Book review: Every Short Story: 
1951 – 2012, Alasdair Gray

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WHEN I interviewed Alasdair Gray in 2007 he talked – in his usual swirl of accents and anecdotes – about his early ambition to write one of each kind of book: a book of poems, of short stories, of plays, of pictures, and a novel.

Every Short Story: 
1951 – 2012

Alasdair Gray

Canongate, £30

Although he has subsequently published much more than that, his recent collected editions look like the fulfilment of that desire. After the Collected Verse, A Life In Pictures and A Gray Play Book we have Every Short Story, a typically compendious, inspiring, infuriating gallimaufry of his short form prose, clocking in at a door-stopping 934 pages.

In his recent collection of essays, Julian Barnes offers a slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a National Treasure as a writer. The National Treasure should be charming, perhaps bumbling, and should be perceptive without being frighteningly intellectual (in the endnotes, Gray sounds again the tocsin of his hatred of being called post-modernist: of course, Gray is a post-modernist, but to admit so would risk appearing suspiciously cerebral and possibly French).

A National Treasure should “have an ambassadorial quality, an ability to present the nation to itself, and represent it abroad, in a way it wishes to be presented and represented”. Gray certainly achieves this, both in an early work like The Spread Of Ian Nicol where a riveter’s bald patch presages his self-division into two identical selves, and in later work, such as Billy Semple about a drunk who may or may not have once been a star footballer.

It is instructive to imagine how Gray’s friend and contemporary James Kelman might have approached such material: what shines out in Gray is a twinkling, cheeky reconciliation rather than a persisting, oppressive stalemate.

Barnes then suggests that the National Treasure “even if critical of his or her country, must have a patriotic core”. Again, Gray is exemplary in this. Many of the stories reiterate his commitment to the utopian ideals of the post-war Labour government; a piece like Gumbler’s Sheaf, more of a squib than a story, shows a tetchy, touching anger at bureaucracy and corporations. Gray doesn’t want a revolution, he wants a restoration of civic decency.

Finally, Barnes stresses interpretability and malleability, the capacity for the reader to find in the National Treasure “more or less whatever we require”. The weakest of Gray’s stories are propaganda miniatures, with little imaginative wiggle-room: the reader will enjoy them to the extent that they reflect his or her own beliefs. But the truly great works – the two Axletree stories, Logopandocy, Five Letters From An Eastern Empire, Mister Goodchild and others – have exactly that weird and re-readable openness. Gray’s temptation, not always wholly avoided, is to turn the short story into a sermon; but in these pieces he reaches the fable-like quality of a Borges.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is the collection “Glaswegians”, which is in effect the novel Something Leather minus the sado-masochistic fantasy.

Gray concludes with a candid and canny account of the genesis of the stories, where there is ample proof, were the previous 900 pages not there, that he is indeed a National Treasure. «