Robert Macfarlane on ‘Falling For Icarus

The history of aviation is filled with people – mostly men – for whom the desire to fly was a compulsion. Wilbur Wright spoke of having contracted a ‘disease’ in the form of his ‘belief that flight is possible to man’. Otto Lilienthal – author of the classic Birdflight As The Basis of Aviation (1889) – made his first attempt at flight while still at school (wearing a pair of strap-on arm-wings; he failed), and subsequently constructed an artificial hill near Berlin for the purpose of making test glides. The French writer and aeronaut Antoine de Saint-Exupery could hardly bear to be grounded, flying perilous missions as a fighter-pilot long after he could have retired. The diminutive dandy Alberto Santos-Dumont (5’1” tall and only 100lb in weight; vital statistics for a man who always wanted to be a bird) grew up on his father’s coffee plantation in Brazil watching eagles ‘flying so high and soaring on their great outstretched wings’, fell in love with the ideals of ‘space and freedom’, and vowed to follow the raptors into their aerial kingdom.

Rory MacLean joined this ragged aeronautical dynasty of eccentrics, obsessives and visionaries after the death of his beloved mother, Joan, from cancer. His grief at the loss was so powerful that it left him destroyed, dismantled. All he knew in the dark days after her death was that he wanted – no, he needed – to build his own aeroplane and take flight: this was ‘the single clear certainty’ visible to him, his ‘compulsion’.

So MacLean and his wife Katrin moved to a village on the north-west of Crete, set under the Lefka Ori – the White Mountains. And there, as you’ll hear, over the course of six months, within the hard bright light of the Mediterranean, MacLean sought to reassemble himself by constructing from scratch an one-man aircraft in which he might lift off – and so acquit himself of grief’s gravity. Broken into pieces, he worked to put himself back together. A symbolic act, then, and a ritual one: penitential, respectful, the patient literalisation of a metaphor.

There is, of course, nothing purely symbolic about flying, or about its opposite, falling. In 1896, on what was due to be his last test flight, Otto Lilienthal’s unstable gliding apparatus lost its balance ‘at considerable height’ and he dropped to his death. Santos-Dumont, after surviving a series of elegant airship crashes in Paris, became guiltily obsessed with the idea that aeronautical technology had been turned to the inhumane ends of bombing and invasion, lost his mind and hanged himself with a pair of red neckties from a door-handle in Sao Paolo. Saint-Exupery disappeared, probably in combat, over the Mediterranean in 1944, while flying for the Free French Forces of De Gaulle. And we all know what happened to Icarus. As the poet Paul Claudel nicely put it, ‘we lack wings to fly, but we always have strength enough to fall’.

So MacLean’s quest needs to be understood as occurring both in the realm of the allegorically symbolic and that of the riskily real. There was a very real chance of emotional healing involved in his undertaking, but there was also a very real chance of physical injury. The doubleness of this wonderful book, its simultaneous inhabiting of the actual and the mythical, is one of its most distinctive aspects.

And one of its many achievements is that almost everything within it takes loft as metaphor. Out there on Crete, nothing can be only itself. There are, for instance, so many aeronauts in this book, flitting suggestively through its pages. MacLean himself, of course, the principal pilotos; but also the trapped goldfinch in the schoolroom that he releases (discreetly recalling the final flight of his mother’s soul, set free through an opened window); the wheeling bats at dusk; the ‘Winged Priest’; and dear, tough, lover-emeritus Aphrodite, lifted aloft after death on the shoulders of six strong men and carried, airborne, from her house – the way, surely, she would most have wanted to go. All the acts of flight in the book are charged with a meaning that exceeds simple appearance.

There is, to my mind, no one who writes quite like Rory MacLean. If I were forced to reach for a comparison, I would pause over Bruce Chatwin as a possibility, but then probably stretch far further back: to John Mandeville, to St Brendan and to Marco Polo. These men made their ‘wonder-voyages’ and returned bearing tales that were not to be submitted to the usual tests of verifiability and falsifiability, but in which the actual and the miraculous rubbed shoulders, and in which genres and forms promiscuously coupled and bred. They told piebald, pidgin, patchwork, mongrel stories, then: but books whose unreliability was not mere whimsy, but aspired to a different kind of truth-telling. They sought, in their inventiveness, to pattern reality into a greater clarity.

Falling For Icarus, like all of MacLean’s books, is a wonder-voyage in which the speculative, the imagined and the verifiable tinge one another. We can’t ignore this aspect of the book, partly because MacLean appears to know things that he could not know (the inhabitation of the pasts of Aphrodite and Ulysses, for instance), partly because of the magical-realist moments (the thrown dinner plate that sails through two windows and smites a teenage masturbator, the canary that never sings when spicy sausage is served for dinner, the gods with walk-on parts), but also because again and again MacLean tips us off that all is not perhaps as it was. ‘This is what happened’, the book confidently begins: the classic declaration of the unreliable narrator. ‘This, and everything I will tell you, is true’, one of the villagers declares. ‘A good story was valued over hard facts’, notes MacLean of the oral culture of the village. ‘It was the first of many tall stories’, he reflects, listening to a Cretan speak.

