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Alasdair Gray @ Waterstone’s 6th-Nov-2008

A great deal of my reading tends to involve works from all over the world. Places as far flung as Japan, Hungary, and Mexico. Rarely does it occur to me to dig around the literature concerning home. It may, in part, be a rebellion against the Scottish writers read during school, even though in retrospect I liked the poetry of Edwin Morgan and Robert Burns; I liked Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, later voted Scotland’s favourite novel. An honourable mention to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, too – my favourite of his plays that I’ve read or attended live.

Alasdair Gray is, as well as being a home town man, an all round polymath. Novelist, artist, poet, playwright, and more. His most famous work is Lanark: A Life In 4 Books, which prompted Anthony Burgess to say “it was time Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it…” expanding this by calling Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott.” His other works perhaps live in its shadow, but he has consistently published new work, last year’s Old Men In Love ending an eleven year year wait for a new novel – a wait that had nevertheless been punctuated with short stories, poetry, and non-fiction.

This evening a small crowd has gathered for the launch of Fleck, Gray’s new play. Fleck, as the author reveals, began as an attempt to create a modern verse translation of Goethe’s Faust, something that was quite tricky since he doesn’t speak German. While he acknowledges that the prologue and first act are faithful to Goethe’s play, he found that there were deviations to be made. The contemporary setting led him on a different path and, where Goethe’s Faust gets an eleventh hour reprieve, Gray says he felt that a level of purgatory was required for “the rotten bastard.” Thus it came to be that Faust became Fleck, although an extended version appears on his publisher’s website: “I hoped the National Theatre of Scotland would commission me to complete it, but learned that Theatre had just produced a new translation of Goethe’s Faust by John Clifford. So I changed the name to Fleck, and the last two Acts and Epilogue are wholly un-Goethean.”

Gray’s publisher this time round is Two Ravens Press, a husband and wife team based in Ullapool, a far cry from the literary hub of London. Gray publishes with Scottish firms for patriotic reasons and has picked a rising star of the publishing scene this time out. Two Ravens Press, having recently turned two years old, has been prodigious in its output, putting out over thirty books. Most have been new names, although if Alice Thompson’s name can raise a few eyebrows as to the pull of Two Ravens Press, the name of Alasdair Gray must surely be the jewel in the crown. Part of the reason is that Gray likes to work with typesetters so that his vision of how the book should look is realised. In days gone by Canongate, Bloomsbury, and Jonathan Cape would have paid to typeset in Glasgow so that Gray, with his friend Joe Murray, could watch over.

David Knowles, one half of the publisher, introduced Gray with the question of how to introduce Alasdair Gray. In fact he was introducing Gray and his former secretary, Rodge Glass, here to assist him with a reading. And what a reading it was. Gray’s voice is grounded in his Glaswegian accent, although it’s enhanced with crisp pronunciation, and lilted with playful sparkle. When he reads he captures the voice and rhythm of Nick so well – and so he should, he wrote him – that the belief is there that he could add actor to his repertoire – if he hasn’t already. The pair bounded through the prologue and a section of the first act, playing lines off against each other and coming back twice as enthusing.

By contrast the following question and answer section was a tad disappointing. While I attend author events more for this section, I was wishing for more from the reading. It had its moments though, opened by a question from Knowles, asking about how the idea for something in Fleck came about, to which Gray proceeded in a Tristram Shandy tale of diversions, beginning with the Bible and the story of Job and leading off in all directions, halfway through noting that he was “raving”, and then carrying on with the plot of Goethe’s Faust to the point where, in explaining the changes in Fleck, he ceased, after bemused flappings from Two Ravens Press at the side, as he was about to give away the secrets of the play. Then did so anyway. Sort of.

Beyond that there was only one other question on whether there are plans afoot to stage Fleck. No, and the BBC most likely won’t film it as a one-off due to certain content in the ending, whatever that is. It must be a relief for the writer, when questions aren’t forthcoming; it means they can get their pen out, sign some books, and call a cab early. But it must also be upsetting that people make the effort to turn up without a question to air. Many, it seems, have their questions best asked one to one and I, standing at the rear of a queue, listen to the laughter coming my way from both Gray and his fans. I’ve not read him myself, and in telling him this he notes that Lanark is jumping in at the deep end. It may be that, but deep ends are the best place to dive into.

