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Holy Land

THE HAUNTED MAJOR;\o7 By Robert Marshall; (The Ecco Press: 208 pp., $23)\f7

May 02, 1999|JOHN UPDIKE | John Updike is the author of numerous books, most recently, "Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel." This essay will appear as the introduction to the first American edition of "The Haunted Major," which has just been released by The Ecco Press

Golf is a spooky game. Occult forces are clearly at work as we play. Balls vanish in unaccountable directions, glass walls arise in the direction of the hole, putts run uphill. The phenomena recorded in "The Haunted Major" all ring true, especially in relation to the hapless beginner who is our hero: "I let drive a second time, with the result that the ball took a series of trifling hops and skips like a startled hare, and deposited itself in rough ground some 30 yards off, at an angle of 45 degrees from the line I had anxiously hoped to take." The "anxiously" is an uncharacteristic admission for Major the Honourable John William Wentworth Gore, 1st Royal Light Hussars, a sublimely self-confident snob and self-proclaimedly "the finest sportsman living." It will take all of golf's devious powers of humiliation to bring him low, and it is one of this little novel's achievements that by the end, boastful cad though he is, we are rooting for him.

Published in 1902, before the literature of golf amounted to much--before Arnold Haultain wrote "The Mystery of Golf," before Bernard Darwin began his decades of inspired journalism, before P. G. Wodehouse launched his incomparable series of comic golf stories, before Bobby Jones elegantly committed his thoughts on the game to print--"The Haunted Major" provides a classic portrait of a hotly contested match, one hard to top in its violent swings of momentum. Haunting, interestingly, remains a theme of modern golf literature, most impressively in the apparition of the mystical teacher Shivas Irons in Michael Murphy's "Golf in the Kingdom." And there are lesser texts involving a heavenly replay of the Hogan-Fleck playoff in the 1955 Open, or an extraterrestrial tournament matching up the revenant greats of every era against one another. None of these spooks is as vivid and vehement as the ghost of Cardinal Smeaton, whose Scots curses ring in the dazed Major's ears while his transparent bones bedevil his eyes. In truth, we all play golf accompanied by a demon, an inner voice who taunts us and advises us and all too rarely floods us with sensations of golfing grace and power, such as the Major feels when he grips the Bishop's ancient clubs: "My legs and arms tingled as if some strong stimulant were flowing in my veins."

Cardinal Smeaton never existed, but a close approximation did exist in the person of the first Scotsman to be anointed a cardinal, David Beaton (1494-1546). Beaton, educated at the universities of St. Andrews and Glasgow, and then at Paris and Rouen, was the third son of a Fife laird and the nephew of James Beaton, archbishop of St. Andrews, whom David succeeded as archbishop and primate of Scotland in 1539. Beaton was a considerable politician, of the French-alliance persuasion. As the trusted advisor of James V he dissuaded the monarch from following the anti-papal policy of England's Henry VIII, and he helped arrange the marriage of James and the daughter of Francis I of France.

These were awkward times, however, in which to be a Scots prince of the old church. Protestantism was spreading on the Continent, and George Wishart, a grammar school master in Montrose, caught the contagion. Accused in Scotland of heresy in 1538, Wishart fled to Europe but returned in 1544, preaching at his peril and converting John Knox, a former priest and ecclesiastical notary who became a spearhead of the Protestant movement. Beaton was a hard-line enemy of the Reformation and saw to Wishart's arrest, trial, and death by burning in 1646, in St. Andrews. To quote the Blue Guide to Scotland: "Beaton watched the burning in comfort from the castle walls. Two months later several friends of Wishart, headed by Norman Leslie, son of the Earl of Rothes, seized the castle, slew Beaton and hung his corpse over the battlements to prove he was dead." The conspirators held out for two months, during which Beaton's body remained unburied, cast into a dungeon and covered with salt, "to await," as Knox, one of the besieged, explained, "what exsequies his brethren the bishops would prepare for him." The Encyclopedia Britannica mildly relates that "although John Knox and others have exaggerated his cruelty and immorality, both were harmful to the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, which he tried to preserve by repression rather than by reform."

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