Posts Tagged ‘alasdair gray’

A History Maker

February 25, 2023

Alasdair Gray’s 1994 novel (sometimes referred to as a novella, but this is to ignore the extensive notes and postscript which, in any Gray work, are a part rather than an addition) A History Maker is an unlikely combination of science fiction and border ballad. The novel is set in the far future – it’s prologue is dated 2234 – in a matriarchal utopia where men continue to amuse themselves with war in a regulated fashion for the entertainment of the masses, filmed and commented on by hovering ‘public eyes’  Its central character, Wat Dryhope (his first name presumably originating from Wat Tyler as the novel will soon become concerned with revolution) is the son of General Craig Douglas (children take their mother’s name), leader of the Ettrick regiment, now reduced to a few men and surrounded by Northumbrians. They will be defeated if the opposition take their pole and banner, and defeat seems inevitable. Wat advises his father:

“Give him the pole. Let’s go home for a wash and a breakfast… We can order another pole. Our aunts will weave us another banner.”

Though Douglas describes Wat as ‘the voice of reason’ he has another plan which involves letting the Northumbrians think they have captured the banner but not surrendering, and then killing those soldiers who have the banner so that it fails into the sea thus rendering the battle a draw. Wat follows these orders but is so disgusted at having to kill an opponent in cold blood he decides to follow the banner over the edge of the cliff. Saved by a whin bush, he is the only uninjured Ettrick soldier left, and regarded as a hero.

Away from the battlefield, life is peaceful as a result of ‘powerplants’ which are able to grow resources in response to music. This is typical of Gray’s approach to science fiction – it’s not the scientific possibility which interests him, but what it tells us about society. In the notes we are given a history of the powerplants, which were initially horded by the wealthy, but, as word got out:

“Millionaires faced the fact that their private havens would only be perfectly safe in a world where most people were safe.”

The powerplants represent a world without want, where people live communally, and children are looked after by all. Wat is disgusted by his father’s sacrifice of the Ettrick soldiers (“Our bairns were slaughtered because our Dad feared age and loneliness”) but this does not mean he is happy with the utopian world which has ended history. When his brother, Joe, reminds him of “the dark ages when men fought wars without rules,” he replies:

“I’m reading about folk who struggled to stop all that… They were the greatest heroes.”

Later he will say:

“I want the bad old days when war had no rules and bombs fell on houses and men and women died together like REAL equals!”

Though this is said in anger, Gray is reminding us of the attraction of violence and destruction. It is relevant that Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was published two years before; Gray’s novel presents a counter-argument. Wat is open to corruption and that corruption comes in the form of a woman (frequently a weakness of Gray’s male characters). The seduction is not only sexual but intellectual – the woman (known initially as ‘Delilah Puddock’) is open in wishing to use Wat to change the world – to make him a ’history maker’ and return o our present-day times of “the competitive exploitation of human resources.”

The novel is a warning which, from the perspective of a further thirty years, it seems we have not heeded, as outlined by Wat’s mother, Kate, in her prologue:

“A History Maker shows that good states change as inevitably as bad ones, and should be carefully watched.”

Using a futuristic premise imbued with a lively Scots vocabulary, Gray demonstrates how this might happen, suggesting in particular that, for some, freedom from want is not just undesirable but something they will work actively against. Though A History Maker is not one of Gray’s major novels, it is one of his most prescient.

McGrotty and Ludmilla

February 25, 2022

Last February I read Alasdair Gray’s The Fall of Kelvin Walker, the novella which followed his first two novels. Five years later he published another novella based on a radio play, McGrotty and Ludmilla, partly, one suspects, as a favour to new Glasgow publishers, Dog and Bone Press – Gray also provided the cover art for another release (there was perhaps only two), Archie Roy’s A Sense of Something Strange. As with The Fall of Kelvin Walker, McGrotty and Ludmilla is a satire concerning a Scotsman’s encounter with establishment London and featuring a love story of a kind where the hapless and naïve hero falls for a stronger and more cynical woman. It is similarly both dated (in parts) and as accurate as ever (in others).

