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Fleck: a Verse Comedy by Alasdair Gray

A Comedy in Verse Derived from Goethe’s Tragedy of Faust. Two Ravens Press, 2008, 104 p.

Fleck cover

Gray is multi-talented; playwright, novelist, artist. A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, he illustrates his own books (and those of others) in a distinctive style. His first novel, Lanark, instantly established him as one of the most important Scottish novelists of his or any generation. His left wing politics are not hard to discern and his enthusiasm for Scottish independence and Scottish culture has displeased some.

Fleck does what it says on the tin; reworks Faust in a modern idiom with the main character recast as a Scottish scientist, Fleck. Other characters include God, Nick and the journalists Pee and Cue. The book also includes a postscript by the author where he discusses the appearances of the devil in the Bible (there are only two,) Satan’s co-option by the established church to police sensuality, the evolution of the Faust story and its influence on Gray personally, and the drawbacks of Goethe’s version. Finally there are five Gray poems which deal with God. A packed 104 pages then.

Verse is a surprisingly good vehicle for Gray’s updated tale. (Or perhaps not surprising if you think of Shakespeare.) The rhythm of the iambic pentameter is a fine motor. And it throws up nicely judged juxtapositions, “Broadcasters think the public is a fool/ so sounding stupid is their golden rule.”

Very little that Gray has written is not worth reading. Fleck is no exception. Not just the play but the postscript and poems too.

Pedant’s corner: Labelling a year as Anus Domini looks like it may be a misprint but I wouldn’t put it past Gray to have used it deliberately. But oughtn’t tug-of-wars for supremacy be tugs-of-war? Bismark for Bismarck.

Gillespie by J MacDougall Hay

Canongate, 1983, 450 p.

Gillespie cover

This novel was first published in 1914 – not a good time to make a debut – and was all but forgotten for the next fifty or so years. When it was reprinted in 1979 it was hailed in some quarters as if it was some sort of lost classic, compared to The House with the Green Shutters, with which it has some thematic similarities. Alasdair Gray describes Gillespie as having “the worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” The chapter is indeed overwrought, and overwritten, but lasts less than two pages.

The book’s subject, Gillespie Strang, is born under a bad sign. Literally. In an inn whose emblem is a dagger striking down. His mother fears all the male Strangs are doomed. This premonition haunts the book but not Gillespie himself. He is the type of man who might be described as a bad lot. On the make, sly and avaricious, tight with his money, he starts off trapping rabbits on others’ land, swiftly moves on and up, proposes to a local girl to cement a business deal with her father – a deal which condemns a neighbour to penurious widowhood – grows to be a power in the town, the fishing village Brieston, based on Hay’s boyhood home, Tarbert, on Loch Fyne. Structured over four books the novel describes Gillespie’s rise and rise through his and his family’s eyes and those of some of his neighbours. Herring fishing, its ups and downs, is a large presence in the early books; weather, storms and drought, a counterpoint to the tale. All are grist to Gillespie’s acquisitive mill.

Gillespie is a very Scottish novel and has that Calvinist intertwining of the religious with the everyday that pervades Scottish literature and even now, despite the decline in religious observance and belief, affects the Scottish character. Predestination hangs over Gillespie Strang like the striking dagger above the inn. Hay was a Church of Scotland minister, so this flavouring is unsurprising. A key phrase is the Biblical quote, “God is not mocked,” that the widowed Mrs Galbraith pins to her door after her eviction due to Gillespie’s dealings with his future father-in-law. It isn’t perhaps a book you would recommend as an introduction to Scottish writing, it is of its time – or perhaps earlier – and its casual references to “the Jew” who pawns items for the locals jar nowadays. And the overwriting too present in chapter one also plagues the book. There is a glossary at the back but not all the Scots expressions used in the novel can be found there. Yet let it wash over you; in most cases the sense will come through.

The viewpoint characters are complex and individual. One of them claims Scottish exceptionalism, “We are the land that barred out the Romans; the land that has pride without insolence; courage without audacity; blood with condescension.” While Mrs Galbraith reflects on the state of women, “They compromised themselves, not out of vice, but simply to please men, who take advantage,” “A woman will sacrifice everything, even life itself, which often is a slow martyrdom, to satisfy the claims of her family,” she herself plans to degrade Gillespie’s wife as a means to repay him the wrongs he has done her.

