It’s a running stereotype that an English Literature degree is a continuation of those texts that made secondary school unbearable. Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen – you know the ones. And, during my first year, I found myself believing that as well. English Lit was my theory, my classics, the books you read once for analysis and throw to the side, whilst Scottish Lit was where I went for more interesting, quirky books with distinctly Scottish themes I often found myself relating to. Thankfully, second-year English Literature has proved that stereotype very wrong, and even more so with the inclusion of a novel by one of my favourite, and sadly recently deceased authors, Alasdair Gray.
Gray had been mentioned briefly in my first-year Scottish Lit lectures, and I was extremely disappointed to see him absent in the second-year curriculum. However, with the inclusion of his 1992 novel Poor Things on the English Literature syllabus, I have a revitalised excitement for the upcoming semester. Gray was a man of many great talents and a rich history and, upon his passing on 29 December 2019, a great and poignant legacy across literature as a whole.
Perhaps one of the things Gray was best known for was his style, which was never really replicated in Scottish literature thereafter (although it influenced many, such as Iain Banks, Irvine Welsh and Janice Galloway). A standout feature of this style is its Kafkaesque combination of genres, fantasy and realism – but always distinctly Glaswegian. Take Lanark for instance, which switches between an autobiographical fictional retelling of Gray’s own life (growing up in Riddrie and attending secondary in Dennistoun with his subsequent scholarship to the Glasgow School of Art), and a dystopian surrealist nightmare featuring locals with orifices scarring their limbs, diseases that serve as physical manifestations of your emotions, and a hospital that turns their lost cause patients into power and food. Simply scanning Lanark makes it seem like two different books which should have no connection to each other, but one of Gray’s most phenomenal talents was his ability to tie the elements of the realistic and fantastic together. In Lanark this is probably best seen in the metafictional twists littered throughout, as well as political tensions and anxieties that span from the life Gray led himself to the totally dystopian world of Unthank.
Gray has been described by some as a master of his craft, and there are definitely many testaments in his work to a great incorporation of technique; something that spins his novels with a number of layers they might not have otherwise had (which is undoubtedly one of the reasons Poor Things is on the 2B English Literature curriculum). Like many other postmodern novels, Gray’s works might seem intentionally confusing in a tangled web of unreliable narrators, self-referential humour, political commentary and satire, but these components are still surprisingly well interwoven, all the while maintaining a consistent theme of fabulism, similar to postmodern greats such as Calvino.
I’d like to draw attention especially to one of Gray’s most underappreciated talents, which was so crucial to his work: typography and illustration. Gray, having studied at the Glasgow School of Art, was as much an artist as he was an author, painting theatrical scenery for the Glasgow Pavilion and Citizens Theatre, and now has many murals particularly in the west end of Glasgow. His work can be seen in the Oran Mor, within the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in Ashton Lane and against the tiles at Hillhead subway station. Many of his pieces are now displayed in Kelvingrove Art Gallery. His books are all self-illustrated, alongside his utilisation of typography to convey moods, surrealism, dream sequences, and other components of his writing. For one of Gray’s best uses of typography I would point you to the Book of Prefaces, arguably a more education-oriented book than some of his others, discussing a history of how literature was read and developed through the nations of the British Isles. Gray’s masterful use of typography is inherent to its structure and is what truly completes it as a reading experience.
Gray’s works span many colourful plotlines and themes, all with a distinctly Scottish flair to them. There’s the combination of stream-of-consciousness style and the use of pornography as a narrative staple in 1982, Janine; poking fun at Calvinism, philosophy, and Scottish and British stereotypes in The Fall of Kevin Walker and female sexuality in Something Leather. While not particularly outstanding or taboo nowadays with the advent of books like Welsh’s Trainspotting and Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, these themes were crucial and exciting to Scottish literature, which had dwindled before the creation of Lanark in 1982. Gray was one of those writers, if not the writer, responsible for revitalising Scottish literature in the early 80s, and was an excellent contributor to a distinctly Scottish style of literature; the type perpetuated by modern celebrated writers such as Irvine Welsh, that we celebrate and treasure as a culture today.