author has the power given to few of seeing life from the point of view of the animals he describes . . .

 

The author introduces a delightful character in old Shiner . . . whose compassion is the last thing encountered by the old sick fish. He brings into the tale a note of pity which contrasts with the ruthlessness of nature . . .

 

Birmingham Post, 19 November 1935 (10-inch column):

 

. . . When Mr. Williamson proceeds from observation to imagination, from natural facts to spiritual interpretations, then some [check their step] . . . [But] to most readers it is the tale that matters and here is a fascinating one . . .

 

Liverpool Daily Post (C.V.C.), 28 November 1935:

 

salar review liverpool

 

Daily Telegraph (E. W. Hendy), 29 November 1935 (9-inch column):

 

[First compares Salar against Tarka.] . . . However . . . there can be little doubt that “Salar” is a salmon epic. [Story-line, and as an ornithologist, notes a few small bird-fact errors] . . . But these are slight blemishes to one who chooses books for their literary qualities. Such a one will place “Salar” alongside “Tarka”.

 

St Martin’s Review (E.W.H.), December 1935:

 

The story of “Salar” the Leaper . . . is indeed a fairy tale, as adventurous and perilous as any saga. The author has spent many hours obtaining his facts but these are but the canvas upon which the picture is painted. It is the imagination of the poet and artist which fascinates and delights. . . .

 

Property Owners’ Gazette, December 1935 (seems a rather bizarre source!):

 

salar review property

 

Cornhill Magazine, December 1935:

 

salar review cornhill

 

Railway Service Journal, December 1935:

 

salar review railway

 

Yorkshire Herald, 5 December 1935:

 

salar review yorkshire

 

The Bulletin and Scots Pictorial (Glasgow), 5 December 1935:

 

. . . a nearly always absorbing tale, the fact is its narrative power does flag sometimes. . . . he is apt now and again to overload his narrative with description which is a little tedious . . .

 

Irish News, 9 December 1935:

 

In writing – as only he can do it – the life story of a salmon, Mr. Henry Williamson has given us a new literary creation . . . [his] way of using facts differs as much from the naturalist as poetry differs from prose. Perhaps it is partly a matter of feeling . . .

 

[Re Shiner’s murmured words to Salar] They are an expression of Mr. Williamson’s own deeper feeling, shown in everything he writes. . . .

 

There is something tragic and deeply mysterious in the instinct which sends the salmon leaping up the long reaches of the fresh-water rivers to the salmon spawning pools . . .

 

Mr. Williamson has given us a new knowledge of the life of nature.

 

Evening Standard (date unreadable):

 

[Usual comments & story-line] . . . The publishers are right in claiming that here we have a rare combination: the observations of the naturalist recorded by the talent of the novelist.

 

Fishing Gazette, 21 December 1935:

 

salar letter fishing

 

Methodist Recorder, 19 December 1935:

 

. . . many gem-like portraits, almost poetry though prose . . . we found it impossible to lay the book down till the whole was told.

 

Everybody’s Weekly, 28 December 1935 (manages to make the story sound quite sensational!):

 

salar review everybody

 

Sunday Referee (Hal Brading), 29 December 1935 (large item, 9½” across, 11” deep, plus a photograph of salmon: not so much a review as a pastiche):

 

SALMON POACHER’S WIFE BLUFFS THE BAILIFFS

 

In the West-End of London, English salmon cost around £3 apiece. Yet every year thousands of home-caught salmon are sold for a mere song. . . . Poaching.

 

This article retells HW’s tale of the salmon hidden under the poacher’s wife’s skirts but in the reviewer’s own way: it is quite amusing but too long to reproduce here.

 

HW wrote regularly for the Sunday Referee at this time. Some of the articles were incorporated by HW into The Linhay on the Downs (1934); the remainder have been posthumously collected and published as The Notebook of a Nature Lover, (HWS 1996; e-book 2013), illustrated by Mick Loates, who illustrated the 1987 Webb & Bower edition of Salar.)

 

New English Weekly (Paul Beard), 9 January 1936 (Among other books compares Salar particularly with Sajo and her Beaver People by Grey Owl):

 

Both writers are accurate with an accuracy based on deep love. . . . “Salar the Salmon” is immeasurably the better book. Grey Owl writing in a language not his own . . . [Grey Owl, a Canadian conservationist, presented himself as a member of the First Nations; the fact that he was actually English-born had not been revealed at that time. That is the only comment made on Grey Owl’s book.]

 

Mr. Williamson projects an extraordinarily complete and cohesive picture of the animal world to the service of which every possible ounce of scientific observation and imaginative vision are devoted . . . In supple, exact and graceful language his story moves steadily to its most moving crescendo . . . the portrait of old Shiner with its tender immemorial quality at once takes its place alongside Will Wimble and Hardy’s yokels. Away from the world of moral perplexities, Mr. Williamson sustains his touch faultlessly and nothing seems more likely than a future appearance in Everyman’s Library of a volume containing Tarka, Salar, and that chronicle of bird-life which Mr. Williamson must certainly not allow to go unwritten.

