Alasdair Gray


originally published:
Edinburgh : Canongate Publishing

We offered this copy of the first edition, inscribed in the year of publication, in our second Classic Book Cards set.


  • Burgess 99(1981)
  • First Book(1981)

reference info

bio notes:
born: 12/28/1934
born as: Alasdair James Gray

"Alasdair Gray," writes Gray at the beginning of his tale A History Maker (1994), "is a fat old asthmatic Glaswegian who lives by painting and writing." Gray's summation does not intimate the extremely high critical regard in which he has been held since the appearance in 1981 of Lanark: A Life in Four Books. Gray had begun writing the novel in the early 1950s while a student at the Glasgow School of Art, and on its publication he found himself touted by Anthony Burgess and many others as the first great Scottish writer since Sir Walter Scott . He remains a vital and towering figure on the increasingly populated Scottish literary and artistic landscape, writing everything from fantastic historical fiction to plays, poetry, and political polemics, and illustrating his own books and those of others with his dark and distinctive pen drawings.

Alasdair James Gray was born in Glasgow on 28 December 1934 to Alexander Gray, who worked in a cardboard-box factory, and Amy Fleming Gray. In 1939, during World War II, Alasdair, his mother, and his younger sister, Mora Jean, were evacuated to Lanarkshire; they were reunited with Alexander Gray in Wetherby, Yorkshire, in 1941. In Yorkshire, Gray wrote a short play based on Homer's Odyssey; when it was performed by Gray and his classmates at the Church School in Wetherby, he took the role of the blinded Cyclops, Polyphemus. After the war the family returned to Glasgow, where Gray was a member of the choir at Whitehill Senior Secondary School. As a teenager he wrote a version of one of Aesop's Fables and several poems and read them on a BBC children's program; his drawings and writings were published in the Whitehill School Magazine.

Gray left Whitehill with high grades in art and English and enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art, where he specialized in murals. Around this time he began, under the working title "Thaw," the novel that would be published as Lanark. In 1957 he made his first extended trip out of Scotland, traveling to Spain on an art-school scholarship, but his stay was cut short by a violent asthma attack. Characteristically, a year after his return he made the dreadful experience the basis of a story, "A Report to the Trustees of the Bellahouston Traveling Scholarship," which appears in Lean Tales (1985) which Gray coauthored with James Kelman and Agnes Owens. Returning to Scotland, he obtained his diploma and went on to teach art in Lanarkshire and paint murals for churches and a synagogue; some of these paintings have been destroyed along with the buildings, but his best-known public work, on the walls of Glasgow's Ubiquitous Chip restaurant, remains. In 1961, while working as a cabaret comedian in a nightclub at the Edinburgh Festival during the school holidays, Gray met and married Inge Sorensen. He gave up teaching to work as a scene painter for two theaters and attempted, without success, to publish the first part of Lanark. His son Andrew was born in 1963.

Gray's teleplay The Fall of Kelvin Walker, the saga of a young Presbyterian nihilist from Glaik, Scotland, who triumphs in and then is crushed by the swinging London of 1967, was produced by the British Broadcasting Company in 1968. In the next ten years Gray had a series of plays accepted for radio, television, or stage performance; sometimes the same work would be adapted for two, or even all three, of these media. Many of these plays--including The Fall of Kelvin Walker, Agnes Belfrage (1972), and McGrotty and Ludmilla (1975)--would be revised and published as novellas or short stories in the 1980s and 1990s, after the long-delayed appearance, and success, of Lanark.

Lanark is a double bildungsroman, two side-by-side stories of young artists becoming men, aging, and confronting death in bizarrely parallel decaying worlds. The "real-world" hero is Duncan Thaw, an art student and writer; his reincarnation in the bleak, disease-ridden dystopia of Unthank is named Lanark. Thaw, trapped in the postwar depression of 1940s Glasgow, wishes that he could make his city into something new, beautiful, and imaginative. Given a second chance after his death as Lanark, in the dying, machine-dominated world of Unthank, he devotes his energies primarily to his fellow human beings and is rewarded by the rebirth of the city. Lanark has been compared to works by Laurence Sterne and James Joyce and is credited with launching a new generation of experimental fiction by Scottish writers, including the Booker Prize winner (and good friend of Gray's) James Kelman ; Liz Lochhead; Agnes Owens; and Irvine Welsh, whose 1993 novel Trainspotting was filmed to great success in 1996. In an interview with Mark Axelrod published, along with other articles by and about Gray, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 1995) the author said of his best-known work: "my continuity of discontinuous people springs from a socialist democratic faith in all of us incarnating the eternal imagination--differently. Forget the discontinuities, enjoy the range!" The range of Lanark includes its illustrations, which were executed by Gray and are an integral part of the text. All of Gray's subsequent works include his art on the dust jackets and covers and in the marginal drawings and tailpieces. His prose and poetry cannot be appreciated fully without the drawings, which not only illustrate but also often comment on the writing.

Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983) includes stories that were written as early as 1951 ("The Star") but not collected until after the success of Lanark. Many of the stories have an historical or scientific tenor that adds to their humor. "The Crank That Made the Revolution" sets the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in a swamp, "neither beautiful nor healthy," near Glasgow. Here Vague McMenamy, who was born in 1707, the year of the last Scottish Parliament, encases first a flock of ducks and then his aged grandmother in contraptions designed to improve their efficiency. His invention of the crankshaft "dealt a deathblow to the cottage knitting industry, and laid the foundations of the Scottish Textile Trade." "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire" describes "etiquette government irrigation education clogs kites rumour poetry justice massage town-planning sex and ventriloquism in an obsolete nation" not unlike some nations Gray implies, that are flourishing today (such as Britain). "Logopandocy," one of Gray's better-known short works, is a mosaic of seventeenth-century texts woven into a Jacobite polemic. The Republican John Milton and the Royalist Thomas Urquhardt agree on the primacy of language--that is, conversation--in social improvement.

