Archive for the ‘Alasdair Gray’ Category

The Fall of Kelvin Walker

February 25, 2021

The Fall of Kelvin Walker was the novel (novella really) which followed Alasdair Gray’s two great novels of the eighties, Lanark and 1982, Janine, and his first collection of stories, Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Gray, however, did not see himself primarily as a writer of fiction, and, though he published regularly, was never prolific and would have periods where he would be uncertain if he would write another novel. Short of inspiration, he turned to his earlier dramatic work, plays which were broadcast on the radio in the 1960s and, in the case of The Fall of Kelvin Walker, the television. (He would later also turn McGrotty and Ludmilla into a short novel, and cannibalise his dramatic work to create his final novel Old Men in Love). In a sense then, The Fall of Kelvin Walker, republished this month by Canongate, was already out of date on publication in 1985, set as it was in the sixties (it is subtitled ‘a fable of the sixties’) and based on Gray’s own experience of travelling to London to make a documentary in 1964. Reading it now, almost fifty years on, it remains an entertaining curio, but retains some of its bite in its portrayal of its central character’s rise and fall as a media star.

Kelvin Walker is a young man who has left his home town of Glaik (from the Scots for stupid, glaikit) in Scotland for success in London. To this end the chapters are titled as if from the account of a colonial explorer (The Discovery of London, A Meal with a Native…). Despite having little in the way of qualifications, having left school at fifteen and only ever worked in his father’s grocery shop, Kelvin is determined to start at the top – or, at least, as near as he can get to it. As he explains, when it is suggested that he needs to start at the bottom:

“That’s not true!… Nowadays the ladders are so long that the folk who start at the bottom have to retire before reaching the middle. Nearly all the people at the top started climbing a few rungs under it.”

Kelvin is both unshakeably confident and irredeemably innocent. He befriends a young woman, Jill, in a café by asking her, “Do you mind if I engage you in conversation?” Soon he offers to take her to the “most expensive eating place in London” only to discover (too late) that the meal costs more than he has (around £450 in today’s money). And so he ends up staying with Jill and her artist boyfriend, Jake, while he commences on his plan to gain interviews for prestigious positions by pretending to be Hector McKellar, a fellow Glaiker (?) who is now an important man at the BBC. Of course, as soon as his dishonesty is discovered, most companies will simply ask him to leave, but, as Kelvin explains:

“I’ll be glad to leave, for a small-minded and unimaginative employer will be no use to me at all.”

It is, in fact, MacKellar himself, who hears of the deception, who eventually offers Kelvin a job as an interviewer as:

“…the BBC is suffering just now from a dangerous personality deficiency, particularly in the field of regional dialect.”

Having those in power “savagely grilled by interviewers with firm regional dialects” is what McKellar calls “the British alternative to revolution” and it is in its dissection of the BBC that novel remains its most relevant. Kelvin begins work on Power Point (Gray predating Microsoft by two years), a programme created by a BBC governor who was known as The Prevailing Consensus, the sustaining of which Kelvin discovers is the Corporation’s main mission, as he discovers, like those before him, that politicians:

“…don’t really disagree about these things – they just pretend to.”

Kelvin is an excellent interviewer and the novel follows his rising fame and the attention he then garners from powerful men. His desire for success, an endearing quality when he was naïve and powerless, becomes an end in itself, and much less endearing. Power, the novel demonstrates, does indeed corrupt.

Where the novel is less successful is in its other two strands of religion and love. Kelvin’s strict and repressive religious upbringing, from which he is liberated by reading Nietzsche, appears unusual today, in a way which makes even the novel’s wonderful final sentence appear dated. That Kelvin is unable to escape his relationship with God feels much less likely. In love, Kelvin is much like other Gray characters, a weak man infatuated with a woman who does not love him back. In this case the woman is Jill and, as she says herself, this is largely because she is the first woman he meets. The fact that Jake hits Jill makes us sympathetic to Kelvin who always treats her kindly, but Gray does not allow Jill to develop much of a character for herself – Kelvin will similarly restrict her when he is famous.

