The master of improper arts talks Jane Austen, the NHS, and why he's losing faith in an independent Scotlandby Stephanie Boland / July 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Alasdair Gray is out of the good whisky. We are in his kitchen in the ground floor flat of a pretty Glasgow tenement not far from the Byres Road. He is sat in his wheelchair; I am going through his cupboards. “You’re out of the Tallisker, Alasdair.” I tell him. “Is Bells okay?” It is. He has me fetch him a mug and add a little water, then takes the bottle to pour the whisky himself. Clearly, he suspects my measures would be insufficiently generous.
Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray studied design and mural painting at the city’s School of Art, adding fiction-writing to his artistic studies before the end of his degree. In the years since, he has written nine novels and countless short stories as well as poetry, plays, essays and—most recently—a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Long revered in Scotland, Gray has an epigraph engraved on the Canongate wall of Holyrood in Edinburgh: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Venerated in Scotland, Gray is much less well known down south. In 2003 the Guardian described him as “largely ignored,” with interviewer Euan Ferguson bemoaning that mentions of his name in “literary London” are met with “strange looks.”
Yet Gray’s most famous novel, Lanark, often features on “best-of” lists on both sides of the border. Published in 1981, when Gray was 47, this epic novel follows its titular character through a realist bildungsroman set in modern Glasgow and his posthumous trials in a dystopian mirror-world called “Unthank.” For Irvine Welsh, it is “probably the closest thing Scotland’s ever produced to Ulysses.” He is not alone in his admiration. Over email, the writer Ali Smith tells me that “everyone who really reads, I mean really truly loves what books can do, knows and reveres Gray’s work.” Will Self, also a fan, refers to the author as “a little grey deity.”
Gray’s kitchen is relatively bare, lacking the personality of clutter. His living room, however, testifies to his career as a writer and artist. Tables are stacked with books and drawings, and the walls hung with paintings ranging from landscapes to his own portraits. A large easel shows a work in progress; opposite, there is a drafting table covered in loose papers. Bookshelves dotted about…