Alasdair Gray Interview
Terminus was an enthralling installation created through a collaboration between Whitbread and Guardian prize-winning novelist Alasdair Gray (born Glasgow, 1934-2019) and Deutsche Bank award winning artist Francesca Lowe (born London, 1979-2017) for Riflemaker Gallery in London in 2007. I was fortunate enough at the time to meet with the artist for this Alasdair Gray interview.
The exhibition featured a padded-room of works on canvas on the theme of the ‘Fairground of Life’ with words on paper by Alasdair Gray, with an exclusive new short story on the same theme.
Alasdair Gray’s 1981 masterpiece Lanark established him as a major literary voice, “one of the finest writers ever to put pen to paper in the English language” (Irvine Welsh), “the greatest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott” (Anthony Burgess). Lanark became one of the key novels of the 20th century and is a satirical, subterranean novel, a coming-of-age story set within a world that echoes with Dante, Kafka, Blake and Lewis Carroll.
Lanark takes a moral viewpoint as it performs its own unravelling but Terminus didn’t. Lowe’s canvases depicted a visually stimulating journey full of thrills and temptation whilst Gray explored on the same philosophical proposition via text.
Robin Rimbaud: I was surprised to find there was a blog online that you are responsible for.
Alasdair Gray: yes I started that. What happened was that the Guardian newspaper asked me to contribute to their blog as their ‘northern correspondent.’ had been asked by the National Library of Scotland to write a letter of support to Gordon Brown about various tax issues. I suggestded to The Guardian that they could put this on their blog but they responded saying it was too long, they only wanted snippets. Then it occurred to me to start a blog of my own which I would put in things that I would like people to read.
RR So it offers you a freedom
AG: Yes exactly, I began by putting in that letter. Afterwards it began to occur to me to put in the recent things I’d written, such as one act plays and occasional poems and of course since I revise a lot, I’ve kept improving them! I can’t operate a keyboard. I never learnt to type, but I’m fortunate to employ Helen Lloyd four days of the week. Like yourself I write with a fountain pen a lot but since I generally have a lot of scribbled notes, she can show me the printed items on the screen.
RR. Does it free you from the publisher?
AG: It is, but it’s still proof read by the publishers as it’s astonishing how many inconsistencies you will find.
RR There’s a great quote in your new book actually ‘how can an old man of very experience put the world where he lives into a good story.’
AG: Exactly, that’s the problem (loud laughter) I’m putting my problem onto Tunnock (the protagonist of his new novel)
RR Well that’s what I’m curious about is this question of fiction and identity (copy question from paper). What are your feelings about identity?
AG: Well in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, you have a story told from the viewpoint of this American girl who is the daughter of a major Hollywood film director and tells how she meets this script writer onboard this aeroplane, and talking to him she says can’t help feeling when she’s talking to writers she can’t help feeling a pitying condescension for them because she feels they are always several people who are trying to carry on as if they were one person (laughter). Again it’s again it’s what Keats in talking about negative capability, taking the line where the poet is the least poetic thing in the universe. He can see the poetry of general existence because he’s got none of it himself. He can receive poetry. To put it at its crudest, other people don’t know they’re part of a gigantic and universal Shakespearean drama because they haven’t the mind of Shakespeare can see they are! (laughter).
RR But presumably are always searching for you in your books? In interview and in reviews they are always searching for you within the narrative.
AG. Probably. When I first started writing my novel Lanark. I think I was 18 at the time. At this point I was writing two books. One a Kafkaesque novel, and the other A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Glasgow instead of Dublin, and in doing that I had the notion of what was going to develop. That he was going to go to art school, he was going to fail as an artist. He was going to attempt a great work, fail in it and (dramatic pause…) commit suicide. Good. I’ve got my plot! Then I tackled the first chapter. I’d always found writing easy, compositions, essays, what I did during the summer holidays! I found it quite easy to trot out my ideas in a perfectly fluid manner but here I was setting out what seemed to be a story. Despite my being very impressed by Tristan Shandy, and its very button holing style of narrative, what I found was that what I wanted to do was write, as George Orwell said, to make the prose like a clear pane of glass through which you could see and hear people doing things, and I didn’t want to feel that it was all smeared over with me. Therefore I wanted a style that wouldn’t attract peoples attention to it. Therefore I wanted to tell a story in quite simple, very clear, ordinary words.
RR That’s interesting as I have found reading descriptions in much of Henry James’ work too obsessively detailed and actually distracting from the story at hand, where the descriptions drowned the stories.
AG Well I have a lot of trouble with later James, but one of my favourite books is The Europeans. It’s like Jane Austen with scenery (laughter)!! And like The Tin Drum it’s one of the few books in which I saw the film and thought there’s no discrepancy between this film and my memory of the book I’d thoroughly enjoyed.
RR I remember a writer I adored as a teenager in the early 1980s was the British novelist B S Johnson, a man who obsessed over a problem of telling lies in a narrative; a writer who played with conventions and explored them in a witty but intelligent manner, questioning the role of the author and the discrepancy between the fictional and the real. Presumably you’re familiar with his work?
AG yes, yes, I read Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s own Double Entry.
And then suddenly the recording stops, whilst mysteries we were to speak about are hidden somewhere in the archives still.
Since I write this piece both Gray and Lowe have died, at very different points in their trajectory and both equally a huge loss to the literary and art world. I dedicate this little piece to them both