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La Littérature ou le refus de l’amnésie

Alasdair Gray

Literature against Amnesia

Alasdair Gray

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Q. I have a question about Lanark. Who is your favourite character and who is the character you feel is the least yours?

Alasdair Gray. It’s difficult to answer that because when I’m writing a story I tend to identify with everybody in it. I suppose in some respects the character of Thaw and Lanark is based on myself but I didn’t particularly like him, I just had more information about him than I had about anybody else. Lanark is not own my own favourite novel, although it’s the one I spent longest writing. What I have against Lanark is that like so many books in the twentieth century, it’s another book that’s about an artist. I think that writers should not write about special people, people who can become celebrities. Of course everybody wants in a sense to read about a hero, so Homer etc. wrote about [mock sententious tone] great and important killers, military heroes. But I think that even long before the French Revolution, good writers did begin to take seriously folk who were more typical of a country. So my second novel, 1982, Janine, which has not been translated into French, is my own favourite novel because its central character is a Scottish electrician who is in no way remarkable but I think he did better in that, so I’m sorry I can’t answer your question about Lanark [laughs].

Q. Still about Lanark. What place did you want to give women in this book, because there are a lot of clichés about women in it?

Alasdair Gray. Oh yes! [audience laughs] When asked that question before, I once said that I was 45 when I finished writing that book and therefore was too young to know very much about women. There is a sense in which the character who is called Rima is actually based on all the women I’ve ever met myself. I have not met a great many, but the reason why she starts as a small dark woman then becomes a tall blonde then becomes small and dark again is, I’m afraid, that Lanark’s general attitude of mind was that of the common man that says “all women are the same really” [laughs]. And because his own attitude to life actually turned all the women he loved into being the same women [laughs] he didn’t particularly recognise their individuality. All he wanted was that they... serve him! And of course, they all got rather tired of him [laughs] and that puzzled him terribly. He couldn’t understand why they kept preferring other men! I meant that to be slightly written into the story. I hoped women reading the story would recognise that Thaw or Lanark’s view of women was very much to do with his own blindness and that they would maybe find him interesting and a bit on the comic side. I’m a bit embarrassed. All I can say is that my imagination is limited by my own defects. Nothing to be done about it. [hastily, as with an important afterthought] Except apologise. [laughter in the audience]

Q. More than twenty years later, would you say that you’ve got a different perspective on the issue?

Alasdair Gray. That depends. I can only suggest that it’s only if you read my later books, and if you see any improvement in them, you can say that I’m learning to do better. I would hope so, but I cannot be sure of that.

Q. In the Prologue of Lanark, the oracle says “by describing your life, I will escape from the trap of my own”. Is that what you’re trying to do when you write?

Alasdair Gray. Oh yes!

Q. So then, when the oracle says that he’s disappearing, is that what you think about your life?

Alasdair Gray. I don’t know. I certainly think that an author should disappear behind his work, that the work is what really matters. It’s been a great benefit to Shakespeare that nobody was interested in his character while he was alive [laughs], so people are writing books after books trying to imagine what kind of man he was. Homer also had the good luck [laughs] to be utterly unknown, and I rather regret the development of the notion of an author’s character or an artist’s character being much more fascinating than their work. The gossip about the private life entertains people much more, so you’re thinking “how many people find it far more interesting that Van Gogh cut off a part of his ear and gave it to a prostitute in a brothel? How many enjoy that more than they’ve ever enjoyed one of his paintings?”

Q. Could you talk about the epilogue in Lanark? You know, the one that is not at the end? What did you want to achieve with that?

Alasdair Gray. I wrote Lanark intending this to be a book that had everything in it that I’ve enjoyed in every other book I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve always enjoyed academic footnotes, attributions and things like that. So I thought, “Yes I’m going to have a lot of academic footnotes in it, so that lecturers or people talking about it will feel at home with it!” A poet I knew, Alan Jackson, said: “the trouble with criticism is that most critics are infected with influenza. They want to show the influence of such and such on such and such. You can see the Joyce influence, you can see the Kafka influence, the Edgar Allan Poe influence” so I thought, “Well I can see them too! So in this epilogue I’ll put in all the bits I stole from everywhere else”. And one of the publishers said, “but don’t you think this will put the critics off?” and I said [in a high-pitched, excited voice], “Oh no! NO! they'll love that kind of thing. They’ll think, ‘Ah! I’ m one of them!’” [laughs, then goes back to a normal voice] And it has largely worked, though it wasn’t the idea I started from.

