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Book Week Scotland: Alasdair Gray, Scottish rebel

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Book Week Scotland is in full swing, and this year’s theme is both the verb and noun: rebel.

The Oran More mural, painted by Alasdair Gray. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In a Scotland now famed for Tartan Noir one risks the chance of overlooking overtly “literary” writing i.e. that which dares to break new ground, which interrogates tradition, is bold enough to experiment with form and content and which criticises high culture rather than blindly participating. Alasdair Gray’s works should be considered an exemplar of all of this.

Gray’s most famous novels emerged in parallel with a cluster of writers working in the 1980s spurned and spurred by the failed 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum, whose vote in favour was overturned by insufficient turnout. Gray’s debut novel Lanark, however, was 30 years in gestation, marking him off as an interconnected yet distinct phenomenon.

That lists of “contemporary” Scottish writers still include these 1980s figures, alongside perhaps the later Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame and a handful of crime writers, is indicative either of the fact that few literary writers have risen to prominence this side of the millennium, or that the achievement of these writers is yet to be surpassed. It is therefore worth re-examining what makes Gray a Scottish rebel (taking the example of 1982, Janine) and how going against the norm can re-invigorate not only literature, but the whole cultural debate.

Contrary to what one might expect from a “postmodern” novel, God, as is recurring throughout Gray’s work, is a major character in 1982, Janine. This is his way of getting around the problem of Barthes’ ‘Author-God’ while maintaining the pre-modern element of unproblematic communication with the divine/abstract concepts. Gray’s crowning achievement in Janine is the typographical anarchy of the ‘Ministry of Voices’ section in which the voice of God is consigned to the thinnest column of small print as the nagging, but ultimately benevolent, sub-sub-conscious that can forgive, and that wills Jock to life from the depths of the suicidal.

Expectations are also subverted in Gray’s treatment of Scots language in the character of Jock McLeish and others. Gray problematises Scots’ coexistence with standard English and explores the areas where it breaks down, particularly in relation to class. He also largely resists clumsy phonetic renderings of Scots, instead he uses vocabulary to indicate a shift in dialect. Gray does not simply depict ‘the Scot’ but rather a complex amalgamation of rote-learnt school poetry, Americanism, authoritative anglicised speech and the passionate, true Glaswegian, who is only allowed to escape in moments of emotional distress.

Gray sparked a debate with his provocative reinvocation of God and with his linguistic dialectic, which undermines notions of the essential Scot. In Book Week Scotland it might be as well to reflect that to be “literary” is to rebel, to throw off the shackles of low or high culture and get stuck into the subject matter uninhibited. Gray is an example of a man of independent mind; we need a few more of those if the list of “contemporary” writers is to be overhauled.

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