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Edinburgh Book Festival 11th - 27th August






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Alasdair 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 the ages).

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

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