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