I think of MacLean’s stories not as ‘tall’ but as ‘high’; a category difference. Tall stories are exaggerations, distortions. High stories take flight, gain fresh perspective, occupy a different atmosphere. ‘Fiction is woven into all’, MacLean begins his acknowledgements, ‘Sas efharisto olous therma apo kardias’, and his own weaving of fiction into travelogue has invigorated and continues to inspire the form for twenty years now. In Stalin’s Nose (1992) and The Oatmeal Ark (1997) he anticipated features of the hybrid work of WG Sebald, whose The Rings of Saturn is the most influential travel book (if that is what it is) to have been published in my lifetime. MacLean’s wilful unreliability is different in manner to Sebald’s lugubrious ‘prose fictions’, of course, not least because Sebald is rarely funny whereas MacLean is superbly witty (particularly in his sparkling dialogues: a writing skill honed during his decade as a screenwriter and film-maker).

For all the metaphysics and myth, MacLean knows also how to keep himself firmly grounded. The opening scene plays this out: MacLean (or at least our narrator, who isn’t quite identical with our author) is about to launch himself from the wall of a hillside ruin – in a suicidal fugue, or a dream of flying, it is not quite clear which. Then – clamp! – round his ankles slip a pair of ‘earthy’ hands, locking him down. ‘This is how I met Yioryio’, says MacLean. And Yioryio – like the other villagers – is crucial to MacLean’s healing, and vital to his book. What MacLean knew was that he needed ballast for his writing’s loftier ambitions. The villagers provide this necessary weight. Crete is a mythical terrain, a crucible of civilization – but its contemporary inhabitants as we meet them are drinkers, farters, fighters, friends and fornicators, like the rest of us, and the landscape is one of rubbish, alcoholism, road traffic accidents and historical atrocity, as well as of sunsets, ruins and emerald seas. Throughout, the airy finds its match in the earthy, levity in gravity, flight in fall, and pathos in bathos (which Alexander Pope nicknamed ‘the art of sinking’). It is all beautifully balanced (unlike MacLean’s aircraft, as it turns out). There is a fascinating absence in this book. MacLean’s mother, Joan, barely exists. She is scarcely evoked. Her death prompts MacLean’s journey to Crete and triggers his quest for flight, but after that, well, she almost vanishes. There is a trueness to this absence, it seems to me, rather than an impropriety. MacLean’s grief is so acute that memories of his mother are dangerous; too powerful to be considered. So for the book’s duration those memories are placed in a hasped chest, only to be opened under controlled circumstances. A substitution occurs: the work of building the book and building the aeroplane stands in for the work of grieving and recovery: ‘As the aircraft took shape I saw that I was taking leave of my mother’. The act of making something in his life – not of it – is what lifts MacLean out of his depression: shopcraft as soulcraft.

The metaphors we use to describe grief often emphasise the enormous effort involved: we ‘work through’ grief, we experience ‘the labour of loss’. Grief is toilsome, demanding – and so too, here, are its substitutory tasks. Falling for Icarus is partly about the sheer bloody difficulty of constructing a flying machine. Some of the most memorable pages describe MacLean struggling in confined spaces with obstinate materials in high heat: the bruised fingers, the sweat-filled eyes, the pig-wrestle with wire and rivets. As I read, I found myself noting down the trade names of the materials involved in building the plane, which names become themselves a kind of chant or incantation: the Stove-Black 6mm Bolts, the CSK Heads, the Locking Nylon Nuts, the American Buckle Corp. Jacksonville Model 6975 Aviator’s Seat-belt… It all seems so unlikely, that so many massy objects – hard and heavy in the mouth and hand – might together make a craft that could lift both itself and its human pilot into the air.

MacLean also has to struggle effortfully with legislation and red tape, with import taxes, insurance, laws and local covenants, in which respect the book represents a protracted performance of what might be called The Bureaucratic Baroque. In the end, though, it’s human goodness and a willingness to believe that story might be more important than edict which wins out: the villagers’ buoyant enthusiasm, the freely given expertise of Ariadne, the base commander who goes ‘fishing’ in order to turn a blind eye to the planned flight on his runway.

As the red tape is cut away, as the plane takes plausible shape, so MacLean’s grief is diminished: ‘Each morning I would wake with a precious dash more joy for living’. The book proceeds, the plane assembles, the son heals, and we read captivatedly on, propelled by a single question: will he fly or won’t he? I won’t tell you the answer to that now, for I don’t want to rob the book of any of its great magic. Let me say only this: that we learn, in the end, much about the aerodynamics of grief; that ‘lift’ is created by the onwards rush of life over the curved wing of the soul, and that coming safely back down to earth might be far more important than taking off. I will not forget this book – told by a magnificent man in his flying machine – because of its immense tenderness of address, and because of its power to inspire. ‘The Woodhopper carried me forwards with a surge of life’, writes MacLean. Just so, and his book does the same to us as well.