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Alasdair Gray: Old Men In Love

After writing Lanark and 1982, Janine, Gray went into something of a decline, as his later works attracted neither the critical nor commercial success of these earlier novels. This novel somewhat restored his reputation, though it is not nearly as good a novel as Lanark. It is, of course, wildly post-modern and not without its mildly pornographic element but is fun. Gray has illustrated (or, as he puts it, decorated) the novel with some excellent designs and drawings and he throws in footnotes for our edification.

Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar (an anagram of Alasdair James Gray) starts off the book, telling us that she had learned that John Tunnock, a sixty-seven year old retired school teacher had been found dead in his house in Glasgow, in suspicious circumstances. No arrests were made. Lady Sara turned out to be the next of kin, though she knew nothing of Tunnock. She learns that Tunnock was the son of a Polish naval officer and a forty-one year old Scottish woman and was born during World War II. The mother was killed by a falling wall in London, as a result of a German air raid, and Tunnock had been brought up by two maiden aunts. He worked as a teacher and then a headmaster and continued to live with his aunts, never marrying. He retired to look after them and continued to live in the same house after their death. After his death, he left various papers, including diaries and historical novels (which turn out to be incomplete). She has them checked by the Scottish Literature Department of the University of Glasgow but they find them worthless, so she turns to a local author, Alasdair Gray, who agrees to edit them for publication. The novel is what Gray produces.

There is a trilogy of novels, which are based, in part, on Gray’s own earlier works. The purpose of the trilogy, according to Tunnock, is to illustrate the idea of the devil’s bargain we, as humans, make. In other words, when we try to do good, we are inevitably drawn into doing some bad. He uses three periods to illustrate this. The first period, which opens the book, concerns Athens under Pericles. Pericles, as we know, extended the Athenian empire, extended democratic principles and was responsible for much of the building we now associate with classical Athens. However, he was, according to legend and Gray, on the take, getting money from other Greek cities for defence against the Persians, some of which found its way into his pocket. His contemporary was Socrates and the book ends with Socrates’ trial. The second novel is set in medieval Florence and follows, in particular, Fra Filippo Lippi, who is a great painter but who abducts and rapes a nun for his own pleasure. This bit is quite short. Tunnock has struggled with the third one, as he wants someone from Britain and finally chooses Henry James Prince, a Victorian clergyman from Bath, who considered himself the visible embodiment of the Holy Spirit and immortal (he died). Before we get to this one, he receives a letter from the real and then very much alive Angus Calder (a friend of Alasdair Gray), who advises him (on the basis of having seen a sample in a magazine) to give up Prince and write about the Scottish Enlightenment. He (eventually) declines and we get the story of Prince, one of the longest parts of the book and quite dull it is, too.

Mixed in with these novels are his dairies. He has a good friend – Francis Lambert, whom he calls Mastermind. He has an active sex life, with various young women of dubious morals (and not just as concerns sex) and who may well be responsible, if only indirectly, for his untimely death. He talks about politics. Like Gray, he is anti-establishment and left-wing and very critical of Tony Blair and the Iraq War. He also talks about his aunts, who seemed to be quite liberal and good acting parents. He finishes with a review by the fictitious Sidney Workman of the book and Gray’s work. In other words, Gray reviews Gray. He is generally but certainly not entirely positive.

Does it work? In a way, it does. However, the three part novels are not very interesting and written in a more vernacular style than in the normal style we would expect from a historical novel. The longest one – about Prince – is particularly dull. The diaries are fascinating, as they concern an old man in love (and not old men) or, more particularly, an old man who wants sex and they show not only that but the generation differences in more than one way. But, ultimately, it is clear that Gray is no Italo Calvino. The fact that some of the work is recycled probably does not help. The idea of writing about the devil’s bargain is certainly interesting but, as Calder says, he could perhaps have chosen a better subject than Henry James Prince. John Tunnock is undoubtedly the more interesting character in this book. Perhaps Gray should have given us more of him.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Bloomsbury