In an introduction (which, like most such, should not be read till after the book itself) Bob Tait and Isobel Murray say, “The English novel characteristically limits itself to issues more domestic than the Scots.” The strength of the English novel, “lies in analysis of individual, family or group relationships, of individual psychology, or in forms of novels of manners. Gillespie like other Scots novels, has a wider scope. To find similar scope and ambition we have to go to the Russian or American novel where matters political, social, philosophical and metaphysical are more commonly treated.” They explicitly compare it to Moby Dick in its “relentless questioning of the universe and the source and nature of evil.”

To modern tastes Gillespie as a novel might appear overcooked. Its roots lie in Victorian literature; there are reminders of Thomas Hardy in its grimmer scenes, of Dickens in its length and list of characters. It describes a rural/remote Scotland on the cusp of the modern age – a Scotland that has long gone – but reminds us that human nature is unchanging.

Alasdair Gray’s summation of Gillespie is that it is “good, but not throughout.” I’d go along with that.

Merchandise at Kirkcaldy Library

For about a year or so – perhaps more – the shop at Kirkcaldy Library has had for sale items designed by locally based artist Susan McGill. The last time I was there I took this photo:-

Unlikely Stories Mostly cover
The Book of Prefaces Cover

To me the designs above are very reminiscent of those of Alasdair Gray. (See left and right.)
The McGill merchandise includes greetings cards, dish towels and trays. The writing on the tray says, “The Human Race may be a’richt, but this intae yer lug. The mair I see o’ some folks the mair I like ma dug,” or, in plain English, “The Human Race may be all right, but this into your ear. The more I see of some people the more I like my dog.” One of her greetings cards displays a side-on picture of a black and white dog with the second of her two sentences as the caption. A close-up on the tray is below.

The Mair I Like Ma Dug

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing by Alasdair Gray

Canongate Pocket Classics, 2001, 159 p

Short History Scottish Fiction cover

The book is diminutive in size (16 cm tall, 11 wide) but not content. It rattles through the history of writing in and by Scots from Anglo-Saxon times till the early 20th century. It focuses on what Gray – and most other commentators – consider to be the best in the tradition; hence classic in the book’s title. More recent Scottish writing is deliberately excluded as being too close for a proper perspective.

Several of the works mentioned in the survey were of course overlooked or even derided on first publication and it is only with time their merits have come to be recognised. Overall, though, the literary output from this small nation is shown fit to stand comparison with any.

Book Haul

On Saturday we went to the Christain Aid booksale which is held every two years at St Andrew’s and St George’s Church, George Street, Edinburgh. It was mobbed.

This was my haul:-

Book Haul

The Hoose O Haivers took my fancy just because of its title – it contains short stories by Matthhew Fitt, Susan Rennie and James Robertson.

Rhoda Lerman’s The Book of the Night is a Womens’ Press SF publication from 1986.

The Art Nouveau and Art Deco book was spotted by the good lady (who herself bought 13 books!) It has some lovely illustrations.

Fleck is a verse comedy by Alasdair Gray.

Palace Walk is the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy.

Goodness knows when I’ll get round to reading them.
The Hoose O Haivers and Fleck are quite short so I could fit them in easily enough I suppose. The Mahfouz looks like a long project though.

The book sale continues till Friday.

A Life In Pictures Alasdair Gray

Canongate, 2010, 304p

 A Life In Pictures cover

This is not an autobiography but a visual chronology of Alasdair Gray’s life. His earliest days are seen in photographs; after his artistic ability became apparent those paintings, drawings, leaflets, book covers, murals etc of which a record remains have all been reproduced in the book, each annotated with the date it was made and the medium he used. One chapter is devoted to the work of Alan Fletcher, a friend of his from Art School, who died young.

Accompanying the pictures are some explanatory words (which only incidentally add up to a potted biography.) Gray seems always to have been a not strictly representational artist – at school an art teacher told him his shadows were wrong or not present; he adopted multi-perspective views. He did attend the Glasgow School of Art, his peers recognising Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece as a wonderful building for their purposes but none of them having been made aware of its designer nor that he had been Scottish until informed by a foreign visitor. That circumstance is almost incomprehensible today. Gray complains of the tutors being hidebound, wedded to the principles of Ruskin, uncaring (ignorant?) of Modern Art, with no mention of the Colourists, as a result of which he and his contemporaries were effectively reinventing earlier modes. There was too an implicit lack of encouragement, no idea of the possibility of making a living as an artist in Scotland. (Arguably there was none at that time.) It was only because Gray was not accepted into the Painting Department for his third year that he took up his signature murals. That seems to me to hang over all his later work as his style is distinctive, even his portraits display that blockiness. So, in a lesser way, do the few landscapes he has painted, which are not as obviously Gray works as the paintings and murals are. Many of his paintings actually remain unfinished since he did not have sufficient time to devote to completing them.