Q. In chapter 20, Duncan Thaw says “I want to write a modem Divine Comedy” and then in your index of plagiarisms you don’t mention Dante at all.

Alasdair Gray. I suppose that’s because I can’t remember any bits of Dante that I stole for use in Lanark [laughs]. Well, thinking about it, in Dante you have the hypocrites being encased in cloaks that are gold on the outside but solid lead inside, and I suppose my notion of dragonhide, of people’s skins becoming scaly could be an analogy. But I think I got that from my own eczema rather than from Dante [laughs].

Q. So there is no “influenza” as you called it?

Alasdair Gray. No. I suppose I had the character Thaw referring to Dante because it’s one of those very great books that try to blend the values of a civilisation or the metaphysical view that takes in the afterlife of heaven and hell as well as earth. In a way, that’s what Melville’s Moby Dick does, and Milton’s Paradise Lost of course. In a way, I was hooting at terrible ambition.

Q. I have a question to do in part with your artwork. I looked on your website and I saw your amazing murais. I also saw that you often go back and change what you paint. I was wondering if that was also a temptation you had with your writing, although obviously if a book has been published, you can’t go after every single copy.

Alasdair Gray. I don’t do it as much with writing as I do with painting. I suppose partly because once a book is published it has been taken out of your hands. On the other hand, between the first and second edition, I usually make quite a lot of changes and improvements. But the thing is, nobody has wanted my pictures as much as they’ve wanted my writings, and therefore I’ve always had a lot of unfinished work around my studio. And when a thing wasn’t finished, I’d think “well I know how to finish it, I can do it any time”. But sometimes when I’ve done a portrait of somebody that they own, I borrow it back because I think, “this can be improved” and sometimes I improve it in ways which they dislike very much. It probably shows I’m a less competent visual artist than writer. [Angry] Of course I don’t believe it! [Normal voice] But there’s a lot of evidence for that view.

Q. I wanted to ask you about the illustrations of your books. What role do you give them? Are they as important as the text itself?

Alasdair Gray. Well. It’s to make the books more interesting. The first books I enjoyed before I could read were picture books. We had a lot in the house and my parents read to me from them. Then of course as a child I enjoyed comics, and I started drawing quite early. So wanting to produce books that had many attractive features in them, I wanted the pictures to interest folk. I feel that is to be done by illustrations that do not show things that readers could imagine for themselves. You have to show something that’s a bit oblique. In writing Poor Things, I discovered a Victorian anatomical textbook called Gray’s Anatomy, which had rather splendid black and white woodcuts of bodily organs and bones, and since my central characters are doctors and one is a surgeon, since it’s a partial re-telling of the Frankenstein story, I thought, “Oh good. I can use these as space-fillers at the end of chapters”. But that’s always added afterwards.

Q. Can it happen the other way round, as when you start with a picture and then write the story?

Alasdair Gray. No I’ve never done that. I’ve only done it when I’ve been commissioned to illustrate somebody else’s story or poem. That’s easy.

Q. Archie Hind in the 1960s wrote a novel about how impossible it was to write a novel in Scotland, and I was just wondering if the situation of a novelist or an artist in Scotland has improved in the last 40 years or so.

Alasdair Gray. I’m sure it has. Archie and I were friends from early days. He was writing his novel The Dear Green Place while I was working on the earlier parts of Lanark. And there’s something in common because we’d made the decision his novel was about a writer who fails to write the Glasgow novel he wants to write, and the Thaw part of my book was about a visual artist who fails to complete the great mural he attempted to paint. But certainly there’s less pessimism in Scotland nowadays, about the prospect of being an artist there, partly because undoubtedly things have improved. There are art dealers working in Glasgow now with international connections, and in the 1950s and 60s there weren’t any at all. And from the point of view of individual writings, one of the things I find quite cheery about the Scottish situation nowadays is that it would once have been unthinkable to have a private eye crime fiction with a Scottish setting and a Scottish detective and Ian Rankin has shown that possible. People have accepted that Scotland is as possible a place to have what is called genre fiction as anywhere else in Britain.