The novel is told with such wit and brio, however, that these faults can be overlooked. The Fall of Kelvin Walker may be minor Gray, but Gray is such a clever and honest writer that he is always worth reading and, as a satire of success, and an example of how the media will raise you up and then seek to bring you down again, the novel holds up well.

Lanark

January 3, 2020

To understand the importance of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark you first need to understand Scottish literature in the 1970s. The revival, known as the Scottish Renaissance, which began in the 1920s, had faded, and its greatest writers had never been given the international, or even UK-wide, recognition they deserved. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s modernist masterpiece, A Scots Quair, was hindered by his use of Scots, as was Hugh MacDiarmid’s best poetry. Neil Gunn wrote in English but his novels were largely set in the Highlands: his epic novel The Silver Darlings was about herring fishing. (The Renaissance generally was a rural movement and therefore not reflective of most people’s experience in post-war Britain). The impact of these writers was also hampered by the fact that publishing was largely controlled from London. Gray did not write the first Glasgow novel, but previous efforts, for example Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place which won the Guardian First Book Award in 1966, quickly fell out of print. It wasn’t until the establishment of Canongate Classics in the late 80s that the Scottish ‘canon’ became easily available.

Scotland was also unusual, perhaps unique, in allowing its population to be educated to degree level in literature without ever encountering a writer born in their own country. As Janice Galloway explained in her 2002 introduction to Lanark:

“I had barely encountered any of my country’s writers at all, let alone one this engaged with the present tense, this bravely alive. Scotland, my schooling had at times implied, at times openly professed, was a small, cold, bitter place that had no political clout, no cultural heritage, joyless people and writers who were all male and all dead.”

(It was only in 2013 that Scottish literature became a compulsory element in the new National 5 English exam). This was, in part, connected to the fact that it was a country with its own education and legal systems but with no parliament. A referendum in 1979, while producing a majority for devolution (by a now ironic 51.6%) was hamstrung by the necessity of achieving 40% of the electoral role in favour.

In other words, Scotland felt like a country where very little was possible, and, while Gray’s intentions, both literary and political, were quite deliberately international, they originated in the belief that anything was possible, at least when it came to the novel. In fact, one of the most important things about Lanark is that it was unashamedly ambitious (not easy in Scotland as, certainly when I was growing up, the worst thing you could do was ‘show off’). A prodigious reader, Gray looked for inspiration wherever he could find it, and with no intention of limiting himself to Scotland, or its neighbour England. When asked where Lanark came from in 2001, he answered:

“From Franz Kafka. I had read The Trial and The Castle and Amerika buy then, an introduction by Edwin Muir explaining these books were like a modern Pilgrim’s Progress. The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden sky that often seem dot rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

Gray also looked west as well as east, modelling Thaw’s story on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, deciding it should end tragically as “young artists couldn’t make livings by painting easel or mural in 1950s Scotland.” In inviting comparisons with two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Gray demonstrated a refreshing arrogance, which he went on to poke fun at in Lanark’s Epilogue (which, naturally, does not appear at the end any more than the Prologue can be found at the beginning) with the appearance of the author, Nastler (Nasty Alasdair) who happily discusses his creation with reference to the great works of literature, beginning with The Iliad and ending with War and Peace. (That we should not take Nastler entirely seriously can be seen from the fact he is unaware his own character, Lanark, has a son).

Gray perhaps also took something from Joyce’s Ulysses, not just in the scale of its ambition, but in Joyce’s determination to portray Dublin as vividly as any character, for Lanark was to be a Glasgow novel. Not for him the ‘London’ of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the international approach of Muriel Spark, inspired by her Scottish upbringing but setting only one of her novels there. Famously, in the novel he explains the importance of his choice:

“No-one imagines living here…If a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live here imaginatively. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Gray goes further than simply presenting Glasgow in fiction, however, by juxtaposing it with the dystopian Unthank, which both is and isn’t Glasgow in the same way that Lanark is and isn’t Thaw. Beginning the story with Book 3 he mimics the in media res of the epic while indicating the post-modern nature of the novel (Lanark was published only two years after post-modern classic Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller). “I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another,” Gray explained, and further illustrated in the novel in Thaw’s description of his approach to painting:

“A landscape seen simultaneously from above and below and containing north, east and south can hardly be peaceful.”