The book is, of course, a feast for the eyes but the text is marred by a few typos. (Proof reading such a complex project cannot have been easy, though.) It does not exist for the text however.

At time of writing Gray is still at work on the huge commission to adorn the walls and ceiling of the Oran Mor Arts and Leisure Centre at the top of Byres Road, Glasgow.

The Ends Of Our Tethers, 13 Sorry Stories by Alasdair Gray.

Canongate, 1985, 181p.

Every Gray book is a visual delight. This is another of those beautifully produced Canongate editions of Gray’€™s works, as usual with wide margins and illustrations by the author, though here there are no footnotes nor marginal annotations. In the main these so-called sorry stories feature, as the book’s title suggests, put-upon protagonists and include more than a few tales of unsatisfactory or failed marriages. They vary in length from two or so to 44 pages.

Gray’€™s narrators tend to have an air of detachment about them and it is unsurprising that their relationships are dysfunctional. Some have especially unfortunate habits. Job’€™s Skin Game‘€™s narrator is so fascinated by his own eczema he subject his scabs to almost Linnaean levels of classification.

Of the other stories that do not focus on marriage Aiblins features the suppression by an academic of a younger poet’€™s works and acts partly as a device to smuggle in some of Gray’€™s own (accomplished) poetry which he nevertheless deconstructs in typical Gray fashion. Wellbeing is about the necessity of not being sane in our crazy world and Big Pockets With Buttoned Flaps is an unusual erotic preference.

15 February 2003 is not so much a story as an account of an anti-Iraq war march. Here Gray mentions that the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956. He is confusing this with the invasion of Hungary in that year. The (crushed) Prague Spring was in 1968.

With its illustrations of disconnection mixed with the odd desultory polemic, as an introduction to Gray’€™s world view this collection couldn’t be bettered.

Edinburgh Again

We took another stroll along the Water of Leith yesterday and there was the heron again. (I assume it’s the same one we saw before.)

It was quite undisturbed while we were going past, standing stock still, making the photo easier. It only moved up on to the bank after we were along the path a bit.

We browsed the book and charity shops in Stockbridge for a while but I came away empty handed. The good lady picked up two books to add to her to be read pile.

This time we came back via the town and so passed the Dene Bridge at the upper level.

There’s no idea from here of how high above the water the roadway is nor of the immensity of the pillars.

Later we dropped into the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art off Belford Road.

There are sculptures outside; including an unmistakable couple of Henry Moores.

One is at the front.

There is another beside the path which leads down from the car park to the Water of Leith.

Much of modern art leaves me cold but Moore’s sculptures are interesting.

Most of the stuff inside is a bit meh but the figurative paintings by the Scottish Colourists are an exception. (I’m used to these though as the excellent Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery has a fine collection of Peploes as well as some others.)

There were too some pictures by Alasdair Gray on exhibition in the Gallery to tie in with the newly published book of his art work, A Life In Pictures.

Working Legs: a play for people without them by Alasdair Gray

Dog And Bone, 1997, 134p

Working Legs cover

Gray wrote Working Legs at the request of Birds Of Paradise a Glasgow-based theatre company which stages plays using physically disabled actors.

It is set in a society where to be in a wheelchair is the norm and those who can stand and walk are unusual and frowned upon. The plot concerns the trials and tribulations of Able McMann, who is hypermanic and cannot stop himself using his legs. This is a kind of inversion typical of SF (to which Gray is, of course, no stranger) and while the play is somewhat programmatic at times it does highlight issues surrounding society’s treatment of those who are different while incidentally satirising Thatcherite politics of swingeing cuts (now a timely concern again) and the machinations and manipulations of the tabloid press. The resolution could be sentimental were it not undercut by the reappearance of a minor character, but it does round things off satisfactorily.

The book is also copiously illustrated with Gray’s unmistakable idiosyncratic art work.

I don’t usually read plays and bought this only as a Gray completist. I did enjoy it, though.

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