Setting the brain on fire
Asserting Scottish literature
Personal experience has given him a life story and sharpened his wits. Evacuated during the second World War, he went to art school and, while a student, began working on an urban saga that would not only establish him as a writer but also assert Scottish literature. That breakthrough work was Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981). Set in the contrasting cities of Unthank and Glasgow, it is Blakean in its vision. In two of the four books, Duncan Thaw explores and endures Glasgow, while the other two are an allegorical fantasy.
1982, Janine (1984) followed and is an inventive, if overblown, journey into the organised alcoholic chaos of the ageing, divorced, insomniac narrator’s mind as he ponders sexual fantasy and politics in between lamenting lost love and his distant childhood.
The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) is a disciplined morality play about ambition, hypocrisy and true love. It is written in a tone of calm detachment. Intent on success, Kelvin abandons his small native village of Glaik to seek his fortune in the big city: “London was wealthy. Other British cities, Glasgow for example (he had seen Glasgow), had been built by money and still contained large amounts of it, but money seemed a slower substance in the north – a powerful substance, certainly, but solid. Those owning it had not been liberated by it. Their faces were as severe, their mouths as grimly clenched as those without. But here in London – had it happened a year ago or a century or many centuries? – money had accumulated to a point where it had flashed into wealth, and wealth was free, swift, reckless, mercuric.”
Neither a villain nor a hero, Kelvin is barely human and not all that likeable. Yet the subversive narrative tone heralds what has become vintage Gray: wry, informed, thoughtful. This is the key to Gray’s flamboyance: he is at heart a serious writer and a profoundly political social commentator capable of modifying his rage.
Loneliness, power, the pressure to conform, the dreams of the weak and life’s tiny struggles thrust and shimmy throughout not only these stories, spanning his career, but through all of his work. His drawings are bold and prophetic – a grey-haired, aged baby lies on his back while spreading his wings.
In Swan Burial (from The Ends of our Tethers), the narrator, approaching retirement age, is aware of being increasingly confused. “I fear this job is getting beyond me and I should apply for something less demanding.” He then remembers that he has applied for another job but is late for the interview. When he finally returns home late, via various pubs, he hears fragments of his sleeping wife’s dream, which involves the laying to rest of a swan. “I wish she had chosen a different star,” the sleeper sighs.
Gray is a wise man with a difference; he is detached yet involved. His world is vast and generous, he carries his eccentricity as if it were a banner, and his humanity is both a badge of honour and the key to uniquely visual stories that amuse and console while exploring, at times explaining, the shared madness of men and women.