Its satirical intent is clear from the opening sentence which describes the Ministry of Social Stability (where, we will discover, McGrotty works) as having been created to “counteract the damage done by the spread of literacy and the granting of the vote to all male householders.” If we feel we recognise something of out current leaders in this attitude we will find the opening remarks of Arthur Shots even more prescient:

“Every organisation needs a great deal of corruption, of course, to stop it becoming rigid, callous and inefficient.”

Shots, one of the civil servants who actually runs things (Gray explicitly points out that the story predates Yes, Minister), is worried about the publication of the Harbinger Report, Harbinger having been tasked with investigating corruption at all levels of government. Harbinger himself is reluctant to complete the report:

“I’m distressed by my report. It incriminates many decent, public-spirited necessary people. Famous people. Some of the highest and best loved names in Britain.”

Shots is wondering what to do when he encounters McGrotty – or rather when McGrotty tramples on Shots’ foot in the corridor. Shots soon hatches a plan which involves getting McGrotty to steal the report for him. He first of all befriends McGrotty after concocting a story that McGrotty’s father saved his life during the war – a war his father never returned from thus making the Shots’ declared debt impossible to disprove. Shots makes sure McGrotty is promoted (on the premise he is a ‘rough diamond’) and is portrayed by Gray, both visually and in prose, as a spider, aided by his secretary to “weave a fine web which only they perceived…”

“It was invisible to the human flies trapped therein.”

As with Kelvin Walker, Gray demonstrates that social mobility occurs only when it is useful to the established order. As Gray says:

“My novella is certainly a caricature, though it caricatures nothing but the ability of the British rich to enlist awkward or threatening outsiders.”

Shots’ plans are accidently upset by Ludmilla, however. The daughter of a Minister, her first impression of McGrotty, like Shots’, is that he is entirely out of place: “Why do your wear that terrible tie?” McGrotty, on the other hand, is immediately smitten:

“He wished to grovel before her but did not know how to start.”

When McGrotty attempts to enact Shots’ plan to retrieve the report from the Minister’s safe, Ludmillla reappears and McGrotty is so thrown by his inability to interact calmly with her (like virtually all of Gray’s male protagonists) he runs away, throwing Shots into a panic:

“What could a fool like McGrotty be trusted not to do when he stopped doing what he was told?”

Unfortunately for Shots, McGrotty has now developed the ‘low animal cunning’ he thought he lacked, and, now demands Ludmilla as the price for telling Shots where the report is – or at least Shots’ help in turning him into the “kind of man she’s keen on – suave, popular, the life and soul of Royal Garden Parties.” McGrotty now schemes for power and influence in the same way as Shots and Ludmilla: only by accepting the rules of the establishment can one becomes part of it.

McGrotty and Ludmilla was originally submitted as a play for television – part of a series based on fairy tales. Gray took Aladdin as his inspiration, with McGrotty as Aladdin, Shots as the sorcerer (pretending to be his father’s friend rather than his brother) and the Harbinger Report as the lamp. This creates a slightly more playful story than The Fall of Kelvin Walker, but one which nevertheless identifies the institutionalised inequalities which exist to this day. It is another entertaining miniature in the midst of Gray’s longer works.

Six Scottish Novellas

November 12, 2021

The Marionette (1927)

Edwin Muir is best known as a poet, and as the translator (alongside his wife Willa) of Franz Kafka, but his repertoire extended to autobiography, travel (Scottish Journey), literary criticism, and fiction. His first venture into the latter was a novella, The Marionette, inspired by time spent living in Salzburg and published in 1927. It is, it has to be said, a rather strange book. It tells the story of a boy, Hans, whose mother dies giving birth to him, whose father, Martin, largely ignores him, and who is regarded as “feeble-minded”. Only when he turns fourteen does his father show any interest in him, taking him into the city for the first time. (That the journey unsettles him may be related to Muir’s own journey from Orkney to Glasgow as a child). Seeing his son’s love of a doll he possesses, Martin takes him to a puppet theatre, and their visits soon become regular, with Hans transfixed by what he sees on stage until an accident leads to one of the marionettes (Gretchen from Faust) being damaged in front of him. Martin asks for the puppet to be repaired and given to Hans as the theatre closes for the summer. Though symbolism is clearly in use, the novella is not schematic, and both Martin and Hans (and perhaps Muir) seem to feeling their way to some resolution which will allow them to bond, and Hans to live his life more fully. The work itself feels east European rather than Scottish and the border between Hans’ dreams and reality is not always visible.

