It’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.
A year after the end of the Second World War, a young man steps off a bus in what remains of Germany. It’s winter, one of the coldest in anyone’s memory, and the long journey homeward, from Hanover, to Cologne, and finally through the Lower Rhineland, has kept him shivering. A deeper fear also penetrates. He has misgivings about what has happened to his family, who have they become, who will he meet. He doesn’t announce the visit, he wants to keep it a surprise, but when he steps off the bus, he walks straight into them. They are standing in the cold, waiting for a bus themselves, his mother, father, and sister. He has not set eyes on them in over two years, and instead of joy, his first reaction is horror. When Günter Grass’ memoir Peeling the Onion was released in Germany, it was met with a different kind of horror. In it, after decades of silence, Grass acknowledged that he had willingly served as a tank gunner in the Waffen-SS, the elite and much-feared paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. For a man who spent his adult life excoriating hypocrisies in others, especially in former Nazis, the revelation was rich fodder for his critics. Much of the reaction to the memoir focused on Grass’s confession, and battle lines were rapidly drawn. Some called for his Nobel Prize to be revoked, and others applauded his bravery in finally setting the record straight. No one sees clearly in war, certainly not in one on the scale of World War Two, and to blindly lay the crimes of a sixteen year-old at the old man’s feet requires a willful ignorance of what memory is, what trauma is, and in this case, what the transformations of spirit and self that a young man who wants to be an artist needs to put himself through. The firestorm died down, Grass did not lose his Nobel medal; instead he left for us, in the ashes of that firepit, a riveting account of the apprenticeship of a writer. And more than that, perhaps the best guide to how write a novel ever published. The young man who greeted his own family with horror at the Fliesstetten bus station in 1946 would not remain home long. His father wanted him to become a “paper pusher” at the local coal mine, a very good job at the time, but one the young artist wannabe thought ridiculous. His mother looked careworn, beaten down, and the four of them slept in a single crowded room and spent the evenings huddled together for warmth. Grass fled as soon as he could, carrying a stack of poems and sketches, for Düsseldorf and the art school there. It was closed due to lack of coal. A chance meeting led him to apprentice as a stonemason. But already, as he writes, he was gripped by an insatiable desire “to conquer all with images.” He had passed through the war with two hungers. The first was for food, the second for sex. At an American POW camp, he took lessons from a fellow prisoner, a chef who, lacking actual ingredients, described the recipes, the dishes, the processes, and all with such loving detail that everyone who listened groaned with excruciating desire. Later, on buses to and from the stone cutters, he would find himself squeezed against young working women who more often than not, in that era of deprivation, seemed happy to oblige some mildly carnal pleasure for the duration of the short bus journey. His third hunger was for art. The journey he makes, from drawing and poems, to sculpture, and finally to those unwieldy, fantastical novels, the prose he never believed he would write, is rendered in a hopscotch of memory and forgetting, of mislaid chronologies and chance encounters. “One never knows what will make a book,” Grass writes. “The transformation of lived life, life in the raw, into a text undergoing constant revision and coming to rest only between covers, can come from a tombstone belonging to an unsightly pile of tombstones shunted off to their side, their time having passed.” It is these transformations that Grass chronicles here, brief snatches, small flames that illuminate a whole forest. Grass uses everything. His old friends are transformed, sometimes again and again. Korneff, a senior journeyman in real life, is given his own workshop in The Tin Drum, just so he can show the novel’s anti-hero how to turn a slab of stone into a monument. A youthful tour of cemeteries returns decades later in The Call of the Toad. His teachers, his friends, his lovers, all make their entrances and exits. Discovering (inventing? meeting?) Oskar Matzerath, the midget anti-hero of The Tin Drum, in the rubble of postwar Germany was a revelation. Grass found himself reduced to being little more than a “writing implement” chronicling Oskar’s entrances. Oskar “determined who was to die, who was granted miraculous survival.” The midget fiend Oskar compelled Grass to “haunt his early years.” Furthermore, he “gave me leave to put everything which had claim to truth between question marks.” It was Oskar, writes Grass, who turned his gentle pacifist professor, Pankok, into Professor Kuchen, “a volcano whose explosions blackened any sheet of paper with brute expressive power.” This archaeologist Grass, this merciless excavator of his own past, is the man who would become the novelist, and it is only through such relentless exploitation of the self that he manages to remake the world on the page. What makes Grass’s memoir such a compelling and unusual master class in the art of fiction is not that he tells the reader how to write, but he shows, through glimpses, how he himself did it, and specifically, how he wrote his own life into his novels. Not much is left after the decades. “People required by their professions to exploit themselves learn over the years to value fragments,” Grass writes. There is an overlooked ID card he never used. Little else. So much has been commandeered into the service of art, that now, Grass writes, “I find it difficult to sound out my past for demonstrable facts.” Italo Calvino said he regretted writing his first, autobiographical novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. He claimed it stole his memories of his youth, and whatever recollections he retained were forever infected by the fictional version. Grass harbors no similar regrets. Memory, for him, is by its nature unstable. It reforms, configures, transfigures, jumbles, erases, invents, it builds, ultimately, a likeness of ourselves in our own image, much as a novel does. And like the novelist who raids his own past, it is supremely selfish, hoarding for itself what it needs, carelessly jettisoning the unnecessary. The young man Grass, who was horrified at the transformation of his family by the war, does his best to shun them. He misses his mother’s death and funeral. Only after, through many roundabout conversations with his sister, does he learn the cause of her careworn face. She was raped repeatedly by Russian conscripts, and offered herself willingly in exchange for the guarantee that her daughter would not be touched. Whether Grass uses this he does not say. But the ugly shadow of the knowledge, and the long years it was hidden from him, like the shadow of the eager Waffen-SS recruit he tried desperately to forget, writes itself across all his work with power, anger, and tragedy.