In a 1997 interview with Miranda France, Gray identified 1982 Janine (1984) as his favorite among his books. France noted that while Gray's other works may be "irreverent," 1982 Janine is "obscene." Its title character is the sexual fantasy of Jock McLeish, whose midlife crisis has drawn him into divorce, drinking, soul-searching, conversations with God--and bondage. He spends a painful, sleepless night trying not to see that his work as a supervisor of security systems has warped his imagination and destroyed his marriage.

Shortly after the publication of 1982 Janine Gray announced his intention to give up fiction to paint full-time. Nevertheless, he converted two of his plays from the late 1960s, The Fall of Kelvin Walker and McGrotty and Ludmilla, into novellas in 1985 and 1990, respectively. In the latter work McGrotty is a naive young Scotsman who is a minor servant to Sir Arthur Shots, the corrupt British prime minister. A secret report falls into his hands that enables him to blackmail the government. He marries Shots's daughter, Ludmilla, and becomes prime minister himself.

Gray's next new work of fiction, Something Leather, appeared in 1990. An essay by S. J. Boyd, "Black Arts: 1982 Janine and Something Leather" and included in The Arts of Alasdair Gray (1991), edited by Robert Crawford and Thom Nairn, begins: "The publication of Something Leather confirms beyond doubt what was already strongly suggested by 1982 Janine: Scotland's greatest living literary light is a pornographer." Not as critically successful as its predecessor, Something Leather has as its central character the mild-mannered June, who decides that she wants a leather skirt. She is then sexually subjugated for much of the rest of the novel by the skirt's makers, Senga and Donalda, and their friends. The sadomasochism that is forecast in chapter 1 is not depicted until the final chapter; each of the intervening ten chapters constitutes a short story in itself and includes no pornographic elements at all. The narrative includes such symbolically named characters as Miss Cane.

Gray followed Something Leather with Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer (1992), a postmodern revision of the Frankenstein story set in Glasgow at the end of the nineteenth century. Replete with medical illustrations, reproduced engravings, and Gray's original art, the novel is the story of two doctors and the gorgeous Bella Caledonia, whom they construct from body parts and who ends up becoming a doctor herself under the name Victoria McCandless. While the original Frankenstein turned his creation into a monster by hating and neglecting it. Poor Things shows that love and a good education can produce a caring benefactor. The novel is dedicated to Gray's second wife, Morag McAlpine, whom he married in 1991 (his first marriage had ended in divorce in 1971). It won both the Whitbread and the Guardian awards for fiction.

A History Maker is the saga of Wat Dryhope, hero of border wars between England and Scotland in a rather medievally depicted twenty-third century. Pursued by women ages sixteen to sixty after his accidental triumph in battle, Wat wants only to escape the machine-dominated, matriarchal society and build a house far from the "public eye"--which is, literally, a floating surveillance device and disseminator of information. Wat is ruined, however, when he meets the rapacious revolutionary Delilah/Lulu/ Meg, who seduces him and leaves him with no purpose in life but to find her again. In the final line of his extensive notes on the text, Gray mentions that Meg is Wat's sister. The story suggests that by using fewer machines, men can achieve self-respect through productive manual labor and will no longer need to fight each other.

Meg is one of the most memorable of Gray's strong women: she, Ludmilla in McGrotty and Ludmilla, and Mavis Belfrage, the eponymous character of the title novella in Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Tale; with Five Shorter Tales (1996) share intelligence, sensuality, and a lack of concern for the feelings of men. Mavis, a lovely, enigmatic graduate student, seduces, moves in with, destroys, and leaves a lonely professor, liberating him for a healthier life. In the other stories in the volume women, drink, and money ruin men, and children are neglected. The final story in the volume, "The Shortest Tale," ends with a schoolboy being beaten and mocked. Gray notes at the conclusion of the story that other "tales in this book have sour endings but none as bad as this because the others are fiction."

Gray is a strong advocate of Scottish independence from England. This theme recurs in his fiction, most prominently in A History Maker, and manifests itself in his letters to newspapers, public appearances, and interviews. Why the Scots Should Rule Scotland 1997, revised from its 1992 edition and republished just in time for the general elections of May 1997 in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, purports to be a history of Scotland from the days of Roman rule to the year 2020; it is also, as its title makes clear, a political statement opposing the legal binding of Scotland to England. Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman (6 April 1997) found the 1997 edition "more verbose, slightly darker, a little more bitter, more obsessed with the past, less hopeful for the future, less merrily self-mocking, and tinged with a sense of grief and loss that was almost entirely absent from the 1992 version." In a piece written for the same issue of The Scotsman Gray says: "The following article is not favourable to England but I promise it is written against none but the Scots. We are to blame for our condition. . . . when a political party grows big in Westminster the Scots members come to love Big Brother as much as the English do--he pays them such a fair minimum wage."

Lanark continues to be Gray's best-known work. Allan Massie in The Daily Mail (22 March 1997) said that "there is no doubt Lanark is a remarkable work, which set Scottish literature in a new direction, and gave every Scottish writer something to aim at." Kelman and Welsh are among those who have aimed and scored, and they acknowledge their debt to the artist, writer, and poet who has become, in Alastair Clark's words, the "avuncular uncle in the Scottish arts scene." - British Novelists Since 1960: Second Series