Posts Tagged ‘alasdair gray’

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.

Advertisements

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.”

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.

Alasdair Gray

January 1, 2013

gray2

Who knew, when I decided that the recent publication of Alasdair Gray’s collected short stories (the prosaically titled Every Short story) was an excellent excuse to tackle them all (one at a time) over the next few months, that Gray himself would be making headline news? ‘Alasdair Gray attacks English for ‘colonising’ arts!’ screamed one hysterical headline. (That’s about as screamy as it gets in the Scotsman, and I added the exclamation mark).

The cause of this furore was an article that Gray had written for an anthology of Scottish writers’ thoughts on independence, Unstated. (You can read the whole article here). In it he divides invaders (those we now tend to call immigrants) into settlers and colonists. This is partly a distinction of longevity – settlers stay, colonists don’t – but also represents a state of mind. Where settlers accept and absorb the culture of the country they settle in, colonists seek to impose their own values on it. Gray’s particular complaint was that too many important jobs in the arts go to those from outside Scotland; and by ‘outside Scotland’ I don’t mean that the country is home to an international cast of thousands, I mean England.

These comments immediately made Gray a racist in the eyes of some (raising the interesting question of whether the English are actually another race), many of whom had, as is the way with these things, not read the article. Really though, it’s a mathematical problem. At no point does Gray suggest that no-one from outside Scotland should be allowed a job in the arts; but he does suggest that it is unhealthy that so many of these jobs go to English candidates. What percentage of similar jobs in England would have to go to Americans before eyebrows were raised, I wonder? Of course, you would have thought that one enterprising journalist might have bothered to find out how many people in important positions in the arts in Scotland are English. Isn’t that what journalists used to do? If it’s only one or two then clearly Gray doesn’t have much of a point. The fact that nobody seems keen to publicise the number makes me think it may be more…

Before this, however, Gray was best known as a writer and artist. Though perhaps not Scotland’s greatest writer of the twentieth century, he certainly has a claim to have written Scotland’s greatest novel of that time in Lanark. Recently he seems determined to collate all his work with his collected stories following recent collections of his plays and poems and his autobiographical A Life in Pictures. Whether Every Short Story is the final piece in this jigsaw remains to be seen.