Q. Many people put that opening up of Scottish culture and Scottish imagination down to Lanark. Is that a reputation that’s easy to live with?

Alasdair Gray. The thing is it’s not true really. But it’s just easier to simplify things. James Kelman’s first book of stories An Old Pub Near the Angel was published before Lanark. Liz Lochhead’s first books of poems, Tom Leonard’s earliest books of poems which were using the Scottish tongue, as well as Jim Kelman’s written Scottish patois, were being used in university curriculum courses in Scotland before my Lanark came out. But because Lanark is such a long novel, it-if you’ll excuse me saying so-is easier to lecture on in university courses. Of course I don’t mind people saying [putting on a phoney pompous voice] what a great book Lanark is and what a lot it has done. [Back to normal voice] But it certainly hasn’t done as much as people are making out.

Q. We were talking this morning about this label of postmodern writer that was attributed to you, about how much you dislike that kind of thing... and enjoy it at the same time. We were also wondering about Scottish nationalism and how it finds its way into your books, if at all, in spite of the postmodern devices, or maybe with the help of the postmodern devices?

Alasdair Gray. I see postmodernism as a school of criticism rather than a school of writing. The point is really that writing after the death of James Joyce seemed utterly different from writing before the death of James Joyce. All the devices, typographical and otherwise, stories inside stories, all that goes back to the Arabian Nights if not earlier, and to Tristram Shandy, as well as the devices we were talking about before, of writers putting themselves as characters in their books. So I always thought of myself as a modernist. As to the political side of the question, I grew up as a socialist that supported the British Labour Party at a time when the Labour Party had actually... Oh, sorry! This is turning into a historical lecture [abruptly goes into mock magisterial voice] You have to go back to the Second World War. Britain had been ruled largely by a right wing coalition party until the Second World War broke out. During the period when Britain had no allies and France had been conquered, the government in a fit of panic nationalised everything. It brought in universal socialist measures, nationalised the banks, froze profits, stabilized wages, made deals with the trade unions, [laughs] took houses away from the rich to use as hospitals and government offices. It didn’t even say, “after the war, everything will go back to usual”, because the usual had been the 1930s Depression [laughter in the audience]. It actually said, “after the war, you’re going to get a better world, a better Britain” and in fact, they did institute a basic national health care for everybody, and after the war they made it official. And a general education service by which the children of those who couldn’t afford to pay for their student fees, if they passed the entrance exams, their fees would be paid for them out of taxes and rates. So that at the end of the war, I thought [magisterial voice again], “Britain is giving an example to the rest of the world. Without a single-party dictatorship as in Russia, without killing people and so forth, we’ve achieved a social revolution, unlike America which is ruled by the Stock Exchange and the banks”. So with the graduai shift towards Thatcherism, as we moved away, like many others I was thinking: “this can’t be happening!” Then gradually you find that France has got a better national health service than Britain has [laughing], and umpteen other things like that. About that time I started thinking the only possibility for democracy is local democracy, local councils. The unit of national government should be derived from the unit of local governments. And the point is that Britain has been moving steadily away from that. Democracy is only possible with a degree of local community and integrity and as far as possible, some access to producing local industry. The point is that the British government has gone in for abolishing practically every British industry except the banking and the money market and the armaments industry. Glasgow used to be a major place that built ships, carpets, iron, made locomotives, made tramcars... Well, I’ve moved away from the question. I don’t think postmodernism and Scottish nationalism have anything to do with each other. No.

Q. So which cornes first? What’s the most important thing for you when you’re writing a book?

Alasdair Gray. The most important thing when you’re writing a book is to make it entertaining, to make sure that people enjoy it. You want people reading it to think, “yes, this is life, I know something about the life that’s being described here”, but you also want them to be surprised. I think my best novel 1982 Janine is the most socialist book I’ve written but the central character is in fact a working-class conservative Tory. An English writer who agrees with me politically, Jonathan Coe, said that it was only towards the end that he realised that this character’s arguments, his despair and his sense of self-hatred were really an argument for a different political situation than the one that this man takes for granted and keeps hoping and believing in and granting it his support. And people who write propaganda often do it if they are writing fiction by putting one very good person in it, who represents all the great virtues and, these are the kind of people we should be like, you know, and that doesn’t persuade anybody.

