Once a writer passes the age of 70, it's hard to write anything about him that doesn't sound like an obituary. The precedents for a sudden upsurge in creative energy after this age are very few, so the urge, for critic and biographer alike, is to look for patterns, to trace threads, to mark peaks and troughs - to impose a form, in other words, on the chaos of the work and the life. In the case of Alasdair Gray (who is, in any case, already his own critic and his own biographer), the extent of that chaos is daunting. As Rodge Glass's book reminds us, besides writing the novels for which he is famous, Gray has been an artist, playwright, poet, polemicist and literary historian, and there are considerable overlaps between these fields. The poetry is confessional, and hints at the same life-story we can guess at from the novels, which are often creative recyclings of the plays and are illustrated with Gray's own artwork, usually topped and tailed by (self-) critical essays and full of polemic. Chunks of a political pamphlet will turn up a few years later, unaltered, in a book of short stories. What I believed, on my first reading, to be a brilliant piece of fiction - 'A Report to the Trustees of the Bellahouston Scholarship' (published in Lean Tales, 1985) - turns out to be nothing more nor less than a report to the trustees of the Bellahouston Scholarship (a travel fund for gifted young painters), written after Gray was awarded one in the late 1950s. This is a writer whose disregard for even the most clearly defined artistic boundaries amounts to a crazy heroism.
LRB 20 November 2008 | PDF Download