Friday, June 23, 2006


Alasdair Gray blogs about his childhood memories of the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, which has recently been renovated:

When taking my private unofficial stroll through the upper galleries one morning I found three were hung with all Edvard Munch's greatest paintings and prints. It was a maturing experience. Before then I had been mainly excited by views of the fantastic, erotic heavens and hells in books of pictures by Blake, Aubrey Beardsley and Bosch. I wanted to make my life exciting by painting catastrophic biblical events in modern Glasgow settings - the deluge, for instance, flooding Kelvingrove Park up to the level of Park Circus. Munch painted hell in the rooms and streets of Oslo, a city not unlike Glasgow, and he was a realist! His white suburban villa with scarlet Virginia creeper, shown at night by street lighting, was creepy and sinister but not fantastic. Munch, like adolescent me, was obsessed with loneliness, sex and death - his people look lonely, all his women are victims or vampires. He showed me great art can be made out of common people and things viewed through personal emotion.

(I love the part about catastrophic Biblical events in modern Glasgow settings! I first read Alasdair Gray when I was fifteen or so, his Lanark was one of many recommendations--of mixed quality, I must admit; this was certainly one of the best ones--I culled from Anthony Burgess's demented 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. I like Norman Mailer, and of course literary judgments are subjective, but Ancient Evenings can pretty certainly be said not to be one of the best novels published in English between 1939 and 1984 or whatever.)

The only other book of Gray's I've read is Poor Things; his fiction leaves you with indelible memories of it, I must reread those two and check out his others, but in the end there is something too trippy/grotesque about his imagination for me to throw myself into his books the way I want to.

Actually, it's funny, that list he gives--Blake, Bosch--is very telling, he clearly knew himself early as an artist. I was just thinking the other day--what prompted that?--that I must have some serious Blake re-reading when I can fit it in. I don't think it suits my personality, I am more Enlightenment/matter-of-fact, but I would like to write a grand epic English fantasy novel of a Blakean kind--oh, wait, Philip Pullman did that already....

(Thanks to Bookslut for the Gray link.)


  1. I love Burgess's list! It's got brilliant and awful alike, but he certainly picked out unique books. And coincidentally, I also discovered Lanark from it when I was 19. Definitely the most memorable recommendation I got from it, though Henry Green was also worthwhile, just less impressive to my young self. It unfortunately convinced me to read Darconville's Cat....

    I'm still impressed by the presence of Pavane and Riddley Walker. I'll defend the Hoban book as one of the best of the last 50 years.

    Lanark and Poor Things are Gray's best, in my opinion, though I met someone last week who adored 1982 Janine. I find it a bit much. I do recommend The Book of Prefaces, though. Gray's personal history of English literature is hilarious and blasphemous.

  2. Oh, yes, I adored & adore that book, & was very pleased to pass on my copy (complete with embarrasingly earnest ticks against the ones I'd read...) a couple years ago to a student who was over for the end-of-year pizza thing & was magnetically drawn to it on the bookshelf!

    I loved Riddley Walker too, in fact was just thinking the other day about postapocalyptic novels & that I must read it again; also another book AB happily introduced me to was Kingsley Amis's The Alteration. And I had already read Fear of Flying but it was nice to see it vindicated! (That's in there, isn't it, or am I misremembering?) And was that possibly where I first heard about V. S. Naipaul?

    I completely agree with you about Darconville's Cat. And even at the time, and certainly after reading Biswell's biography, we have to suggest that for the sake of accuracy the book should have been further subtitled "The Best Novels in English Since 1939 Which Someone Happened to Pay Me Money to Review So That I Can Cannibalize It and Make A Quick Pound or Two for This Volume." Not that I'm knocking it, it's a great book as I think we've established.

    Will make an effort to get hold of The Book of Prefaces ASAP, sounds just my cup of tea.

  3. I found Burgess's list. Three entries for Aldous Huxley? A Nevil Shute book that's not "On the Beach"? The Jong book is "How To Save Your Own Life," which I don't even recognize. What a great little list. And I'm with you" "The Alteration" is a lesser-known classic of the late British new wave, along with Stableford's "Walking Shadow."

    I also love William Gass's fifty personal picks, just reprinted in "A Temple of Texts." It introduced me to a lot of obscure/insane Latin American literature when I was 19.

    When I was 15, though, I was reading John Gardner's "On Moral Fiction." I suppose that book taught me how to hate.... (But it did turn me on to Gass.)

  4. Thank you for the link, that is excellent--I realize of course that this was why I read Gravity's Rainbow & Giles Goat-Boy so avidly and earnestly also in high school! Hmm, interesting thing about human nature, that a list should be so aspiration-provoking. I am basically incapable of hearing someone talk about a book as interesting without saying (annoyingly, often out loud--I had a friend in grad school who found this THE MOST ANNOYING HABIT EVER) "I should read that" and then going & getting it and reading it. It's definitely not pure "Oh, how amazing," there's doubtless something slightly competitive, eh?