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.’

Though completed in 1976, Lanark wasn’t published by Canongate until 1981. It immediately brought Gray the fame he wanted. Most novels are the product of two or three years’ work: here was something that had been gestated, crafted and honed over twenty years, and the difference was obvious. Its scale and originality were impressive, though not unprecedented: what really distinguished Gray’s epic postmodernism from the work of, say, John Fowles or Thomas Pynchon was the absolute lucidity of his approach. Lanark was – and remains – intensely readable, combining the narrative hooks of science fiction with the solid satisfactions of the Victorian novel: read the first chapter of Lanark, in which the eponymous hero encounters Sludden and his clique in the Elite Café, and you think you are dealing simply with an unusually crisp and keen-eyed traditional storyteller. What we encounter at first is an acidic comedy of manners, made spicier by the sour truthfulness of its epigrams (‘Perhaps I’ve surprised you by putting work and love in the same category, but both are ways of mastering other people’), and complicated only by the subtlest of hints that the boundaries of realism are going to be shifted later in the book:

Sludden patted the sofa beside him. Lanark hesitated, then put his cup on the table and sat. Sludden said: ‘Tell me why you use the balcony.’

‘I’m looking for daylight.’

Sludden pursed his mouth as if tasting sourness. ‘This is hardly a season for daylight.’

‘You’re wrong. I saw some not long ago and it lasted while I counted over four hundred, and it used to last longer. Do you mind my talking about this?’

   ‘Go on! You couldn’t discuss it with many people, but I’ve thought things out.’

Lanark is the quintessential political novel. Though it is surprisingly free from the political rants found in most of Gray’s books, its theme is the individual’s relationship to society, and this theme is inscribed not just in the narrative but in the formal apparatus of the novel itself, which embeds the story of the hero’s coming of age in the framework of an Orwellian dystopian fantasy. Everything is done with such assurance, bravura and care that it must have seemed impossible, at the time, for the same author to produce anything of comparable quality in the near future. But the timing of Lanark’s publication was lucky, as far as Gray was concerned. He was by now in his mid-forties, and not only had a substantial body of good unpublished short fiction stashed away in his bottom drawer, but was halfway through a new novel, the writing of which had been made more urgent by his dismay at two recent political events: the election of Mrs Thatcher as prime minister, and the failure of a sufficient majority of the Scottish people to vote in favour of devolution in the 1979 referendum.

And so two more fine books followed hard on Lanark’s heels: Unlikely Stories, Mostly, a brilliant collection of short (and sometimes not so short) fictions, which remains, in its King Penguin edition, the most beautifully designed of his many beautifully designed books; and 1982, Janine, apparently Gray’s favourite among his own novels, and mine too. Janine is intimate rather than epic: it is written as an interior monologue, and this time, rather than taking disparate ideas and welding them together, Gray took one idea for a short story (originally titled ‘If This Is Selkirk, This Must Be Thursday, Janine’) and let it expand to something like its natural length. Despite the fact that almost a third of the novel is taken up with a semi-autobiographical account of working on a fringe theatre production in Edinburgh in the early 1960s, there is no sense of formal strain; rather, this lengthy episode, culminating in a marriage which is doomed to failure, intensifies the emotional impact of the book, making palpable the crushing weight of regret weighing down on the lonely, alcoholic, sexually unfulfilled hero. (We now learn, from Glass’s biography, that Gray’s own first marriage was similarly unsatisfactory, so there can no longer be any doubt as to the source of the pain which lies exposed, raw and unvarnished, by the end of the novel.)

1982, Janine was not as well received as Lanark: its emphasis on sexual fantasy seemed to blind many readers to the prescience and accuracy with which it skewered the early years of Thatcherism. Martin Amis’s Money, which also mingles social satire with sexual excess, even if of a slightly more joyful kind, is often held up as the 1980s political novel par excellence, but it contains few passages which anatomise the spirit of that decade with Jock McLeish’s disillusioned forthrightness:

We have become Falstaffian, our colourful past has returned, we display as rich a pageant of contrasts as in the days of Lizzie Tudor, Merry Charlie Stewart and The Queen Empress Victoria. Our own royal millionaire weds in Westminster Abbey and departs in a luxury cruiser to the cheers of the nation while unemployed children loot shops and battle with the police in the slums … and I DON’T CARE.

