by Alasdair Gray
934 pages, Canongate
Review by Pat Black
Finally. Finally, I’ve finished the bastart.
I got this for my birthday in 2012 – ah, those hazy, crazy days! – and it’s taken me until now to close it over. Phew.
Canongate threw the kitchen sink at this edition, and it was expensive. But it’s as full a portrait of an artist as you can get, a handsome hardback edition, lavishly illustrated.
Alasdair Gray is perhaps Glasgow’s best-known man of letters, famous chiefly for Lanark, his sprawling novel set in the city, and also the un-city. It saw Gray compared favourably with Joyce, and pushed him to the forefront of my home town’s literary greats. A real post-war renaissance man, Gray is a painter as well as a prose specialist, and is one of the few living writers whose work will outlive us all.
Well… sheesh. To tell you the truth, I only really liked three quarters of Lanark. But it was a hell of a three quarters.
His work is, quite literally, writ large in parts of Glasgow, decorating the walls of pubs and restaurants in the city’s west end, where you can expect to see Gray knocking around now and again. My own personal Alistair Gray story is a dull one; I held the door open for him at the Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens once, to allow him to push a baby buggy through. You couldn’t mistake him for anyone else. I was a little star-struck.
This is all of his stories, written over 61 of his 80 years. It has bizarre flights of fancy, transcending their Glaswegian setting (I’ve just deleted the word “gritty”). It has typographical experiments, startling illustrations, and sly comments on officialdom - those boring bastards who give shape and also inject poison into our lives. There’s an ongoing concern for the drive for Scots independence (Gray designed the Sunday Herald’s lovely pro-independence logo).
There’s some smut, too. Gray may well have been King Dong in real life, but there’s an air of sexual frustration to many of these tales. The author’s eyes bulge behind his comical spectacles in describing his protagonists’ rag-nailed love lives, his head looming over grubby couplings like a rugose hot air balloon.
There are some fantastical elements, sci-fi stories, commentaries on the modern world… or possibly not.
And… There are too many tales to go into.
I’m saying they’re great, but that wouldn’t stand up in court, would it? You’ll have to read them yourself.
I’m reviewed out, and I’ve eaten too much cheese n’ crackers.
I’ll leave you with his classic epigram, an inscription to be found etched in gold underneath the dust jacket, the quote that follows Gray in all that he does, written in stone in the parliament of his native land:
WORK AS IF YOU LIVE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF A BETTER NATION