 

Scottish Bookman (Bruce Campbell, natural history writer), January 1936:

 

Raw and Not so Rawhide

 

[Reviews three books: My Best Animal Story (Faber) – dismissed as only dogs & cats!: Grey Owl & the Beavers: ‘the phenomenal ability of this half-Scot, half-Apache describes a community almost fantastic in its Eden-like serenity, fit for a Virgil to sing . . .’; and Salar.]

 

Henry Williamson too has taken the world by storm [but picks up on a couple or so factual errors – red-throated divers do NOT nest on Lundy!] . . . Once one has got into Mr. Williamson’s individual style one realises he is building up a picture of the wild life, human and animal, on a magnificent scale, a scale which few other writers would dare attempt. The rhythm of his sentences as much as their matter does convey most vividly the teeming life of the river and estuary.

 

John o' London’s Weekly, 11 January 1936 (sadly anonymous):

 

Talks With The Professor

New Series

 

[The whole page (8” x 11”) is devoted to Salar as in a conversation between two friends about the book which one finds lying on the table in the Professor’s house and asks what it is and questions every comment made: it is very well done.]

 

This book is an epic in prose . . . describing the heroic life and achievement of a salmon . . . Let us call it science without tears . . . the story of a creature’s life as actually lived . . . he gives them names [not to humanise them] . . . He makes them live for us realistically but he does not try to humanise non-human creatures . . .

 

I know you are a keen salmon fisher . . . [then ‘reads’ the rather harrowing scenes of the hook caught in Salar’s mouth, but admits he himself likes to eat salmon].

 

The friend asks to borrow the book . . . the Professor gives him a short précis of its plot and ends:

 

Salar sheds his life for the future of his race.

 

(As of course – did all those soldiers who died in the First World War – and would soon do likewise in the Second. This has to have been a central motif of the book.)

 

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Salar the Salmon was also published in Czechoslovakia in 1936 (see Overseas editions), prompting this newspaper review:

 

Lidové noviny (Aloys Skoumal), Prague, 2 November 1936 (translated here from the Czech by Vladimíra Šefranka Žáková – our thanks both to him and to Vít Kremlička, who sent it to us):

 

Is it natural history? Poetry? It’s a bit of both, but it’s not just some stuff that has been carelessly patched together. This book conveys the life of salmon in the sea and in English streams not just with professional thoroughness, but also with the artful, secure well-being typical of English nature observers. (Let us remember, in addition to many others, W. H. Hudson and his loving descriptions of British birds!) It is an extraordinary world indeed, brought to us through a unique lens: the world of the ocean’s depths and river currents, captured from various perspectives. It is a pity that this rare painter and psychologist of fish life falls into philosophical primitivism from time to time. However, there are not too many such disturbing places, so we will forgive him that, just as some of the passages are quite convulsively funny. Altogether, his book reads like a full-blown epic about the element of water, full of natural beauty and brutality. Aquatic animals, birds, beasts – each, in the author’s rendition, has its own individuality, with every nuance captured as aptly as, if not better than, the episodic human characters he draws. This does not, however, add up to a cheap anthropomorphism. Rather, it is a necessary humanization in which the essence of the biological history being described is not corrupted, but merely brought closer to us and made more comprehensible to our perception. The translation is remarkable both in terms of its professionalism and its stylistic work. However, a final revision would have helped, as it would surely have caught some of the oversights and the frequent awkwardness that sometimes make the text hard to understand. I would especially like to reprimand the translator for his deliberate use of transgressive and other participles in Czech, which is a mistake all our English-Czech translators make. They should realize once and for all that the use of the -ing verb form that is so popular in English can and very often must be expressed in Czech by a verb phrase.

 

 

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USA edition,1936:

 

There is only one American review in the archive – though there would actually have been a large number.

 

New York Times, 1 June 1936:

 

salar review newyork

 

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There are no reviews of the Tunnicliffe illustrated edition present in the archive (possibly HW sent them on to Tunnicliffe?).

 

 

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The 1959 Faber paperback (5/-) brought forth a small flurry of very short notices – the only one of any length being:

 

The Daily Worker (Wilfred Willett) (15-inch column, gives a useful breakdown of salmon terms):

 

salar review worker

 

Birmingham Post (C. V. Hancock), 14 November 1964 (17-inch column); it begins:

 

salar review birmingham

 

After this the article is more generalised but with frequent mention of Salar. Hancock ends with an interesting description of how the redd is made:

 

salar review birmingham2

 

 

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Extracts from Salar the Salmon have featured in many anthologies.

 

Country Life, 4 November 1965, notes HW’s inclusion in Best Fishing Stories, ed. John Moore (Faber, 21s.)

 

Two collections are noted in HW’s book archive:

 

The Fisherman’s Companion, ed. Kenneth Mansfield (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1968): a solid compendium, and HW is in very good company. HW’s piece is ‘Tide-Head’ from chapter 7 of Salar.

 

Gone Fishing, ed. Michael Hordern, (Michael O’Mara Books, 1995): a most delightful collection of extracts. The cover flap blurb states:

 

There is also Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, who wrote of the mystery of fish and fishing in his masterpiece Salar the Salmon.

 

Sir Michael Hordern (1911-1995) was a well-known stage and film actor, whose passion was fly-fishing. He introduced HW's extract – ‘Black Dog’, Chapter 13 of Salar  as follows:

 

salar hordern

 

 

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