Artistic blooms tend to be triggered by seismic technological or political change. Where the first Scottish literary “renaissance” arrived as the result of the brutal shock to romantic sentiments the First World War had dealt, a new flurry of writing activity arose on the back of the fateful year of 1979. In March a referendum was held on the question of whether Scotland should have a devolved parliament. The result came out in favour of devolution but was declared invalid because of low turnout. In May Margaret Thatcher was elected as prime minister.
It would be a mistake, however, to align the novels, plays and poems produced in these eras too closely with contemporary events. Rarely, no matter how much I admire H. G. Wells, is literature simply a case of trumped-up journalism. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, for example, was, in Sunset Song, still processing the tumultuous effects of the 14-18 war on Scottish rural life in 1932, rather than reporting on Europe’s rampant fascism. In the same way, Alasdair Gray does not speculate narrowly on the decade of Thatcher that would follow the publication of his debut novel Lanark in 1981. Instead, he focusses on processing the postwar era just as the consensus was beginning to fragment and fall apart. In this, he often risked unfettered nostalgia and his character Jock McLeish in 1982, Janine, as he looks back fondly (with not-so-subtle sexual subtext) on the moon landing, proclaims:
“There was no one point after which things got worse, but my last spasm of scientific, social delight was in 1969” (299).
Gray was much more interested in long term cultural shifts and changes than the novelty of the Thatcher era. This broader, more encompassing streak, alongside his age (his belonging to a different generation), I think set him apart from his contemporaries who came to prominence in this period such as Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Iain Banks or Irvine Welsh; he was an odd one out even in his cultural “scene”.
To address the 80s, in a novel that sprawled out from what was originally a short story, Gray turned to a character much less obviously autobiographical than the Thaw of Lanark’s first two books. Jock McLeish of Janine is a self-loathing, Tory voting, sexual fantasist who travels the length and breadth of Scotland repairing “instruments” for “the National”. This allows Gray to peer over the city walls and examine the country at large from the perspective of someone who begrudges its existence but is bound to it psychologically in the form of a resurfacing ex whom he cruelly mistreated despite an unshakable love. It is, in my opinion, his greatest work.
What Gray achieved, however, goes far beyond political analysis. His life’s ambition was to do for Glasgow what James Joyce did for London and he was unique in his pursuit of this single-minded goal. Unlike Joyce, however, Gray rarely left his universal city and died not 10 miles from where he was born. He recognised that Glasgow was not “Scotland” and wrestled with his cosmopolitan instincts and his desire for what he called “Home Rule”. On the one hand, he wanted to imagine Glasgow as a Weltstadt but his constitutional goals were too concrete not to allow him an exploration of Scotland’s contradictions; its Highlands and Lowlands, Clydesides and Lothians, Radicals and Presbyterians.
Although we remember Gray chiefly for his prolific writing period in the 80s and early 90s, before that he had an art career in painting public murals and was commissioned to write radio plays for the BBC. When the contracts and projects dried up, he began to sketch portraits of notable Glaswegians and perhaps then began to contemplate his home city as the microcosm that fizzles from the pages of his Life in Four Books. Conjuring an imagined, diabolical and divine Glasgow in his debut novel, he later left his mark physically in the colossal Oran Mor ceiling painting and the refracted architecture of Hillhead subway station.
It remains to be asked, who will take up the gauntlet and write for a new era? A Scotland in transition, having rejected its independence in 2014 and facing down the dismal defeat of Labour south of the border. I am sure that Gray would not embrace despair. He was relentlessly optimistic and believed things could always be improved upon. In writing Lanark, he did not aim to pen the greatest novel of all time for all time; merely, the greatest novel of all time for our time – thereafter to be surpassed and overturned.
I do not think that Gray achieved his goal. Lanark feels too self-congratulatory, too much like a victory lap in the indulgent fourth book. What he did accomplish, however, is worthy of the highest praise and allowed those who came after him to recognise the wretched aspects of modern Scottish living and to dream of a new republic. His politics and plots owe much to his predecessors but in that, he had a distinct lack of concern for originality. He imagined an intensely local form of literature that at the same time refused to be contained within national boundaries, a genre-defying epic unheeding of science fiction, magical realism or the autobiography’s constraints, and parallel universes foreshadowing dark descent and the lure of utopia.
If great literature holds up a mirror to the world, then Gray’s vision was Alice’s looking glass. Fundamentally interested in alternative realities, it is no wonder that near the time of his death Gray was in the process of, in his words, “Englishing” the concluding third volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy – Heaven. It seems that the greats often turn to translation late in life and it seems a testament to the craft that the most brilliant literary lights have such respect for it that they wait until self-mastery before attempting to realise a foreign-tongued genius. Much like the late Tom Leonard’s turn to Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage (a play that follows a vagrant peasant family speaking in the author’s native Augsburg dialect through Europe during the 30 Years’ War) in his final years, Gray took on Italy’s finest writer’s attempt to understand the complexities of his age through various planes of existence in the afterlife. He published Hell in 2018 and Purgatory late last year.
It was not the first time Gray approached world literature, having translated Goethe’s Faust as Fleck in 2008. The influence of German literature can be felt in all of his works especially the stories of Kafka and the psychology of Jung and Freud. Goethe’s epithet, “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht/ den können wir erlösen“ (loosely translating as whoever continues to strive and apply themselves/ we are able to redeem) is the haunting phrase that echoes across Lanark’s concluding chapters. It excellently demonstrates Gray’s belief in the process over the finished product and the obsessive need for constant revision that dragged out a church mural supposed to be completed within a week to a three-year project and caused his debut novel to spend several decades in gestation.
Of course, Gray knew that his work was temporary. In this, I do find partial agreement with H. G. Wells, who said that “all literature is journalism and will pass away in this changing world”. He learnt this the hard way the aforementioned kirk was scheduled for demolition shortly after he completed the mural to which the congregation grew increasingly hostile as time went on. It wasn’t as if all was folly; only most.
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