Gray in conversation
Alasdair Gray is a shy almost apologetic speaker. "I
never wanted to write a major work" he says without any false modesty.
Yet that is what his debut novel Lanark undoubtedly is. A masterpiece
25 years in the writing, it does for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin,
and Gray's writing is more accessible.
Since Lanark came out in 1981, he has been prolific: 14 books have followed,
7 of which are novels. He is considered a father figure to modern Scottish
literature, and has just accepted a post as Professor of Creative Writing
at Glasgow University.
Now in his late 60s with a beard and wiry grey hair, he looks quite
the part. I recommend hearing him speak to anyone who has the chance.
He is self-depreciating and playfully humorous, yet never flippant.
His voice jumps erratically and even squeaks when he is particularly
excited - prompting him to stop and put on a deep sonorous voice for
a sentence or so. He talks in tangents, mainly political. Gray is a
socialist - "not so much old labour as ancient labour" - and a supporter
of Scottish independence. He is proudly Scottish, but not blindly or
chauvinistically so. Intelligent and generous, he comes across as a
model of what a man should be.
We are treated to a passage from 1982, Janine, which he says
is his favourite work, and some of his poetry. There is a real joy in
the sound of language in his writing. Nevertheless it remains down to
earth and honest. He writes sympathetically but honestly. His characters
are flawed and sometimes ridiculous, but always human.
Asked about post-modernism, he dismisses it as "a type of literary criticism
that pretends to be literature". Nevertheless his books are very post-modern,
albeit without the commonly associated faults of egotism and intellectualism.
Inevitably the audience want to hear about Lanark. It is a unique book.
Lanark struggles to build a life in the malevolently surreal fantasy
city of Unthank, but becomes enmeshed in political machinations. Embedded
in this is the partially auto-biographical story of Duncan Thaw, a Glasgow
art student in the 50s. Lanark's thoroughly strange tale is told with
humour and beauty, but the overall tone is bleak and pessimistic. Drawing
on influences from William Blake to Alice in Wonderland, he manages
to be poetic without a trace of pretension. His writing is wonderfully
erudite; Gray knows his literature and loves it (his latest highly acclaimed
book is an encyclopaedia of prefaces from english literature through
Charming in person and brilliant in writing. If you haven't discovered
Alasdair Gray yet, then please switch off your computer and head for
the nearest bookshop now.
© Daniel Winterstein, 12th August 2001