A new biography of Alasdair Gray doesn't answer the big questions. But it is canny and charming on the small onesby Alexander Linklater / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Alasdair Gray: a Secretary’s Biography by Rodge Glass (Bloomsbury, £25)
The initial disappointment anyone who reveres the towering—or teetering—figure of Alasdair Gray must feel on picking up this story of his life is that “the little grey deity,” as Will Self has dubbed Scotland’s greatest living author, is not here receiving the treatment of a commensurately ordained biographer. Rodge Glass is, rather, a smart novice: a young English novelist whose credentials consist of an apprenticeship served in Glasgow as Gray’s secretary, a job that appears to have involved a ragtag of duties, from teaching his mentor how to use email, to saving him from drunken falls in the street, to taking down dictation of letters, wisecracks, ideas, indiscretions and stories.
“Be my Boswell,” Gray commands Glass early in their relationship (chuckling gleefully, one assumes); and, although he formally disowns the comparison, the protégé seems to have taken the master at his word. Glass is no Richard Ellmann, providing a magisterial exegesis of James Joyce’s genius; nor a Patrick French, excoriating the personal darkness of VS Naipaul. Instead, as becomes clear within the first few pages of Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, these are the excitable journals of an ingratiating acolyte. To this degree, at least, the Boswellian allusion may be apt. But one must ask: is there here the level of rapport sufficient to unravel the long struggle behind the most remarkable act of literary-cultural resurrection—Gray’s reimagining of Glasgow—performed by any British novelist in the last 60 years?
Lanark, published in 1981 when Gray was in his late forties, was his first novel. Nearly 30 years in the writing, it ranks as one of the most protracted debuts in literary history. In the 20th century, perhaps only Joyce’s effect on Dublin is comparable to Lanark’s imaginative impact on a local and national literature.
Within Lanark, one of Gray’s two alter egos, Duncan Thaw, is challenged to explain why no one notices the magnificence of his home town. Thaw replies: “Because nobody imagines living here.” He compares Glasgow to Florence, Paris, London, New York. You never see these places as a stranger, Thaw explains, because you’ve already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. “But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” In Lanark, however, a city Gray once described to a London publisher as a “provincial town” is…