Private: Alasdair Gray

Introducing his interview with Alasdair Gray, Euan Ferguson observes that readers in the U.K. know Gray’s name, but not his work:

[W]hen you mention his name in literary London today you’re met with strange looks. ‘I always meant to read it,’ they’ll say;or ‘It’s quite cult, isn’t it?’ or ‘He’s into his sex and art, I think; and isn’t there something to do with typography?’ and occasionally, irritatingly, ‘I heard it was quite Scottish.’ The one thing you don’t hear, ever, is: ‘Yes, I think I’ve read Lanark.’ If you’ve read it you don’t forget, ever.

In the interview, Gray talks about the importance of financial stability to young artists:

…. [O]ver the years, I managed to get myself into some ghastly traps that more writers than you know will get themselves into. I could only get out of debts that were beginning to accumulate by getting an advance on an unwritten book. And by the time I had written the unwritten book I’d have finished the advance and get into debt again unless I got an advance on another unwritten book, and I hated the idea of my art becoming a treadmill.

(Via The Literary Saloon.)

Last month Irvine Welsh reviewed Gray’s new short story collection, saying that the “pages glow with keen and incisive wit, are stuffed with quirky and downright weird occurrences, while the philosophical ruminations make us pause for thought, and the sad, flawed, often cowardly, but ultimately humane and decent pro tagonists are back with a vengeance.”

While Welsh acknowledged that “readers expecting to see more of the wild, experimental Gray of his earlier work, including his previous collections of short stories, the often brilliant Unlikely Stories Mostly or Ten Tales Tall and True, may be a bit disappointed,” he said the collection is consistent and “emerges as one of [Gray’s] most quietly satisfying books.” According to Welsh, Gray is “is one of the most gifted writers who have put pen to paper in the English language.”

An excerpt from “Pillow Talk,” one of the stories from the new collection (The Ends of Our Tethers), appears at the bottom of this page.

In an interview published in 2001, Gray talked about the books that have influenced him:

All the ones I mention in the Lanark epilogue. At the end is a list of books that I stole from… I read as much as I could of Thomas Hardy and Dickens, and then later I discovered Scott, oddly enough, and 0Stevenson.

Other books that have influenced him, Gray has said elsewhere, include:

….Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God, for my father once told me he read to me when I was very small, and I kept asking him, “Will the next God be the real one, Daddy?” I read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, when an adolescent, in Archer’s translation. (My dad had become a Fabian socialist through his First World War experiences, so we had all Shaw’s plays and his “Quintessence of Ibsenism,” which probably put Dad onto Ibsen.) Peer Gynt is the quest of nineteenth-century man in search of his soul or true self-it takes him through scenery as wild, yet oddly familiar, as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which I could not enjoy because I did not want to be a born-again Christian. Then there was Melville’s Moby Dick with its combination of great idioms: natural history, factory ship, oil industry, Shakespearean monologue, Yankee wisecracks, Wordsworthian meditation. Then Kafka and Kafka and Kafka.

I remember a children’s prose version of the Odyssey read when nine or ten. The idea of a voyage from one magic island to another gripped really hard. Of course the quest here was to get home again, but the journey interested me more than hope of arrival. There was also the Quest for the Golden Fleece in Kingsley’s The Heroes, the adventures of Jason and Theseus, the quest of Gawain in a child’s Mort D’Arture version–also Sinbad, whose adventures are all voyages in search of wealth by trade or good luck. Then I read Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, a quest into the African bush to bring a tapster back from the world of the dead, where the scenery and episodic nature of the story were very like those of Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God. And these stories exalted because they let me into a life of important, surprising, dangerous adventures, while leaving me perfectly safe. But at the end, Kafka was the most useful, because his heroes were all dull strivers, heroic only in their persistence in a world like mine. The city where the bank official Joseph K struggles for acquittal from a nameless crime could easily have been Glasgow–the slums with law courts in their attics, the artist’s tenement studio, the foggy, nearly empty cathedral struck me as Glaswegian. So did the land surveyor’s struggle to get his position, his work in the town confirmed by the officialdom of the adjacent castle. But the quest of the young boy in Amerika–I forget his name–struck me hard, though I noticed it was based on Oliver Twist. The description of how he at last joins the Nature Circus of Arizona–the new deal which can employ all the homeless of America and Europe–was proof that even Kafka could write a good ending out of a world like mine–that human government was redeemable….