Nonetheless, Gray had, by 1984, established a formidable reputation.

What followed was burn-out. Gray publicly stated that he had run out of ideas for new fiction (‘having discovered how my talent worked it was almost certainly defunct’), and although he had plenty of other works gathering dust in that bottom drawer, unfortunately for his publisher they were not novels. The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) and McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990) were both based on television plays (though McGrotty had only ever been broadcast in its radio form), as was the novella Mavis Belfrage (1996), while A History Maker (1994) was based on an unproduced stage play from the mid-1960s. The stories in Lean Tales (1985) were good, but there weren’t enough of them to fill a full-length book, while Something Leather (1990), by some way the most coolly received of his novels, might have been better had its assemblage of reheated playlets been presented as a collection of short stories, without the framing S&M orgy which merely seemed a fruitless echo of the most problematic aspects of 1982, Janine. Two further collections, Ten Tales Tall & True (1993) and The Ends of Our Tethers (2003), were enjoyable but didn’t scale the heights of Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

While reflecting on the patchiness of his published output in the last two decades, it’s worth remembering that Gray has produced much important public art in that time, most notably his gigantic ceiling mural for the Oran Mór cultural centre in the West End of Glasgow. Furthermore, there have been two literary works that are in no sense minor. In 1992 he published a novel, Poor Things, which, like 1982, Janine, began life as a short story and then ‘swole up enormous’. A comic variation on the Frankenstein story, it told of a child’s brain being transplanted into a woman’s body in a laboratory in Victorian Glasgow, a conceit which allowed Gray the scope and the context to do what he does best: long passages of cheerfully bleak polemic (as the child-woman receives her political education) offset by a complex postmodern framework of texts within texts. It was one of his most serious and most playful novels, and had a degree of popular success. And in 2000, there was the publication of what had been widely anticipated as Gray’s non-fiction magnum opus: The Book of Prefaces, a massive overview of writers’ introductions dating from the late seventh to the early 20th century, accompanied by marginal glosses and interleaved with more substantial essays to create an anthology which aimed, in Gray’s own words, to give the reader ‘some experience of a civilisation over several centuries from extracts which let us see, on adjacent pages, language changing from decade to decade in words of authors who usually know they are changing it’. Even here, though, the final version fell slightly short: defeated by the scale of the task he had set himself, Gray contracted out a good many of the glosses to fellow novelists and academics. In fact, of all the marginal essays on 18th, 19th and 20th-century literature contained in this handsome volume, fewer than a third were written by him.

Where, then, does this leave last year’s offering, Old Men in Love? Is it an out-of-the-blue late masterpiece, or another cunningly disguised ragbag of odds and ends? The reader’s suspicions incline inevitably towards the latter but the agreeable truth, on this occasion, seems to lie somewhere in between. It is, for one thing, a substantial piece of work – Gray’s longest piece of prose fiction since Poor Things. Like that novel, it presents itself as a ‘found’ manuscript, which has fallen into the hands of Gray via its current owner, an American academic called Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar (an anagram of his own full name). The manuscript consists of three historical narratives and a series of diaries written by a retired Glaswegian schoolmaster, John Tunnock, a reasonably transparent alter ego for the author. The diaries concern Tunnock’s amiable, shambolic life in present-day Glasgow; Gray portrays him as an elderly dreamer, wrapped up in arcane historical research and oblivious to modern political realities, though an encounter with a female lawyer helps to radicalise him and prompts him to take part in an anti-war demo in 2003. He also begins a relationship with a much younger woman called Zoe (‘a person of my own height but sturdier, wearing a kind of battle dress with camouflage pattern designed for jungle warfare’), who throws herself at him for no very obvious reason. The three historical narratives are linked only very loosely, through a thematic connection with love in various manifestations: the first describes the love between Socrates and Alcibiades in ancient Athens, the second the love between Filippo Lippi and a nun in Renaissance Florence, and the third the lurid career of Henry James Prince, a Victorian priest who founded a sect called the Agapemonites and retreated to a country house in Somerset (dubbed ‘the Abode of Love’), where he surrounded himself with beautiful women – a fantasy Gray quite reasonably finds appealing.

