Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation
December 29, 2019 4:47 AM   Subscribe

Alasdair Gray, Scottish author and artist died aged 85. A late starter, his first novel, the post-modern borderline fantasy Lanark, was published when he was 46.

Further novels followed (Janine, Poor Things) some so typographically complex he had riders in the publishing contract allowing an enormous number of proofs.
His art (often Incorporated into his books) was delightful.
An ardent Scottish nationalist the title of this post is his and is inscribed on the walls of the Scottish Parliament (it's a bit more complicated than that, of course. See here).
posted by thatwhichfalls (34 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
posted by thivaia at 4:57 AM on December 29, 2019


I recommend Lanark once a year or so. I came to it around the same time as I was getting into literary fantasy/magical realism of the Angela Carter, Steven Millhauser, etc. variety, and while it was a time of heady encounters, Gray still stands out clearly in my mind for his sense of place.
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:01 AM on December 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

posted by Lanark at 5:23 AM on December 29, 2019 [16 favorites]

The best just-stumbled-across experience I have ever had in a used bookstore was back in the 90's when I found a copy of Unlikely Stories, Mostly with its very eyecatching cover mishelved next to the Cinema books. I bought it and read it in quick succession, and I've been a fan ever since. There are very few authors I own more that two or three books by, but he's with the ranks of Pratchett and Vonnegut on my shelf.

I never bothered to look into it (and the obit doesn't mention it), but I often wondered how heartbroken he must have been when the Scottish independence vote failed back in 2014 given how long and passionately he rallied for an independent Scotland.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:32 AM on December 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

posted by misteraitch at 5:43 AM on December 29, 2019

He also illustrated an edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I’ve read “Lanark”, “Poor Things”, “Unlikely Stories”, and “The Book of Prefaces” but somehow missed “Janine, 1982”. It’s been decades but his was the kind of creative fiction that opened my eyes to broader forms of literature, not only in style but format. I always assumed his paintings where a response to his frustrations in realizing the kind of literature he wanted to achieve, but maybe I’m reading too much into that.

When I first heard the band “The Unthanks” I hoped it was a Lanark reference. Imagine my disappointment when I learned Unthank was the family name of the principals.

posted by grimjeer at 5:47 AM on December 29, 2019

posted by doubtfulpalace at 6:08 AM on December 29, 2019

Lanark is the most Glasgow novel I know, with the possible exception of Kelman's How Late it Was, How Late, which is very much it's own thing.
I always think of the book when The Blue Nile's Tinseltown in the Rain comes up in my playlist - there's no connection other than the city but they both capture the gritty romanticism of the place (yes, Glasgow can be intensely romantic).
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:19 AM on December 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Lanark: Every strange book is strange in its own way.

posted by kozad at 6:30 AM on December 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

posted by rhamphorhynchus at 6:35 AM on December 29, 2019

Oh no, Alasdair Gray! I too read Unlikely Stories, Mostly after randomly seeing the cover, in fiction at the library where I used to work. I checked it out and took it on a trip to my friends, where we took turns reading out loud to each other from it. It was the perfect book to do that with.

posted by elsilnora at 6:50 AM on December 29, 2019

No, no, no, this is awful! He can't die with all this Brexit and the recent election so terrible! He should have lived to see either an independent Scotland or a left victory for the whole UK! What a sad and demoralizing time to leave your nation.

He is one of the very few straight male writers who doesn't seem misogynist when he writes about sex, for one thing. Creepy sometimes, sure, and he wrote a lot about misogyny, but he isn't hateful.

I randomly bought Lanark after eyeballing it occasionally in my local SF bookstore, where it sat on the shelf for months and months. It was really the beauty of the cover that sold it, and then I got a bunch of his other books. He's not at all well known in the US and I was startled to find out how famous he is elsewhere - it's not as though there aren't any UK fantasy/science fiction writers who are famous in the US, and it's not as though all the famous ones write in a popular style either.

It's funny, I radically misinterpreted "work as though you live in the early days of a better nation" for years - I took it as a sort of mournful thing, like "even though everything is always going to be terrible, you should imagine that things are only terrible because they haven't got better yet because this will give you the strength to continue".

I often think of his "civic nationalism" comments about Scotland - that you should become a part of civic life by being there and wanting in to the polity, not by birth or blood or after jumping through hoops.