Gray’s post-modernism manages to be both meaningful and playful; it allows Thaw and Lanark’s stories to be read both sequentially and in parallel. Thaw’s story focuses on art as he increasingly looks inward until objective reality becomes unclear; Lanark’s is political, forcing him to look outward, though not always successfully. Gray’s playfulness is most in evidence in the epilogue, not only because he makes a personal appearance (“His face, framed by wings and horns of uncombed hair, looked statuesque and noble apart from an apprehensive, rather cowardly expression”) but due to the inclusion of an Index of Plagiarisms. Among the many literary debts acknowledged, Gray also includes poems and stories by his fellow Glasgow writers such as James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, with references to chapters beyond the novel’s conclusion.

It is, of course, arguable (and often argued) that Lanark is not Gray’s best novel, with Poor Things and 1982 Janine vying for that position. But only a novel of the scale and ambition of Lanark could change the literary landscape in the way Lanark did because the scale and ambition was a statement in itself. It both freed and challenged the writers which followed. In the words of Brian McCabe:

Lanark’s importance consists of the fact that it has opened a very large door in the windowless little room of Scottish fiction, a door we did not know to be there, and only now can we begin to realise how much scope there is.”

Hell

December 23, 2018

Alasdair Gray previously described Dante’s Divine Comedy in his own magnum opus Lanark as the author, Nastler (nasty Alasdair), lists the great works of literature he wishes it to sit alongside while order proving to his character Lanark that “failures are popular.”

“Only the Italian book shows a living man in Heaven. He gets there by following Aeneas and Jesus through Hell, but first loses the woman and the home he loves and sees the ruin of all his political hopes.”

In the same novel, Lanark’s alter ego, artist Duncan Thaw, has the following quotation from Virgil, often seen as appropriate to both Thaw and Lanark’s journeys, written on the ceiling of his studio:

“Going down to hell is easy: the gloomy door is open night and day. Turning around and getting back to the sunlight is the task, the hard thing.”

Now, thirty-seven years later, and following his own version of Faust (Fleck) in 2008, the first part of Gray’s adaptation of Dante’s work is published. As Gray explained in an interview with The Paris Review in 2016, it is not a new translation:

“I cannot call it a translation as I do not know Italian. My version is based upon eight different English translations, none of which satisfied me.”

The only previous version I have read of The Divine Comedy in its entirety is the translation by Dorothy L Sayers (completed by Barbara Reynolds). Sayers, of course, transposed Dante’s terza rima (his rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc…) into English, (a feat which must stand with Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s La Disparition). Such an intensive rhyme scheme, however, not only has an influence on the translation, but requires an extensive use of English vocabulary, including archaic words, which can detract from the power of Dante’s vision. On the other hand, a literal translation, which pays no attention to rhyme, also weakens the verse. Gray has gone for something in between:

“My version mainly keeps the Dantean form colloquial by using end-rhymes where they came easily, internal rhymes where they did not.”

With the regular rhythm retained, this works well, avoiding the suspicion that the rhymes are forced, perverting or diluting the meaning. To take, for example, the opening:

“In middle age, I wholly lost my way,
finding myself within an evil wood
far from the right straight road we all should tread,

and what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,
jaggily thorned, so hard to press on through,
even the memory renews my dread.

My misery, my almost deadly fear
led onto such discovery of good,
I’ll tell you of it if you care to hear.”

Only the third stanza rhymes in the terza rima format, though even here ‘good’ is paired with ‘wood’ not from the previous stanza but the one before. Similarly, ‘dread’ in the final line of stanza 2 rhymes with ‘tread’ three lines before. The absence of a regular rhyming pattern places emphasis on the power of the language rather than on the writer’s ability to find a matching trio, a language which Gray keeps deliberately prosaic in order to echo Dante’s use of colloquial Italian, going as far as to include a number of Scots words: for example, Dante describes Virgil as his ‘dominie’ (teacher) and in one of his many emotional updates tells us “my pulse and every sense have gone agley.”

