The Ends of Our Tethers
by Alasdair Gray
MOST writers probably have days when they can’t get on with their work. They foozle such days away. Sometimes, they note down ideas that might eventually make stories or be used in a novel or play. They may even start writing these stories. If all their papers aren’t thrown out or burned, their literary executor may assemble them to make a ragbag sort of book.
Alasdair Gray (sensibly) has anticipated his executor and published a ragbag while he is still with us. He has given it the sub-title 13 Sorry Stories , which is brave or, if you prefer, foolhardy, because most of them are poor things better left in the bottom drawer. They all have flashes of charm, because nothing that Gray writes is without charm. But that is part of the trouble. He is relying on his charm to see him through. None of these stories is more than the sketch for a story. What they need is a bit of work done on them.
In nothing is this more evident than in the dialogue. Gray has either entirely given up listening to people or can no longer be troubled to try to catch the rhythm and tone of speech. Naturally, any writer who tries to do this will often get it wrong, and produce dialogue that doesn’t ring true.
The most ambitious story is "Aiblins", which is "partly based," Gray notes, "on my experiences as a writer employed by Glasgow University between 1977 and 1979." One of the students who unwillingly comes to the narrator’s creative writing sessions is a poet, Luke Aiblins, utterly convinced of his genius. The narrator finds the makings of genius, or the promise of genius, in a couple of poems. Actually, they are part of a sequence written by Gray in his youth, which "luckily failed, despite many efforts, to get published". That’s not surprising, but since they are enough to make the narrator wonder if Aiblins is a genius, what is one meant to make of his judgment?
Then Aiblins disappears, having expressed his patronising contempt for the narrator. Years pass, and Aiblins turns up a couple of times, making ridiculous demands on the narrator; he is still certain of his own genius, but won’t write other poems till his first ones are published. And that is more or less that. The story peters out. Most of them do.
There’s one piece of non- fiction, Fifteenth February 2003. This is an account of his participation in the demonstration held to protest against the then imminent war on Iraq. It begins with Gray’s memory of his opposition to the Suez war of 1956. This would be better if he didn’t seem to suppose that that war coincided with "the USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia". He means, of course, Hungary, not Czechoslovakia - that invasion came 12 years later. This mistake doesn’t say much for his memory; it doesn’t say much for the standard of proof-reading at Canongate. Or does nobody there know even quite recent history?
Still, there are a few sparks in this piece, which is based on an article published in the Herald a couple of days after the demonstration. Gray’s indignation gives a life to his prose absent from the other "sorry stories". But it is also, in places, silly. "If asked what chiefly characterises my nations, I will repeat what I wrote in 1982: arselicking. We disguise it with surfaces of course: surfaces of generous, open-handed manliness; surfaces of dour, practical integrity; surfaces of maudlin, drunken defiance; surfaces of quiet, respectable decency ... There have been many eminent Scots with strong independent minds, but now the most eminent are the worst arselickers …" Really? A few lines earlier he writes: "It would embarrass me to criticise him publicly, yes, I am at heart an arselicker."
Make of that what you will. This little book doesn’t represent the death of a talent. The talent is still, I imagine, alive. But it is no more than doodlings in the margin, and I doubt if it would have found a publisher if it had been presented as the work of, say, Luke Aiblins rather than Alasdair Gray.