(The Marionette was last published by Hogarth Press in 1987)

Travel Light (1952)

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific writer who refused to be confined to any genre, writing a series of autobiographies alongside essays, journalism, three biographies, a history of Africa, and numerous novels. Her fiction, too, was restless – her most famous books ranging from historical novels to science fiction. Travel Light is perhaps best described as fantasy (Mitchison was a friend of Tolkien) – the Virago edition from 1985 has a unicorn on the cover and the main character, Halla, is brought up by bears before being adopted by dragons. For Halla, ‘heroes’ are the enemy, and she repeatedly turns down an invitation to join the Valkyries. In the novel’s second part we enter a more recognisable historical setting and a more political plotline as Halla joins a group of men who have travelled from their home to plead with the Emperor to remove the cruel governor of their province. When, in need of money, they take to betting, it helps that Hallla can talk to the horses. As with much of Mitchison’s work, she showcases strong female characters, and Halla is able to ‘travel light’ because she has no need of men: this is not a romance, and better for it. Mitchison is also able to tap into older stories to give her tale a mythic resonance (as she does in much greater depth in what is often regarded as her bets novel, The Corn King and the Spring Queen) creating an entertaining and illuminating fable.

(Travel Light was published in Kennedy & Boyd’s Naomi Mitchison Library in 2009)

The Hermit (1977)

Iain Crichton Smith’s novella The Hermit can be found in his collection The Hermit and Other Stories but was originally published in Gaelic the year before. Written from the point of view of a retired Headteacher (like Smith) on a Scottish island (presumably Lewis where Smith lived much of his life), it tells of the arrival of a hermit who settles in an abandoned RAF hut. The hermit unsettles the villagers, refusing to talk to anyone even when he is buying groceries. The narrator feels a kind of kinship for him, having lived alone since his wife died. (He confesses to having taken up fishing in the past simply as a way to enjoy some isolation). At the same time, he becomes infatuated by an eighteen-year-old girl, Janet, who passes his house every morning and arranges for her to bring fresh milk to him from her family’s farm, forcing him to face the fact he is becoming old. He is not alone in being affected by the hermit’s arrival: an elderly neighbour leaves his wife intending to return to the life at sea he knew as a young man; even the Minister finds himself unable to speak his sermon. What begins as a light-hearted tale of small-minded, suspicious villagers, takes a darker tone, though without ever losing the dry humour typical of Smith’s work. The narrator decides he must “save the village” by making the hermit leave. Beyond the story of the hermit, however, Smith populates the village with a rich cast of characters and brings depth to the narrator through his relationships (with his wife and his parents) and regrets, his dreams and desires. A master of the short story and author of classic novel Consider the Lilies, The Hermit demonstrates Smith’s skills in both genres combined.

(The Hermit can be found in The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 published by Birlinn in 2001)

Gentlemen of the West (1984)

As well as numerous short stories, Agnes Owens wrote six novellas (they are definitely novellas as they can all be found in her Collected Novellas) beginning with Gentlemen of the West in1984. Originally written as a series of short stories it is rather episodic for a novella, but is united by its narrator, a young bricklayer called Mac who lives with his mother (the “auld wife”) and a recurring cast of drunken ne-er-do-wells who gather in the local pub. Paddy MacDonald, who lives in a rundown bothy with rabbits in the oven and pigeons in a cage in the bedroom, makes frequent appearances. A typical story involves Paddy being found stone cold on the ground and presumed dead and Mac attempting to pay his respects at the local Catholic church (“For the next half hour we were up and down like yo-yos”) only to bump into Paddy immediately afterwards (annoyed at being “carted off tae hospital.”). For all the humour, Owens gives us an unapologetic insight into the lives of the ‘gentlemen of the west’, not only the drunkenness and violence but life on the building site, a chapter where we return to Mac’s childhood, and another where he escapes to the countryside and (grudgingly) befriends a German tourist. And in the final story Owens provides the progression we might expected from the longer form in a genuinely moving manner. Rightly described by Alasdair Gray as “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”.