November 7, 2008

10 responses to Alasdair Gray @ Waterstone’s 6th-Nov-2008

  1. Kirsty said:

    Stewart, I’d be really interested in your thoughts on Gray’s writing. I am, as you know, an unabashed Gray-o-phile so always keen to see him get new readers. Lanark may be jumping in at the deep end, but it’s as good a place as any. That said, if you want something more “accessible”, Poor Things is absolutely wonderful.

  2. Stewart said:

    Hi Kirsty. Lanark is something I’ve been intrigued about so long, and this event has proved a spur to push the book further up the pile. I’ve some time off work later in the month and, looking at the size of it, it’s one of those books that would be best ploughed through in longer sessions rather than the quick fixes I manage through commuting.

  3. Pingback: World Literature Forum

  4. John Self said:

    Very interesting piece, Stewart. I consider myself a middling fan of Gray’s – usually read his books and love his approach, demeanour and attention to detail in the production end, but don’t always think they stand up on purely literary terms. Having said that, I firmly rate 1982 Janine as his best book, definitely above Lanark which I think is too long, and probably above Poor Things too (though that volume has a special place in my affections as it was the first Gray I read, and I still treasure the handsome Bloomsbury hardback I bought back in, what, 1992?). Something Leather is ‘interesting’ but I believe Gray now considers it a failure – though he’s so self-deprecating that it’s hard to know whether to trust his opinion sometimes.

    Most of his work in the last 15 years has been short stories: I recall liking Ten Tales Tall and True, but Mavis Belfrage and The Ends of Our Tethers a little less. I didn’t finish his last novel, published earlier this year (or was it last year? I can’t even remember the title, except that it had Old in it), as it seemed for once that Gray’s self-deprecation was justified – the book is a ragtag of old stuff Gray wrote for TV etc, with linking passages. Kirsty, however, disagrees!

    The other books of his I haven’t read are his most famous collection of stories, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, which I think is highly praised, and his (1994?) novel A History Maker, which is sci-fi-ish I believe, and apparently has a twist in the tail.

  5. Stewart said:

    I firmly rate 1982 Janine as his best book

    So does Gray, as he says at 0:49 in this clip. The whole five parts, of which that clip is part five, is quite interesting. Certainly I had no idea he’d painted murals in a few places I sometimes visit. Check out the painting of Oran Mor about 4:30 into the clip.

    Last year’s novel was Old Men In Love. I remember Kirsty’s enthusiasm. There’s another clip here where he talks about it.

  6. John Self said:

    Yes, I don’t know how I forgot Old Men in Love when you’d mentioned in your post! Must revisit 1982 Janine, and hope it holds up…

  7. John Self said:

    Thanks for the clip link, Stewart. Love the scene of Gray interviewing himself – I wonder if they had to persuade him to shave his beard off, or if it was his idea! (All this is, I think, exactly what I meant when I said above that I love his approach and demeanour almost more than his writing. He’s so damn likeable.) Interesting to see Jonathan Coe praising 1982 Janine also, but shouldn’t have been surprised since I am pretty sure What a Carve Up! (or one of his novels anyway) is dedicated “To 1994, Janine” or similar. Don’t know who the Scottish woman is praising him at the start of a clip though. However now I know I can stop criticising Kirsty Wark for pronouncing ‘novel’ as ‘nuvvel’, since I see Gray does it too – must be a Scots thing?

  8. Stewart said:

    The woman is Liz Lochhead, a poet and dramatist. I believe she’s Glasgow’s poet laureate at the moment, having taken over from Edwin Morgan a few years back.

    However now I know I can stop criticising Kirsty Wark for pronouncing ‘novel’ as ‘nuvvel’, since I see Gray does it too – must be a Scots thing?

    I don’t get that myself, as I’m sure I say novel. But I’ve certainly heard nuvvel pronounced regularly that way.

  9. Tom C said:

    Stewart – I have long been a fan of Alasdair Gray and it is fascinating to read your report here – and see a photograph too.