The question still remains as to why we continue to read The Divine Comedy. Hell is, not surprisingly, a place of relentless cruelty, and though we can admire Dante’s ability to create appropriate punishments (for example, those who claimed to be able to see the future must walk with their heads on backwards), at times it is difficult not to feel he is taking a disturbing pleasure in the painful punishments on view. He is also, more naturally, obsessed with warring Italian states, and, given the size of Hell even seven hundred years ago, seems to be forever fortuitously running into those he knew on earth. The attraction, among a mainly non-religious readership, is perhaps what we would now call world-building, Dante’s ability to use Christianity to create his own self-contained system, entirely logical within its limits. Also the hierarchy of sins is not entirely out of step with modern sensibilities, beginning with sins of appetite (lust and gluttony) before proceeding through violence into deceit and treachery.

Gray’s Hell is a worthy addition to the canon of English Infernos, largely because Gray has resisted the temptation to unnecessarily embellish the language while retaining a strong sense of poetry in his regular rhythm and erratic rhyme. The one disappointment is the lack of illustration. In 2016 Gray, forecasting a Christmas 2017 publication, mentioned the illustrations as the cause of the delay, but only the first three sections are illustrated. Gray’s talent as an illustrator ensure this loss is keenly felt, though his gorgeous wraparound cover goes some way to making up for this. No date has yet been set for Purgatory.

Every Short Story – ‘The Problem’

February 16, 2013

‘The Problem’ is a slight, humorous story in which Gray joins that long list of writers who have personified the sun. In this particular story she is an ageing, insecure woman who worries about her spots:

“Why can’t I have a perfect heavenly body like when I was younger? I haven’t changed. I’m still the same as I was then.”

There’s little more to the story than that, though it does contain a particularly amusing moment when the narrator attempts to reassure the sun by pointing out that, “the moon has spots all over her and nobody finds those unattractive,” only to be greeted with:

“You’ve just admitted seeing other planets when my back is turned.”

It does highlight, however, the way in which people’s own insecurities can damage their relationships with others.

Every Short Story – ‘The Answer’

February 7, 2013

‘The Answer’ is the first Gray story which inhabits an entirely realistic world. It reads a little like an off-cut from the Duncan Thaw section of Lanark as it tells of a young man, Donald, being rejected by a girl. This rejection takes place symbolically when he phones her and, after saying hello, she simply places the phone down and lets him speak. However, as he doesn’t understand this until later, he goes round to her house where she tells him that she has realised they have nothing in common. Her description of his character might remind us of Thaw:

“You like books and jazz and ideas…and clever things like that.”

As might his wonderfully Scottish declaration of love:

“You see I’ve come to feel…rather emotional about you.”

The story’s cleverness centres on its varying interpretations of the title: the answering of the phone which is not really answered; Donald’s demand for an answer as to what is wrong; his realisation that the phone call had already provided him with the answer; and perhaps also the true answer as to why she has rejected him revealed in a discussion with a friend. (Where he reveals that they have slept together, but only literally). It all ends rather poignantly when Donald realises his biggest regret is that he knows he will soon get over her:

“I have this ache in my chest, but talking to you has made it less, and it will disappear altogether when I get to sleep.”

Every Short Story – ‘The Comedy of the White Dog’

January 25, 2013

‘The Comedy of the White Dog’ is the first story of any length. The central character, Gordon, is, like many of Gray’s protagonists, fiercely unimaginative, perhaps to off-set the fantastic content:

“Somebody once pointed out to him that the creation of life was mystery. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘and it’s irrelevant. Why should I worry about how life occurred? If I know how it is just now I know enough…”

This dullness, however, doesn’t prevent him from falling in love with a girl he hardly knows, Nan. He is delighted when she asks him to take her home with him, seemingly unconcerned that this request originates from her fear of a white dog that has just carried one of her friends away into shrubbery. All revolves around the legend of the white dog, which is apparently “associated with sexually frigid women.” Myth and reality coincide when the white dog comes to claim Nan the night before her wedding. While the ending is again rather foreseeable it at least has a certain thematic logic.

The story also contains perhaps the first Gray cameo:

“At first sight he gave a wrong impression of strength and silence, for he was asthmatic and this made his movements slow and deliberate… As soon as he felt at ease in a company he would talk expertly about books, art, politics and anything that was not direct experience.”

