Gray’s Elegy

Jonathan Coe

  • 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.’

A book published at around this time, The Fall Of Kelvin Walker, had the appearance of a new novel but was in fact adapted from a television play broadcast by the BBC as long ago as 1968. Like all of Gray’s work, it was witty and subversive and had a deadly political accuracy, but there was something lacking: after the epic proportions of Lanark, and 1982, Janine’s harrowing psychological thoroughness, it seemed functional, perfunctory. Apart from some fragments of autobiography, Gray’s next substantial publication was the verse sequence Old Negatives, which came out in 1989, although most of its poems dated from the Fifties and Sixties. Two novels appeared in 1990: McGrotty and Ludmilla, a slight but very enjoyable Whitehall farce, was adapted from a radio and stage play in the space of 27 days, while Something Leather, which contains some of the best things Gray has written (particularly his scathing reflections on Glasgow’s role as the 1990 European City of ‘Cultcha’), was nonetheless a shoulder-shrugging apology for a novel, a loose assemblage of old television and radio plays stitched together with the entirely admirable aim of clearing the author’s overdraft.

Nothing there, really, to give the lie to Gray’s own gloomy prognosis: so how do we explain the sudden resurgence of imaginative energy represented by Poor Things? We have been told that Something Leather began life as a pornographic short story which Gray hoped to sell for a lot of money to a fashionable magazine, but then it was seen by a publisher who thought it would make a good first chapter for a novel. He was paid ‘enough to live without debt for a couple of years while eating and drinking too much’, and buckled down to the task of padding the story out with old but unpublished material. Exactly the reverse seems to have happened in the case of Poor Things, which was always intended to be part of a collection of short stories (Ten Tales Tall And True, to be published by Bloomsbury next year), but then outgrew the project of its own accord – or, to use Gray’s own phrase, ‘swole up enormous’. And so there is no sense, in this book, of ideas being stretched beyond their natural life: quite the opposite, in fact, for the novel’s fizzing exuberance derives from the fun of watching Gray’s keen authorial intelligence finding layer upon layer of unexpected possibility in his one ingenious narrative conceit.

This conceit has to do with women and the way men construct them. I mean ‘construct’ in a literal sense, because the heroine of Poor Things, Bella Baxter, is – according to at least one interpretation of events – a man-made creation, assembled on the operating table of a doctor’s surgery in late 19th-century Glasgow. The doctor in question, Godwin Baxter, is himself an overgrown monster, with deformed hands and a voice that can perforate eardrums, but his grotesque appearance hides the soul of ‘an astonishingly good, stout, intelligent, eccentric man’: and in making Bella, whose body is her own but whose brain has been transplanted from the eight-month-old foetus she was carrying when she died, he thinks he has created the ideal partner – a vision of voluptuous womanhood with the pliant, endlessly impressionable mind of a trusting child.

Here we find another contrast with Something Leather. Part of the impetus for that novel came from a suggestion made by Kathy Acker, who asked Gray if he had ever written a story with a woman as the main character. He answered: ‘No, that was impossible because I could not imagine how a woman felt when alone.’ This was a brave and candid admission. It acknowledged an inability to engage with female characters without the mediating presence of a male consciousness: for the purposes of Gray’s imagination, in other words, women are only defined, only made real, by their relationship with men. It’s for this reason that the all-female orgy scenes in Something Leather don’t come to life (except for those, perhaps, who share his particular fetishes). And this, too, is why Gray is able to enter with such gusto into the story of Godwin Baxter and his artificial woman – because it’s also the story of Alasdair Gray, the writer, and the various Rimas, Marjories, Helens, Dennys, Jills, Ludmillas, Junes and Donaldas he has fashioned out of words during his career as a novelist, sharing with Godwin the simultaneous hope and anxiety of the benevolent creator who longs to see his progeny take on an independent life even as he is loathe to forfeit his own absolute control over their destinies.

Bella Baxter’s unstoppable progress towards independence turns out to be the theme of Poor Things, and its richest source of comedy. Being blessed with the sexual appetites of a grown woman without the regulating inhibitions of adulthood, she soon starts to wreak havoc. She engages herself to Archibald McCandless, a young medical colleague of Godwin’s (the novel is actually written in the form of McCandless’s memoirs, heavily annotated by Gray), but, hungry for experience, chooses first of all to elope with an unscrupulous solicitor, and leads him a merry, financially and physically draining dance across Europe before returning home to her betrothed. Their marriage service is then interrupted by the sudden appearance of General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington Bart VC, also known as ‘Thunderbolt’ Blessington, war hero and Liberal MP, who claims that Bella is in fact his own long-lost wife, last seen at Hogsnorton, ‘his country home at Loamshire Downs’, a few years ago. Baxter sees Blessington off, and Bella marries McCandless, although it is not clear that the marriage is a happy one, because the narrative ends with Bella’s ‘Letter to Posterity’, in which she denounces her husband’s memoir as a pack of deranged lies and paints him as a lazy old fool who threw away his medical career, taking advantage of a legacy from Baxter ‘to buy the idleness he mistook for freedom’.