(Gentlemen of the West can be found in The Complete Novellas reissued by Birlinn in 2020)

The Golden Bird (1987)

George Mackay Brown famously lived in Stromness on Orkney for most of his life – only leaving for a ten-year spell in the 1950s and early 60s – and from there he wrote his poetry, novels, short stories and, of course, novellas. The Golden Bird is one of two novellas in the book of the same name (the other is The Life and Death of John Voe), a book which won the James Tait Memorial Prize for fiction. The Golden Bird begins with a quarrel between two women whose husbands fish together. The quarrel is about very little but escalates quickly and irreparably, creating a rift between the families which will last many years. It is those years which are Mackay Brown’s real subject – time itself: “The years gathered and fell, like waves, like cut corn.” The story carries us through three generations, as three schoolteachers, the third being a contemporary of the feuding families’ sons rumoured to have been carried off by an eagle as a baby, and, just as surprisingly, having left the island to go to Aberdeen University. Despite its relative brevity, we meet numerous characters among the inhabitants of the valley, but Mackay Brown needs only a few words to sketch their personalities and relationships. His wide lens has the contradictory effect of making humanity’s concerns (such as the quarrel) seem trivial but humanity itself feel important and profound.

(The Golden Bird was reissued by Polygon in 2019)

Mavis Belfrage (1996)

Alasdair Gray’s most famous novel may be almost six hundred pages long, but the novella has been a form he has returned to again and again (though largely as a result of adapting his radio plays into prose) with The Fall of Kelvin Walker in 1985 and McGrotty and Ludmilla in 1990. The book jacket of Mavis Belfrage (likely written by the author) describes the titular novella as Gray’s “only straight novel about love” (it is accompanied by five other stories, each shorter than the one before, until we reach the accurately named ‘The Shortest Tale’). Like Gray’s preceding novellas, Mavis Belfrage might be described as a comedy of manners. Colin Kerr, like Kelvin Walker the son of a shopkeeper, returns to Glasgow with a degree from Cambridge to train teachers; he is, as his student Mavis tells him, an “uninspiring individ- … -lecturer” as he has neither an opinion nor an original idea, which is why he fails Mavis for not memorising the chapters he has assigned but rather thinking about her answers. A dinner date, however, soon leads to her (and her eight-year-old son, Bill) moving in with Colin and his father despite the fact she warns Colin she is “a bad bitch”. What follows is a love story between a weak man and strong woman, told with Gray’s usual wit and pinpoint phrasing, culminating in a disastrous dinner party. An enormous fortress Colin has been building out of Lego is also put to symbolic use. Like all his novellas, Mavis Belfrage is minor Gray, but minor Gray can be the most fun.

(Mavis Belfrage can be found in Every Short Story published by Canongate in paperback in 2014)

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.


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.”


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 Crank that Made the Revolution’

February 18, 2013

‘The Crank that Made the Revolution’ seems to me a title in search of a story. Not only is the phrase itself so wonderful you are almost convinced it has some historical provenance, but it contains not one, but two puns: literally it is about a mechanical crankshaft that works through revolution, but its inventor is also something of a crank, and the originator (according to Gray) of the Industrial Revolution.

You don’t have to scour the web very far to discover someone asking whether this particular story has any basis in fact, and not much further to find someone else who swears it does. The crankshaft, however, was not invented in 18th century Cessnock, having been around since Roman times. An early clue to the story’s unreliability as a historical document is the inventor’s unlikely name, Vague McMenemy. Vague is not the Gaelic version of Alexander, as Gray tells us – that would be Alasdair.

The story is a satire of industrialisation. McMenemy’s first invention seeks to make ducks more efficient. A duck “is not an efficient machine” being not particularly world-leading at any of the things it does: flying, swimming or walking. McMenemy enhances its swimming ability through use of the crankshaft, and then repeats the experiment with a flock. Though they attain great speed, this only leads to them hitting the opposite bank, capsizing and drowning. McMenemy then repeats the process with his granny, utilising the energy she uses to rock her rocking chair to power even faster knitting.

Gray’s distrust of ‘progress’ for its own sake is clear. (We will see this reoccur throughout his career, for example in the wonderful ‘Near the Driver’). Even McMenemy himself becomes so much a part of the machine that he no longer has time for invention.

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.”