Every Short Story – ‘A Unique Case’

January 12, 2013

‘A Unique Case’ concerns the Reverend Dr Phelim McLeod who is involved in an accident with a glazier’s van in which “a fragment of glass sheered off a section of skull with his right ear on it.” The effect of this accident is to reveal that inside the head there is:

“…tiny rooms with doors, light fittings and wall sockets, all empty of furniture but with signs of hasty evacuation. There was also scaffolding and heaps of building material suggesting that repair was in progress.”

There is little more to the story apart from an ‘anything is possible’ type discussion with a doctor. Gray’s inspiration may well be bombed buildings from the war with their fronts or sides missing, as explicitly mentioned in the story, but the accompanying illustration brings to mind The Numskulls, a long-running comic strip in the Beano in which a group of tiny men live in a boy’s head. See what you think…

numskulls

gray head

Every Short Story – ‘The Cause of Recent Changes’

January 8, 2013

‘The Cause of Recent Changes’ is another short, comic story (comedy is Gray’s default mode) which again demonstrates Gray’s ability to let his imagination roam free. I was reminded a little of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomic stories by the ending, but not by the much more down to earth opening where the narrator (an art student like Gray) makes an off-the-cuff suggestion that a bored friend should begin digging an escape tunnel.

The idea is taken more seriously than intended and soon a tunnel is underway, revealing a subterranean world on three levels:

“This one has dormitories and canteens for the staff, and underneath are the offices of the administration, and under that is the engine.”

This idea reoccurs on larger scale in Lanark, but the highlight for me is the result of an attempt to interfere with the engine (which drives the world around the sun) which results in the planet disintegrating. Gray presents this cataclysm in prosaic detail (“I was wakened by…my bed falling heavily to the ceiling”) and the information that on his new fragment he must walk miles if he wishes to experience darkness as it is now perpetual noon.

Gray attempts to turn it into a morality tale by ending with the suggestion that the narrator will in future “Keep my mouth shut”, but the real moral lurks earlier:

“Too many of us have invested too much to stop now.”

Gray’s distrust of ‘progress’ at any cost begins here.

Every Short Story – ‘The Spread of Ian Nicol’

January 5, 2013

‘The Spread of Ian Nicol’ is another very short story with that same mixture of fantasy and realism. The fantasy comes in its central conceit, that of a man literally splitting in two. What begins as a “bald patch on the back of his head” soon develops a face and ultimately results in two Ian Nicols. Gray’s matter-of-fact prose style is used to comic effect, with few seeming perturbed at events, one doctor commenting:

“Oh, it happens more than you would suppose. Among bacteria and viruses it’s very common, though it’s certainly less frequent among riveters.”

Once separated the two Ians fight over their identity, though even that is logically solved as one lacks a navel. Though amusing the ending is rather predictable as each of them begins to split again. Written when Gray was a student, this is an entertaining though insubstantial story.

Every Short Story – ‘The Star’

January 2, 2013

unlikely stories2

Alasdair Gray’s first collection of short stories, , was published in 1983 shortly after the publication of Lanark. Like Lanark, however, it had been many years in the making, with the earliest piece, ‘The Star’, originally published in 1951. A mere three pages long, it first appeared in a magazine for children and concerns a young boy, Cameron, who witnesses a star falling to earth and retrieves it. It not only displays Gray’s tendency to mix realism with fantasy, but creates a rather wonderful metaphor for it when the star is found “in the midden on a decayed cabbage leaf”. Presumably intended for the widest possible audience at a time when Gray was keen to be published, he still cleaves to a Scottish setting through the use of the word ‘midden’ and the brief dialogue (“A’m gawn out”). The ending is equally uncompromising: Cameron, in order to prevent a ferocious teacher (and we’ll meet plenty of them in Scottish literature) from confiscating his star, swallows it:

“Teacher, classroom, world receded like a rocket into a warm, easy blackness behind a trail of glorious stars, and he was one of them.”

A rather terrifying thought for a young child, I would have thought, though one of the more benign transformations we shall find in Gray’s work.