'There were no fisticuffs, I'm afraid' - Rodge Glass on Alasdair Gray
EVER since his biography of Alasdair Gray was published earlier this month, Rodge Glass says, he had been "waiting for the shit to hit the fan". And at the weekend, in a manner of speaking, it did. In the books section of a Sunday newspaper, alongside a largely positive "straight" review of the book, Gray gave his own reaction to reading about his life in print.
"I am interested in this biography, being both subject of it and the author's friend," he wrote. "I believe he will remain a friend after reading this review, though it is written to correct his biggest mistake."
There have been some famous fallings-out between literary biographers and their subjects in the past, with sad outcomes: Ian Hamilton once enjoyed a friendship with the American author J D Salinger, but after he wrote the memoir 'Looking for Salinger' that ended abruptly: the intensely private Salinger saw it as a betrayal. A N Wilson was set to be Dame Iris Murdoch's official biographer but was passed over in favour of Peter Conradi. After her death, Wilson wrote what was perceived as a revenge memoir about Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, 'Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her'. Roger Lewis started a biography of Anthony Burgess while he was still alive, but revelations about the writer after his death turned Lewis against his subject and coloured the portrait.
In this case, however, Gray is very positive about Glass's book, entitled Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography, describing it as "true and touching". Indeed, it was the Lanark author who suggested Glass, first his student at Glasgow University and then his secretary, should write it, reportedly inviting him to "be my Boswell!". However, Gray wanted the account to be completely independent, so he didn't ask to see any proofs prior to publication – which explains the error to which he has taken such exception.
"Roger is seriously mistaken," he writes, "in saying that in 1991 I married Morag, my second wife, having given up hope of my first wife, Inge, returning to me after a 20-year separation. I married Morag… knowing I would never want to live with anyone else. It is daft to say I married her on the rebound from a wife I left 20 years earlier."
You might expect Glass to be upset at such a public rebuttal – particularly one concerning a mistake that had so obviously touched a nerve with his subject – but he is surprisingly upbeat, and puts the whole affair down to a misunderstanding over the meaning of one key line.
"I wrote that 'Alasdair was no longer waiting for Inge'," he explains, "and I think he would himself admit that, for a while after they split up, he was hoping they would get back together. They did officially stay married for a long time after that, so it was really just my way of saying that their marriage was no longer an issue once Inge was remarried and living in England."
"I've spoken to Alasdair about it and he knows that I didn't mean any offence. It's just one of those things we couldn't speak about before the book came out, because he wanted it to be independent. I said, 'I didn't mean to upset you over that one line, that's not what I meant.' And he said, 'Sure, I completely understand.' There were no fisticuffs, I'm afraid."
This brief spat is an inevitable side-effect of Gray's decision to take a completely hands-off approach. Gray felt that two previous books about him – The Arts of Alasdair Gray (1991) and Alasdair Gray: Critical Appreciations (2002) – might have left some critics with the impression that he had had a say in their contents (though he claims he hadn't), so he was keen that this new book was seen to be produced with zero input from him.
"I'd wondered (about] his response and feared it slightly," Glass says. I hoped he would make some criticisms but wouldn't have any fundamental problem with any of the biggest issues that I'd tackled.
"I was actually delighted by his response. I was hoping that he would say the book was official, which he does, but also that he didn't interfere with it. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to read a book about your own life from somebody else's perspective."
• Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography by Rodge Glass is out now, published by Bloomsbury, priced 25
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