Nae new ideas, nae worries!

Jonathan Coe

  • Old Men in Love: John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers by Alasdair Gray
    Bloomsbury, 311 pp, £20.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 7475 9353 9
  • Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography by Rodge Glass
    Bloomsbury, 341 pp, £25.00, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 9015 6

Once a writer passes the age of 70, it’s hard to write anything about him that doesn’t sound like an obituary. The precedents for a sudden upsurge in creative energy after this age are very few, so the urge, for critic and biographer alike, is to look for patterns, to trace threads, to mark peaks and troughs – to impose a form, in other words, on the chaos of the work and the life. In the case of Alasdair Gray (who is, in any case, already his own critic and his own biographer), the extent of that chaos is daunting. As Rodge Glass’s book reminds us, besides writing the novels for which he is famous, Gray has been an artist, playwright, poet, polemicist and literary historian, and there are considerable overlaps between these fields. The poetry is confessional, and hints at the same life-story we can guess at from the novels, which are often creative recyclings of the plays and are illustrated with Gray’s own artwork, usually topped and tailed by (self-) critical essays and full of polemic. Chunks of a political pamphlet will turn up a few years later, unaltered, in a book of short stories. What I believed, on my first reading, to be a brilliant piece of fiction – ‘A Report to the Trustees of the Bellahouston Scholarship’ (published in Lean Tales, 1985) – turns out to be nothing more nor less than a report to the trustees of the Bellahouston Scholarship (a travel fund for gifted young painters), written after Gray was awarded one in the late 1950s. This is a writer whose disregard for even the most clearly defined artistic boundaries amounts to a crazy heroism.

Although it doesn’t proceed chronologically, Glass’s new biography of Gray does enable us to trace the chronology of his work, which might be useful for those trying to anchor themselves in these choppy generic waters. It reminds us, for instance, that Gray was already 41 when he completed his first novel. From his working-class parents – especially his father – he inherited the political philosophy that runs through all his writing: his belief that ‘socialism can improve social life, that the work we like best is not done for money, and that books and art are liberating.’ And indeed, from his teenage years onwards, ‘books and art’ preoccupied Gray in equal measure. The writing of his first novel, Lanark, which took two decades, went hand in hand with his studies at the Glasgow School of Art and his first commissions as a painter of large-scale, teeming, Hieronymus Bosch-style murals. From the mid-1960s he also made a decent living writing plays for BBC television and radio. (The first, The Fall of Kelvin Walker, starred Corin Redgrave, bizarrely feminised by Glass as ‘Corinne’ in his text and ‘Connie’ in his index.) In this way, Gray began slowly to build up a reputation in his home country, while the leaking of fragments of Lanark to literary magazines helped to spread rumours that something exceptional was taking shape.

This sprawling, ambitious work began life as two separate novels, one autobiographical, one fantastic. At its heart is a realistic Bildungsroman about a young artist growing up in Glasgow in the middle of the 20th century; this part is clearly modelled on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, but is embedded within a more outlandish, dystopian fiction set in a hellish vision of the urban future. This half of the novel was inspired by Kafka, whose nightmare cityscapes seemed to Gray ‘very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night’. Gray was inspired to combine these two contrasting modes after reading E.M.W. Tillyard’s The English Epic and Its Background in his local library and learning from it that ‘the epic genre can be prose as well as poetry and can combine all other genres.’ This made him think that ‘nothing less than an epic … was worth writing,’ although most of the publishers who subsequently saw the manuscript of Lanark told him that they would consider it only if he sundered the two halves and reworked them as separate novels. He refused, partly for aesthetic reasons but also because he thought (correctly) that a bigger book would make a bigger splash, and ‘I had no need of money and was greedy for fame instead.’

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