The first encounter I had with the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray was in a book by the Mancunian writer Anthony Burgess, who called Gray’s first novel Lanark “a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom”, and Gray himself as “the first major Scottish writer since Sir Walter Scott”. Gray is, above almost everything else, a Scotsman – he is deeply interested in Scottish history and the current political conditions in Scotland, and writes about these often. And though he may be practically unknown outside his own country, he seems to have evolved into a sort of sage and folk-hero within it.
When I came across Lanark, I bought it (on the Burgess recommendation) at the Scottishly-named Campbell’s Books, in the thoroughly non-Scottish location of Westwood Village in Los Angeles. The year was 1985, and at that time Gray had only published two novels (the other being 1982, Janine) and a book of short stories, the wonderful Unlikely Stories, Mostly. He has published a good deal more since then. His fame has grown within Scotland, and while Lanark has something of a reputation outside his native land, his other work is not as well-known to the rest of us as it ought to be.
I have read a good many of his books, and they always surprise me – he has a very wide-ranging imagination, and he knows precisely how to convey his ideas in dry language – even the funniest and most bizarre episodes in his books are conveyed in very restrained prose. And when he does use more flamboyant language, he is masterful, though invariably impersonating someone else – as he does in the short story Logopandocy, a kind of story that is either about or authored by Sir Thomas Urquhart, the 17th century Scottish author, translator of Rabelais, and inventor of artificial joke languages. In fact it might be both by Urquhart and about him; I’m sorry to admit that I haven’t yet finished this story – it’s pretty hard going.
But in general his narrative voice is transparent and precise, and he uses this plainness to set off the frequent grotesque elements in the stories. Gray usually reserves his modernist inclinations for his themes, not his language, as well as for his illustrations and book designs. His prose has a definite poetic note, but it is the blunt poetry of Caedmon and The Dream of the Rood. “The Comedy of the White Dog”, a short story about sexual repression and myth set at a suburban tea party included in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, might have been written by Franz Kafka – except that Gray’s prosody isn’t obsessively precise and fussy as Kafka’s can be, but gruff and firmly Celtic:
“Something strange was happening on the darkened lawn. Nan was nowhere to be seen. Kenneth, Gibson and Clare were huddled together on the bare table-top, Clare kneeling, Kenneth and Gibson crouching half-erect. The white dog danced in a circle round the table among over-turned chairs. Its activity and size seemed to have increased with the darkness. It glimmered like a sheet in the dusk, its white needle-teeth glittered in the silently laughing jaws, it was about the size of a small lion.”
Gray’s best tales contain some special element of the fantastic; not exactly surreal, but also different from what I would think of as magic realism. Poor Things is a variation on the Frankenstein story, with both civic and sexual politics played against each other, and presented as a collection of spurious texts by different authors. Lanark presents the story of Duncan Thaw, a Glaswegian art student, and is framed by a bizarre story of a parallel character called Lanark who lives in a nightmare version of Glasgow called Unthank. In the short stories, England is swept up by political fad for dressing up in bear suits, men are hen-pecked by the sun, and boys swallow stars that fall into their back gardens. And these are all presented in books that reveal Gray’s great passion for book design, illustration and typography.
Alasdair Gray designs his books, illustrates them, and, when he has to, publishes them as well. His pictures are powerful, beautiful, and comic as it suits him, but they are never mere ornamentations. They can sometimes be simple and modern, like the woodcuts of the early 20th century, but often they show an affinity with the broadside prints of the 17th century, with their fluttering mottoes, static tableaux, and overall horror vacui.
The latest book I have read by Alasdair Gray isn’t really written by him at all – it is The Book of Prefaces, a project which took Gray and his team of collaborators sixteen years to complete. It is what the title says it is – a history of literature in English from 675 to 1920, told via the medium of the preface. It is annotated by upwards of thirty different authors, Gray among them, and it is close to being his literary masterpiece. It is certainly a masterpiece of typography and design.
Alasdair Gray, arguably the last modernist, is still alive and living in Glasgow. He has a blog, though he doesn’t seem to have written a post in a while, and he has recently been working on a “paraphrased” version of The Divine Comedy in verse. Now, I have been a lifelong admirer of Dante, and I must say that I would normally scoff at such a project – but I will probably make an exception in the case of Alasdair Gray, and will hitch up this new effort to the Tsundoku Line in the near future.