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