Book Review: The many prefaces of Alasdair Gray

Alisdair Gray: Critical appreciations and a bibliography

Phil Moores, ed

British Library, 20

FITTINGLY, this book has been designed by its subject. What the peruser initially notices is its distinctiveness as a meticulously constructed object: dust jacket, illustration and typography on cover and endpapers announce an Alasdair Gray design. Removing the jacket, finely-tooled boards reveal the words: "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation".

Before actually opening the pages, Gray’s maxim establishes core values of community and nation, hallmarks of a political vision which continues to nourish the prodigious creative output celebrated here. Such is the uniqueness of Gray’s achievement that he has no real antecedent: perhaps William Blake is his only precursor in merging visionary writing, a radical political outlook and virtuoso artistic power into brilliantly idiosyncratic books integrating form and content in a challenging way. All the more reason, then, for the present volume.

A strand in Philip Hobsbaum’s essay on Gray’s fiction is the intertwining of the familiar and the bizarre: "The gift of making the ordinary circumstance fascinating, and to make what is fascinating appear credible." Hobsbaum sees the structure of Lanark as representative of this, with Gray’s gift for rendering the most extravagant events in careful prose enhancing this method.

All of this has inspired Will Self, Jonathan Coe and Kevin Williamson to provide stimulating personal tributes to the mesmerising effect of their early encounter with Gray’s fiction. In his introduction, Self evaluates Gray as "a great writer, perhaps the greatest living in Britain today". Coe discovered 1982 Janine with a near-physical sense of elation which simultaneously dispelled his frustration with contemporary fiction, inspiring him to continue writing.

Perhaps the most engaging of these three contributions is Kevin Williamson’s sharp, streetwise appreciation which places Gray’s fiction in a personal and national context, through contemporary references and lived experience, ultimately proposing Gray as an index of possibilities for succeeding writers.

SB Kelly’s and Elspeth King’s essays deal respectively with the relatively neglected areas of Gray’s poetry and visual art. Through meticulous close reading, Kelly intriguingly indicates that some of the poetry sows the seeds of a mythology prefiguring Lanark. Crucially, he argues convincingly for the distinctive merits of the poetry on its own terms.

King’s essay incorporates high-quality colour plates, claiming that Gray is essentially a muralist, with limited audience and market for these talents. In turning to book design he has made a virtue out of necessity.

Elsewhere, Angus Calder deals with the political dimensions of Gray’s non-fiction through examination of his pamphleteering and The Book of Prefaces, while the distinctively satirical political vision of the shorter novels receives attention from Stephen Bernstein.

This is an admirable volume: scholarly but always warmly engaged with its subject, encouraging the reader towards reacquaintance with familiar work while whetting the appetite to explore lesser-known areas of the achievements of Alasdair Gray.

Bill Duncan is author of The Smiling School For Calvinists

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