As usual, there is a self-penned critical essay at the end, written in the voice of Sidney Workman (a fictional academic who also appeared in Lanark), which reveals that these three narratives are themselves reworkings of old television plays. This accounts, perhaps, for the fact that they are not nearly as interesting as the witty, engaged, ramshackle diaries which interrupt them – even though those, too, have their share of recycled material (the account of the anti-war march is taken straight from The Ends of Our Tethers). A few typical pages towards the end of the novel touch on the political meaning of ‘sleaze’, the plight of Chinese asylum seekers, the case for drugs to be decriminalised, the need for Scottish independence and the novels of Walter Scott. These passages are invigorating not because of the originality of the insights, but because of the unanswerable plainness with which Gray voices them. At one point Tunnock finds himself wakened from a ‘dream of a Scottish Pope being Fascist President-Prime Minister of Anglo-America and making torture on television a popular entertainment’. A few pages later he learns for the first time about reality TV shows and is told that ‘all networks broadcast them, showing ordinary folk in a house from which they are one at a time, steadily, humiliatingly evicted by a popular voting system until only one is left. My nightmare about Britain was contemporary, not prophetic.’ For moments like this, it is well worth hacking your way through the thickets of digression, repetition and pale historical reimaginings that make up most of the novel. Someone once said of Jacques Tati’s Playtime that it could be forgiven because Tati had earned himself the right to doodle on a grand scale. The same is true of Gray.

In his intelligent and warm-hearted biography, Glass records the moment when Gray announced that he intended to fashion Old Men in Love out of these forgotten television dramas: ‘In 2004 Alasdair was out of money and, now no longer a salaried professor, realised he would have to write another book to get some … “Nae new ideas, nae worries!” he told me at the time.’ Although his book provides a workmanlike (if not Workmanlike) account of Gray’s early life and career, it’s these moments of voyeuristic intimacy that make it so enjoyable. Glass worked as the author’s secretary for many years, and was also one of his creative writing students, and the closeness of his relationship to his subject affects the book at every point, mostly for the better. Nonetheless, there is a certain imbalance between the dryish, po-faced biographical sections and the more personal accounts of Gray living and working at home, or stepping out on a book tour. Although the formal bits are full of useful information, they contain no scenes as vivid as the one when Gray collapses in the street and his biographer breaks his fall, only to watch him rise chirpily to his feet again and observe, apropos of nothing: ‘You know Rodger, sometimes I think that women’s bottoms are the only thing in the world that matters.’

The personality that emerges from this portrait is consistently loveable, at times even saintly. It’s no wonder that Glass wants to be loved by him in return – anybody would – so we can forgive the occasional neediness that peeps out from some passages. (‘Not only do I care greatly for Alasdair, but I also wish him to care greatly for me.’) But Glass is not sycophantic, and is unafraid to voice his objections to Gray – not always at the most tactful moments. He recalls, for instance, having sent a lengthy letter criticising one of the novels (A History Maker) when Gray was lying seriously ill in hospital and it was probably the last thing he wanted to read. The important thing is that when Glass says ‘I care greatly for Alasdair,’ he is talking about the work as much as the man. You come away from his book with a renewed, slightly awestruck sense of what Alasdair Gray has managed to bestow on us in the course of his life: a chaotic body of work, certainly, but rising up proudly at its centre are Lanark and 1982, Janine, with Poor Things, The Book of Prefaces and Unlikely Stories, Mostly not far behind. The last thirty years have given us few books that can compare with these: challenging, erudite, politically charged, humane and always supremely entertaining and accessible. If Glass’s biography sends a few more people in their direction, it will have done its job.