How sad, how sad.
posted by Frowner at 6:57 AM on December 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

This was the author bio from Unlikely Stories, Mostly, which is now sadly out of date. (I can't really replicate the typography):
He was___________and educated______________and became________________and residing________________and remaining______________and intending________________then on___________became in__________________and again_____________________and later again_________He still is_______________and resides__________________and intends____________and hopes____________and may__________________but is certain to one day.
posted by elsilnora at 7:01 AM on December 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


I saw him at an author reading around 2000, he was quite a character. Still have only read Poor Things, I should probably see to that.
posted by selfnoise at 7:03 AM on December 29, 2019

A late starter, his first novel... was published when he was 46.

We really need to destroy the myth of middle age being a "late start" for anything aside from puberty.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:15 AM on December 29, 2019 [18 favorites]


Lanark messed me up for years.
posted by scruss at 7:18 AM on December 29, 2019

posted by Artw at 7:38 AM on December 29, 2019

I agree, NotMyselfRightNow. And another thing: according to the article, he started writing Lanark when he was 20. So he, in fact, "came to fiction" young, and published when he was ready. There are plenty of writers who are not less writerly for not publishing, or not publishing yet.
posted by Handstand Devil at 8:16 AM on December 29, 2019

posted by jcrcarter at 8:17 AM on December 29, 2019

I finally managed to see some of his murals (the ones at Hillhead Station) on a visit to Glasgow last year. I've read many of his books: Lanark, 1982 Janine, Poor Things, Unlikely Stories, A Book of Prefaces. Amazing strange unique artist.
posted by feckless at 8:21 AM on December 29, 2019

I'm here with my dad who is in a hospital bed with a GI bleed and some troubling cardiac issues. He's 80, grew up in Scotland and has rarely gone back - but took me when I was 16. In my lifetime he didn't work outside the home much - due to some his odd personal affect, and his at that time active alcoholism, he was laid off or fired from a few of his early jobs in his field of training - as a plastics technician - and then became the house husband. But when I was in my early teens he got a part time job and saved all the money from it to take me to Scotland. We drove a loop around the country, staying at bed and breakfasts, him in his quiet way telling me stories of Scottish history, quoting Burns, or rarely, sharing a story of his own childhood adventures growing up in the borders. Like most men his age there was a lot he didn't tell me. Only this year he mentioned having been a hobbyist mountaineer as a young man, and that a friend died on one of his mountain climbing trips. That's all he'd say.

He has always shown me limitless unconditional love, but quietly, through action. Many of the traits I most value in myself - like sticking with a thing, practicing daily, trying a new practice, come from him. And my taste in and devotion to books is very much influenced by him.

I remember when he discovered Alasdair Gray and binged him in the 90s. He occasionally fixates on an author and reads them religiously. He turned me on to Bolaño for example after reading five or six of his books in a row. And this year it was Margaret Atwood, which surprised me. I never tried to read Alastair Gray even though my dad quite fervently recommended him. I was maybe not up for it at 15 or whatever I was at the time.

So in 2020 I'll read Alaisdair Gray for my dad. A project my dad would do.
posted by latkes at 9:34 AM on December 29, 2019 [13 favorites]

posted by GenjiandProust at 9:36 AM on December 29, 2019

posted by holist at 10:30 AM on December 29, 2019

posted by zadcat at 12:49 PM on December 29, 2019


the obits for 2019 are so plentiful, and getting more and more depressing.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:53 PM on December 29, 2019

posted by crocomancer at 2:24 PM on December 29, 2019

I picked Lanark up on a whim twenty years ago or so. It really changed the way I thought about what novels could be. I’m currently working on a manuscript which takes a lot of inspiration from Lanark.

posted by Kattullus at 4:20 PM on December 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ach, Alasdair.

We read at the same poetry reading around ten years ago. I came up to him at the merch table after and we had a lovely chat, then when I looked at the books he was selling noted sadly that they didn’t include the collection he had just read from.

He promptly took out his own personal copy, asked my name, and wrote “This belongs to Ten Cold Hot Dogs, so says Alasdair” on the first page. Then gave it to me and wouldn’t accept a penny for it. I bought the other books on the table just for that.

What a spirit lost. We didn’t deserve to have him for as long as we did, but I’m very grateful for his time and generosity, in all ways.

posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 4:31 PM on December 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

posted by detachd at 5:22 PM on December 29, 2019

The Oyster Band's song: The Early Days of a Better Nation.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:27 PM on December 29, 2019

posted by Wobbuffet at 6:21 PM on December 29, 2019

I read Lanark this year. I'm not sure that I liked it, but it's stuck in my head far more than anything else I read this year.

posted by Chrysostom at 7:00 PM on December 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

posted by cardinalandcrow at 9:44 PM on December 29, 2019

posted by PistachioRoux at 9:03 AM on December 30, 2019

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