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.