- Poor Things by Alasdair Gray
Bloomsbury, 317 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1246 9
This is Alasdair Gray’s funniest novel, his most high-spirited, and his least uneven. All of which does not necessarily make it his best, but certainly means that we have a nice surprise on our hands when you consider that Gray has spent much of the last few years publicly and gloomily announcing the death of his fictional imagination. That process began in 1985, with the postscript to Lean Tales, the short story collection he shared with Agnes Owens and James Kelman. ‘A director of a London publishing house,’ he wrote (in the third person), ‘asked him if he had enough stories to make another collection. Gray said no. There was a handful of stories he had intended to build into another collection, but found he could not, as he had no more ideas for prose fictions. From now on he would write only frivolous things like plays or poems, and ponderous things like A History Of The Preface or a treatise on The Provision Merchant As Agent Of Evil In Scottish Literature From Galt To Gunn.’
Vol. 14 No. 22 · 19 November 1992
The LRB cover for the 8 October issue is identified as ‘Alasdair Gray’s graphic version of one of the characters in his new novel, Poor Things: the great psychiatrist Jean Martin Charcot – though a joke erratum slip denies the identification.’ In the text of Jonathan Coe’s review (it’s a great review by the way; one imagines Gray feeling quite pleased to have found such a sympathetic and intelligent reader) he supports the idea that the erratum slip is ‘a joke’.
Well it isn’t. A joke, I mean, not if Penguin Books can be believed. The line drawing is an adaptation of a portrait used by Penguin for the cover of its 1976 printing of Huysmans’s A Rebours. On the back cover of the paperback the head-and-shoulders shot is described as ‘a detail of the Comte de Montesquiou by G. Baldini’. (Who knows, perhaps Gray too has a moth-eaten copy of the Penguin Against Nature, eh?) The image has been adapted slightly, particularly the eyes, so that Montesquiou/Charcot now looks somewhat more introspective than the Penguin version. Though it isn’t quite the joke your reviewer seems to have had in mind, I suppose the idea that Charcot may serve as a model for Des Esseintes, or that he – Charcot – is somehow ‘against nature’, is sort of funny.
Jon Paul Henry
Vancouver, British Columbia
Psychiatry would be proud to claim Jean Martin Charcot on account of his work on hysteria and hypnosis. However, he is more often considered a neurologist, having held the world’s first professorship in diseases of the nervous system, to which he was appointed in 1882.
George York III