Wednesday, August 04, 2004


This is an older piece of writing that was salvaged from a defunct and experimental website of yore; I was inspired to re-post it because it re-kindled feelings of awe and admiration for an altogether fantastic storyteller. Here begins a mini-essay on the inimitable work of Alasdair Gray:

My original discovery of the incomparable Alasdair Gray came to pass by way of a piece written by Will Self, whose commentary on Gray served as an introduction to a collection of essays paying tribute to the Scottish writer. At the time, I had never heard of Alasdair Gray, but quickly decided that anyone whom Will Self cited as a major influence was worth a closer look.

I knew I had stumbled upon something special when I stood before the Gray canon on the thirteenth floor of Robarts library. Not only were the titles quirky and enticing, the books possessed a physicality that clearly indicated its creator was an artist whose work encompassed both words and images. Their outsides were decoratively gilded, while their insides featured whimsical marginal illustrations, in addition to intricate full-page drawings with a decidedly surreal feel to them. The one I eventually chose to read first, ‘Poor Things’, proffered the following advice on its front and back covers: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ During these times of global maelstrom, such a recommendation is perceived as a sentiment of optimism, but also as something to lament, since we most definitely do not live in the early days of a better nation, nor does Gray. Yet it is certain that Gray's earnest and somber words are a personal conviction in addition to being a life's mantra (otherwise, why would they be emblazoned on the front and back covers of his creations?).

In addition to the remarkable physical details of Gray’s books, there are also the unusual titles to consider, the most notable of which, in my mind, remains ‘Something Leather’. The ‘something leather’ in question turns out to be an article of clothing that is custom made for a woman whose style of dress is tasteful, albeit conservative. Originally looking for a long leather skirt, she comes away with something altogether different, and it changes her previously staid and predictable life; the seamstresses who construct it also change her life. Indeed, the many characters, whose disparate lives eventually intertwine, affect each other in unexpectedly profound ways. As well, the everyman and everywoman types that we meet as the story unfolds are as familiar to us as friends, neighbours, and family members within our own commonplace and dysfunctional lives.

And then there is Lanark. Lanark: A Life in Four Books is irrational literature at its fantastical best. For Lanark and his juvenile counterpart, Duncan Thaw, nothing comes easy, and obstacles to love and happiness abound. Mostly, the search for meaning in their lives is fruitless and confounding. Though the effort may be hapless, it is far from being hopeless. Indeed, Thaw has every confidence that he will stumble upon the ‘key’ to the meaning of everything, and all within the confines of ordinary, everyday life, “to be found on a night walk through the streets, printed on a scrap of paper blown out of the rubble of a bombed factory, or whispered in a dark street by someone leaning suddenly out of a window.”

As one weaves through the dismal, disheartening landscapes that Lanark and Thaw inhabit, hopelessness and hopefulness live side by side. Then, as one’s involvement deepens, it is with simultaneous alarm and comfort that the realization of aching familiarity comes to fruition: from ‘this is a world where I never wish to find myself’ to ‘this is a world where I find myself each and every day’ and finally, ‘this is my world’. There is always a small amount of comfort to be derived from the knowledge of the misery of others, because it tells us we are not alone in being doomed to live a life of hard-knocks. That is why Lanark, to me, represents an achievement in providing a revealing testimonial that approximates what it means to be human and to suffer when all one strives toward is living an authentic life, preferably in the company of a few good people, though many an obstacle may prevail, and the accelerated passage of time precludes that any satisfaction be derived from the here and the now. It is as Lanark laments, just before his [untimely] demise is alluded to: “I ought to have more love before I die. I’ve not had enough”.

What I haven’t had enough of is Alasdair Gray. He has made an indelible mark on my word-thirsty and idea-thirsty mind, having also made a mark on the literary world long before my discovery of the Scottish scribe. Not only does he speak for his nation in an eloquent and moving way, his themes and the way they play themselves out speak to any individual who has ever questioned their place and their fit in the world.

Alasdair Gray on the Web

"An Epistolary Interview, Mostly with Alasdair Gray", Centre for Book Culture

How Lanark Grew, as it appears in the Canongate Classic edition of Lanark

Founding Father of the Scottish Renaissance, The Guardian

Alasdair Gray at the Complete Review [reviews, links, bibliography, biography, etc.]

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