Reviews

Alasdair Gray’s Excellent Last Last Novel is Really Four-in-One

By posted at 6:00 am on November 29, 2011 2

covercoverIt’s hard to speak of such a genre-bending and multi-talented artist as Alasdair Gray returning to form (which form exactly would that be?), but for those of us who loved his early books and were sometimes disappointed by the slim efforts of recent years, Old Men In Love should be something to cheer about. Generally overlooked last year when it came out, I’m happy to report it’s his finest work since Poor Things, which appeared in 1992, and like that book, breezily subtitled Episodes from the Early Life of a Public Health Officer (he really doesn’t want to sell books!), the current one lists Gray as editor, not author, and is structured as an accumulation of diary entries, memoir fragments, and excerpts from unfinished novels, sandwiched between an introduction and epilogue by two invented individuals.

The documents are written by one John Tunnock (the subtitle this time is the oh-so-catchy John Tunnock’s Posthumous Papers), a deceased public school teacher and former headmaster, who late in life took up a pair of neglected dreams: writing historical novels and chasing much younger women. The women are society’s cast-offs, runaways, drunks, and druggies, hardly into anything resembling a stable, monogamous relationship and happy to throw their friends Tunnock’s way should they find themselves bored, and arrive with their own circles of much more threatening friends, carrying switchblades and ugly attitudes. The great work he is writing is a trilogy of novels, a grand historical epic tracing the moral history of Scotland from the very birth of the planet to the present-day, with long stopovers in the Greece of Pericles and Socrates, the Florence of the painter Fra Filippo Lippi, and English religious quackery in the 1800s.

The subject here, the late flowering of sexuality in a middle-aged and solitary bachelor, is echoed in the novels he is writing. In Greece, we find the one-time stonemason Socrates’ obsession with his beautiful pupil Alcibiades as the reason he gives for first becoming a philosopher. “I wanted to fascinate him, delight him, give him something to remember me ever afterwards by,” says Socrates at his trial. The love between the monk Lippi and his muse, the nun Lucrezia Buti, by whom he has a child, serves as muse to some of his finest paintings. The most chilling chapters illustrate the story of the rise of the preacher Henry James Prince and his sect, the Agapemonites (this was a real sect which finally dissolved in 1956). Prince believed himself the second coming of Christ and ordered his followers to surrender all their worldly possessions to him, with which he built a lavish and secretive compound in the English countryside. Here he ritually married his female followers by having them dress in the finest bridal gowns of the day and raping them on the altar in front of his wife and devoted congregants.

Threading through these fragments is Tunnock’s own tale, told as memoir and in diary entries from the last years of his life, and the picture that emerges is of a man struggling with the questions of what it means to be an artist, a thinker, and a late-in-life lecher who discovers the small joy of waking in the morning beside a woman he loves. For all his wild, post-modern inventions, Gray has always been a deeply intimate writer, someone unafraid to place his own frailties squarely on the shoulders of his characters, and in the aging, anti-social Tunnock, a true Glaswegian curmudgeon, it’s hard not to see the outline of a frosty self-portrait of the last days of a writer. One could argue that Gray has been writing his last book for years (and for some years, he’s said as much, though always managing to push out something new and even more “last,” like the never-ending last tours of The Who, etc.), but throughout Old Men In Love we find ourselves continually coming face to face with mortality as seen through the mirror of youth. It’s a touching, unsettling, and ultimately liberating portrait.

The trial of Socrates, where we have Gray writing as Tunnock writing as Socrates, is a wild invention (Tunnock, though a thorough researcher, is constantly fretting that his books fail any tests of historical accuracy) where the few witnesses called were already dead by the time of the actual trial (a fact Tunnock later acknowledges), but it’s also a moving valedictory by an aging thinker staring at death and coming to terms with his own life’s work. The book shares much of this quality, but what makes it all the more striking is that it is much more than the last musings of a man facing the grave. For by the time I reached the last pages of all the ramblings and side roads and digressions of Old Men In Love, I found myself faced with larger, and different, questions. They were questions not only about the nature of love, and the quiet force it displays in Tunnock’s life, but about the relationship of the present to the past, and of the nature of history itself.

Gray’s histories, or Tunnock’s, have as their subject the present, and the question they pose is: How is a person to live today? It’s a commonplace, of course, among historians that we don’t study the past, but merely ourselves through its prism, but what Gray achieves here is putting flesh on that particular philosophical conundrum. Tunnock, as an historical novelist, is constantly drawn back to himself and his own time and day. The past, though seemingly set in amber, becomes as insoluble a problem as the present, and what limited truths we can come to about what we think we know and touch and see, we find ourselves even more confounded by the ever-changing past. For Tunnock, it’s a past that changes as he ages and as his views evolve, as he learns more, as he speaks to different people, as he gains experience, and as he thinks about the political trajectory of modern-day Scotland. As such, the past is but chimera, an imagined scaffold erected to hold up present-day worries and joys.

The unanswered questions outnumber the answered, stories begin, sometimes halfway through, and peter out before we learn the end, and no tale comes to a satisfactory conclusion. We never discover exactly how John Tunnock dies, the story of Henry James Prince is brought to a deliberate conclusion before some of its ugliest episodes are revealed, unnamed characters emerge, berate poor Tunnock for his lack of proper political consciousness, only to disappear, never to be heard from again. But throughout, we are confronted with a consciousness struggling with questions of history and politics and self and what it means to invent as an artist in the first days of the twenty-first century.

Small Beer Press, the publisher, should be roundly applauded for creating a beautiful object of a book. Gray’s books, when produced to his wishes, are always artisan creations of wonder, with complex, Kindle-proof typography and richly engraved covers. If this does turn out to be Alasdair Gray’s last novel (though I doubt it and hope not!), it’s as fine a book as an author would want to say goodbye with.

The Millions' future depends on your support. Become a member today!




Share this article

More from the Millions

2 Responses to “Alasdair Gray’s Excellent Last Last Novel is Really Four-in-One”

  1. John H.
    at 12:57 pm on December 1, 2011

    Excellent review.

    I have mixed feelings towards “Old Men In Love.” It was my introduction to Gray and I was so impressed by the level of invention in the novel’s structure and the book’s design that I quickly immersed myself in the Cult of Gray, watching youtube videos about a mural he painted on a ceiling in Scotland and looking for info about his other books. But I was less impressed by the novel itself. As much as I enjoyed individual sections, the many post-modern digressions made it too fragmentary and lessened its impact. Sidhu’s review has insight that I didn’t find in my own reading.

    Disappointment notwithstanding, I’ve since read “Poor Things” and have recommended it to others. “Lanark” is in my To Be Read pile and I’ve also picked up Gray’s art book “A Life In Pictures.”

  2. Schlepping Through Ambivalence & More | Red Weather Review
    at 11:31 am on December 3, 2011

    […] Always a treat, Alasdair Gray (Lanark) has a new novel, Old Men in Love.  A review. […]

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.

NEW COMMENTING RULE: Comments may be held for moderation and/or deleted. Whitelisted commenters will see their comments appear immediately. Don't be a jerk. We reserve the right to delete your comment or revoke commenting privileges for any reason we want.