Q. So are you saying that you think that literature should be politically committed and if so, can you give us your personal definition of politically committed literature?

Alasdair Gray. My personal definition would be a kind of accuracy to things as they are and how they work. Take Balzac-if you’ll excuse me talking about a writer I’ve only read in translation-Politically speaking he was certainly not a socialist. He was an enthusiast, and he was enthusiastic for people getting as rich as possible. All his main characters are all out for money by any channel they can get it. And he obviously approves of them and rather admires them. The fact that they frequently get it by cheating on each other, by seducing the wives of important men, by resorting to all kinds of dirty tricks doesn’t bother him. I’m not sure that Karl Marx rather approved of Balzac’s novels. He says: “this is how capitalism is working. And Balzac is telling the truth about it”. The fact that the author is rather happy about it is irrelevant. Other people could think, “Oh God, this is a terrible society!” Of course, you got Zola later. To me, James Joyce’s Ulysses is also a case in point. Bloom is a liberal socialist, if you read his political thoughts on the matter. No, a writer should not be identifiable through his writing with a political stance, though I find it hard to imagine a good novel being written by somebody praising fascism or nazism as a good way for anybody to be. I suppose there’s the notion of-I hint at it in Old Men in Love-who is paying for all this? I tend myself to think that most civilizations that have achieved great things have been Republics, and of course I see things mainly from the arty side, so that Periclean Athens, Florence in the days of the Medici, even Holland in its golden age, and for that matter very much of 19th century France, were the achievement of great Republics. At the same time these great Republics were supported by war economies and by forms of slavery. So, in trying to understand the civilisation, you can’t just write it off. You’ve got to say “what was good in it?” And to me, everything that has really been achieved in a good way has been the resuit of what I call cooperation. Oh yes, there can be competition as well, in that in Florence the artists were learning from each other and no doubt struggling for attention, but they were also trying to make their city as beautiful as it could be and... oh shut up! I find I'm talking like a politician and I'm no good at that. But anyway that’s a very profound question.

Q. What role should literature play in society? You spoke of entertainment, but beside that, do you think that it can have any other role?

Alasdair Gray. On walking here, we passed a bookshop called La Mémoire du Monde. I regard literature as being the memory of history. I don’t just mean history books, but the reality of the past is in the works of art that have survived, and in the stories and poems that have survived. Official history can only link these up. You learn more about the French Revolution and French society from Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, than from histories of the Revolution, even if Fm rather fond of Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, which is quite good. But I regard the place of literature nowadays what it has always been. Our only way of knowing [pompous tone] how we got here [laughs].

Q. But do you think that literature can change things today, that it can have any impact on society as a whole?

Alasdair Gray. I really can’t say, because there are new technical means of communication which enable a lot of people to bypass books completely. They don’t even seem to feel that they need to know how the past happened. If you want information about the past, you can google it up or something. Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut-two of my favourite American authors-talk about how the past in America is forgotten, has been ignored. Gore Vidal talks about the “United States of Amnesia”. There are so many fields in which this is taking place. I went to the Glasgow School of Art. At the time we had many departments. The departments of painting, ceramics, jewellery, textile design, mural painting. A few years ago the painting department vanished and was replaced by the visual arts department. And the head of the visual arts department thought it quite unnecessary that any of his students should learn drawing [laughs]. The whole basis of visual arts depends upon your ability to use your hand and draw things, but according to a certain view, “No, you can summon up all these images from the past onto a screen, and twist them by pressing buttons. [Mock scornful tone] You don’t have to draw anything yourself!” [laughs, then flat tone] I find that appalling. I believe that the arts will survive, though.

Q. This is the perfect statement on which to end this conversation, as we have taken up much of your time. Let me just thank you warmly for speaking to us today at Avignon university and...

Alasdair Gray. I am being paid though, remember!

© Éditions Universitaires d’Avignon, 2010

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