All of this is told with tremendous panache: there is much affectionate parody of Victorian melodrama (‘If Scraffles puts me in a pauper’s grave then Hell mend him!’), copious illustrations in the style of William Strang, even a joke erratum slip which tells us with sublime irrelevance that ‘the etching on page 187 does not portray Professor Jean Martin Charcot, but Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac.’ Technically the most impressive thing in the book is a 90-page letter from Bella describing her European tour and brutal political education, with the accelerating development of her mind signalled by a transition from sing-song verse to hard, analytical prose.

There is a half-hearted debate being conducted on the review pages of some English newspapers at the moment, which accuses today’s writers of being obsessed with the past and beating a frightened retreat from the complexities of modern life. On the face of it, Gray would seem to have laid himself open to the same charge. But what distinguishes him from other, more timid paddlers in the shallows of history is his ironic sense that the past is not just a foreign country but something even weirder and more extreme: that it is, in short, a Science Fiction novel. He can be a superb realist, as the central books of Lanark and the central flashback of 1982, Janine attest, but at the same time he knows that the manners, the sentiments, the clothes and the habits of speech of this ridiculous period can now only be observed through a comic filter. In this respect, the book’s most triumphant creation is ‘Thunderbolt’ Blessington, the psychotic empire-builder known to the proprietors of a Parisian brothel as ‘General Spankybot’, and commemorated in the novel’s footnotes by a splendid piece of mock-Kipling. For those who believe that ridicule is the only real ‘test of truth’ (to adopt the phrase wrongly attributed to Shaftesbury), accurate parody like this will be worth any amount of the over-careful realism practised in more solemn post-imperial novels.

Not all of the treatment is facetious. Duncan Thaw remarks in Lanark that ‘if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively,’ and just as Gray’s novels to date have enormously enriched the imaginative life of modern Glasgow, so Poor Things now does something very similar for the city in the Late Victorian era. You come away from the book with a remarkably vivid impression of its architecture, its houses, its parks, public buildings, skyline and, just as importantly, the humane and pioneering spirit of its doctors and scientists, addressing themselves to what Bella Baxter, in the closing pages, sees to be ‘the great task of the 20th century – to make a Britain where everyone has a good clean home and is well paid for useful work’. And this, paradoxically, is perhaps the only depressing aspect of the novel – its suggestion that the zealous idealism of these people, from the bitter perspective of 1992, makes them look at best like lovable eccentrics: cranks that failed to make the revolution.

For more than ten years now, while even the most outspokenly political English writers have struggled vainly to give contemporary fiction any sense of believable outrage, Alasdair Gray, from his base in Glasgow, has continued to offer much-needed proof that it is still possible to write credible, entertaining, animated novels which are also vehicles lot socialist ideas. Although he once observed, rightly, that if storytellers ‘make their inventions the text of a sermon, then a sermon is all that they will write’, sermonising has always been an important component of his work: he was drawing a youthful self-portrait, after all, when he created Duncan Thaw with his ‘minister’s way of talking about things’. The best parts of his books are often the lengthy bursts of polemic, especially in 1982, Janine where they are put, with cheerful implausibility, into the mouth of arch-Conservative Jock McLeish – who at one point assures his girlfriend Denny, for instance, that if she were ever to ask for better wages, ‘cabinet ministers drawing salaries of twenty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-fifty-a-year (on top of interest on private investments) will appear on television to explain in brave, loud, haw-haw voices that there is not enough money to help you, that your selfish greed is the thing which has reduced Britain to its present deplorable plight.’

Poor Things has its share of openly political passages, exhilarating enough at first but noticeably bleaker than before. Most of them come from a suave cynic called Astley, who applies himself to a methodical demolition of Bella’s naive assumptions, ranging them under headings like Education, History, Unemployment, The Benefits Of War, Freedom, Free Trade and Empire. He then identifies her as ‘the most modern kind of half-baked optimist, the sort who want to abolish riches and poverty by sharing out the world’s goods equally’, and proceeds to demonstrate why this project is doomed to failure. Bella eventually ignores his advice and, re-naming herself Victoria McCandless, becomes a famous campaigner for health education and women’s rights, but although Gray’s prose swells with admiration as he gives the details of her subsequent career, she ends up defeated by public mockery and interference orchestrated by profiteering English newspapers. So this magnificently brisk, funny, dirty, brainy book ends on a note of unexpected elegy, and leaves us with a strong aftertaste of the present day: for nothing could be more symptomatic of this despairing moment than to find that the very notion of a feminist doctor with a burning commitment to social justice suddenly seems to belong to an era as remote and unlikely as any H.G. Wells fantasy.