    Thanks for your comments on mine about readers block. Somehow I suspect that neither you nor I will run out of words quite yet!

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10 responses to Alasdair Gray @ Waterstone’s 6th-Nov-2008

  1. Kirsty said:

    Stewart, I’d be really interested in your thoughts on Gray’s writing. I am, as you know, an unabashed Gray-o-phile so always keen to see him get new readers. Lanark may be jumping in at the deep end, but it’s as good a place as any. That said, if you want something more “accessible”, Poor Things is absolutely wonderful.

  2. Stewart said:

    Hi Kirsty. Lanark is something I’ve been intrigued about so long, and this event has proved a spur to push the book further up the pile. I’ve some time off work later in the month and, looking at the size of it, it’s one of those books that would be best ploughed through in longer sessions rather than the quick fixes I manage through commuting.

  3. Pingback: World Literature Forum

  4. John Self said:

    Very interesting piece, Stewart. I consider myself a middling fan of Gray’s – usually read his books and love his approach, demeanour and attention to detail in the production end, but don’t always think they stand up on purely literary terms. Having said that, I firmly rate 1982 Janine as his best book, definitely above Lanark which I think is too long, and probably above Poor Things too (though that volume has a special place in my affections as it was the first Gray I read, and I still treasure the handsome Bloomsbury hardback I bought back in, what, 1992?). Something Leather is ‘interesting’ but I believe Gray now considers it a failure – though he’s so self-deprecating that it’s hard to know whether to trust his opinion sometimes.

    Most of his work in the last 15 years has been short stories: I recall liking Ten Tales Tall and True, but Mavis Belfrage and The Ends of Our Tethers a little less. I didn’t finish his last novel, published earlier this year (or was it last year? I can’t even remember the title, except that it had Old in it), as it seemed for once that Gray’s self-deprecation was justified – the book is a ragtag of old stuff Gray wrote for TV etc, with linking passages. Kirsty, however, disagrees!

    The other books of his I haven’t read are his most famous collection of stories, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, which I think is highly praised, and his (1994?) novel A History Maker, which is sci-fi-ish I believe, and apparently has a twist in the tail.

  5. Stewart said:

    I firmly rate 1982 Janine as his best book

    So does Gray, as he says at 0:49 in this clip. The whole five parts, of which that clip is part five, is quite interesting. Certainly I had no idea he’d painted murals in a few places I sometimes visit. Check out the painting of Oran Mor about 4:30 into the clip.

    Last year’s novel was Old Men In Love. I remember Kirsty’s enthusiasm. There’s another clip here where he talks about it.

  6. John Self said:

    Yes, I don’t know how I forgot Old Men in Love when you’d mentioned in your post! Must revisit 1982 Janine, and hope it holds up…

  7. John Self said:

    Thanks for the clip link, Stewart. Love the scene of Gray interviewing himself – I wonder if they had to persuade him to shave his beard off, or if it was his idea! (All this is, I think, exactly what I meant when I said above that I love his approach and demeanour almost more than his writing. He’s so damn likeable.) Interesting to see Jonathan Coe praising 1982 Janine also, but shouldn’t have been surprised since I am pretty sure What a Carve Up! (or one of his novels anyway) is dedicated “To 1994, Janine” or similar. Don’t know who the Scottish woman is praising him at the start of a clip though. However now I know I can stop criticising Kirsty Wark for pronouncing ‘novel’ as ‘nuvvel’, since I see Gray does it too – must be a Scots thing?

  8. Stewart said:

    The woman is Liz Lochhead, a poet and dramatist. I believe she’s Glasgow’s poet laureate at the moment, having taken over from Edwin Morgan a few years back.

    However now I know I can stop criticising Kirsty Wark for pronouncing ‘novel’ as ‘nuvvel’, since I see Gray does it too – must be a Scots thing?

    I don’t get that myself, as I’m sure I say novel. But I’ve certainly heard nuvvel pronounced regularly that way.

  9. Tom C said:

    Stewart – I have long been a fan of Alasdair Gray and it is fascinating to read your report here – and see a photograph too.

    Thanks for your comments on mine about readers block. Somehow I suspect that neither you nor I will run out of words quite yet!

  10. Pingback: World Literature Forum

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